How Biden Can Stop Iran’s Conservatives From Undermining the Nuclear Deal

Insisting that Iran must abandon its missile program could fall into the hardliners’ trap and make a new agreement impossible.

A handout picture provided by the Iranian Army's official website on Sept. 11, 2020, shows an Iranian Ghader missile being fired during a military exercise near the strategic strait of Hormuz in southern Iran.
A handout picture provided by the Iranian Army's official website on Sept. 11, 2020, shows an Iranian Ghader missile being fired during a military exercise near the strategic strait of Hormuz in southern Iran. Iranian Army office/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has so far spoken sparingly on Iran, including an op-ed on the CNN website and in an interview with the New York Times. As part of a step-by-step strategy, he has said that he would return to the nuclear deal as the first step and then address other concerns about Iran’s regional influence and missile capabilities. But how will the Iranian government react to the United States’ demand that the regional issues and the missile capabilities should be part of the negotiation?

There are two different approaches in Iran to handling comprehensive negotiations with the United States.

There is broad consensus within the Iranian establishment that Iran will not make any concessions regarding its deterrence and defense strategy. Iran has traditionally used a deterrent strategy to strengthen its national security and defend its territorial integrity in recent years. This strategy has two prongs. The first is strengthening and supporting regional allies and militant movements in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere; the second is enhancing its missile capabilities and building and testing short- and long-range missiles, as well as ballistic missiles.

This strategy has expanded since the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which brought hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into the region just a few miles from Iran’s eastern and western borders, dramatically increasing the risk of an imminent military strike on Iranian territory. Tehran has pointed to security threats in its vicinity and the fact that it is not a member of any regional military coalitions as the reasons it needs to develop missile capabilities and expand its influence in the Islamic countries in the Middle Eastern region.

Despite this general consensus on deterrence strategy, the Iranian government’s approach to Biden’s call for comprehensive negotiations can be divided into two camps.

The first group is made up of conservatives, who recently gained an absolute majority earlier this year in parliamentary elections and are expected to win the next presidential election. The conservatives strongly reject any talks with the United States on non-nuclear issues and their position has been further strengthened by the assassinations of the commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani in early 2020 and more recently the prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

In their view, these assassinations were an attempt by Iran’s enemies to paralyze Iran’s deterrence, and now is the time to revive this deterrence, rather than negotiate. Reflecting this view, Saeed Jalili, a senior member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and the former nuclear negotiator during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, harshly criticized President Hassan Rouhani for discussing the missile issue with French President Emmanuel Macron in a telephone conversation. (He called for the refusal of such talks on the part of Rouhani, declaring that non-nuclear talks are prohibited and unacceptable.)

Conservatives believe that just as the West sought to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in past nuclear talks with the country, any negotiations on missile and regional issues would inflict a crushing blow to Iran’s national security. The hardline speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, recently said, “Negotiations with the United States are absolutely harmful and forbidden.” During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, when conservatives were in power, the world witnessed six years of fruitless negotiations between Iran and the West from 2008 to 2014, and this trend could repeat itself if the conservatives win the next presidential election.

The other group is made up of pragmatists and moderates who, despite emphasizing the need to strengthen Iran’s deterrence strategy, do not see non-nuclear negotiations as a threat to Iran’s national interests. Even so, they will not accept that the implementation of the nuclear agreement should be conditional on regional and missile negotiations.

In their view, if Biden’s foreign policy team focuses on the alleged need for so-called Middle East security and arms control talks instead of insisting on countering Iran’s regional influence and the need for limiting and disarming its missiles, it will be possible to reach an agreement between Iran and the West with the cooperation of countries in the region.

To them, when “countering Iran’s regional influence and its missiles,” is on the U.S. agenda, it means an aggressive approach toward Iran that does not consider the country’s legitimate security concerns. Such an approach will not be effective as the Iranians have shown with their resilience in the face of unprecedented U.S. sanctions, resulting from outgoing President Donald Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign.

The pragmatists believe that Iran’s missile policy is entirely defensive and deterrent in nature; Tehran has already stated that its missiles’ range will not exceed 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) while some Arab states in the region such Saudi Arabia have purchased missiles with a range of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles).

The pragmatists believe that in potential future regionwide negotiations, if pressure is put on Iran to limit its missile capabilities, Iran could rightfully bring up the issues of Saudi Arabia’s missiles, Israel’s nuclear warheads, and modern arms purchases by the Gulf states as a justification for its insistence on keeping its own missile capabilities. The purchase of F-35 fighter jets by the UAE and Israeli nuclear weapons could be on the agenda of the possible future talks, which will give Iran the upper hand in those negotiations.

In such a situation, the United States and regional actors must decide whether to move toward a broader arms-control process in the Middle East or to recognize Iran’s right to have a missile capability. The pragmatists think that there should not be any fear of negotiation; instead, they argue that the opportunity of negotiations should be used to consolidate Iran’s regional and defense achievements. They see Biden’s victory as an opportunity to resolve Iran’s regional and international problems and see his approach to solving the Middle East’s problems as balanced in contrast to Trump’s.

This pragmatists’ view is even more relevant given Biden’s talk about reconsidering the U.S. position on Saudi Arabia. During his presidential campaign, he vowed to reassess the U.S. relationship with the Saudis and put an end to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

The pragmatists argue that former President Barack Obama was moving in that direction, and now Biden could step into Obama’s shoes and continue along that unfinished path. In an interview with the Atlantic in May 2015, Obama emphasized that an approach that rewards Arab allies while presenting Iran as the source of all regional problems would mean continuing sectarian strife in the region. Obama stressed that Saudi Arabia had to learn to share the Middle East region with its sworn enemy, Iran.

Biden’s pick for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said in a lengthy interview with The Center for Strategic and International Studies that the Biden administration will stop Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and would not hold the nuclear deal hostage for regional and missile talks, but by returning to deal it would put pressure on regional actors—including Iran and Saudi Arabia—to undertake regional talks. He also said that the United States will hand over these negotiations to regional countries and will not take the lead. Such a position aligns with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s recent statement reiterating Iran’s readiness to hold talks with countries in the region on security and stability in the Middle East.

Even China’s foreign minister has recently called for Middle East security talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently reiterated Putin’s proposal for talks between the U.N. Security Council permanent members and Iran to establish a collective security order in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s readiness to use the influence it enjoys over the Houthis to end the Yemeni war—which Biden has insisted on and which lies at the core of Saudi Arabia’s national interests and security—seems to be a golden starting point. Iran can persuade its Yemeni allies to sign a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia.

However, there are serious barriers to regional and missile negotiations, the resolution of which will depend on the approach of the Biden foreign policy team. The atmosphere of mistrust between Iran and the United States, influenced by Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign and the assassinations of Suleimani and Fakhrizadeh, is the primary obstacle.

The second obstacle is the short period that Rouhani is still in office. With Biden taking office on Jan. 20, 2021, the two countries have only five months before Iran’s upcoming presidential election to revive the nuclear deal and work on other issues.

If the Biden administration’s plans to revive the JCPOA and lift sanctions do not go ahead as predicted, the two sides will be in serious trouble in early February, when the deadline included in a bill pushed by hardliners as an intentional spoiler and recently passed in the Iranian parliament expires.

Iran’s parliament has given European countries and the United States two months to lift sanctions. The Rouhani administration has expressed its opposition to the bill, describing it harmful to diplomatic efforts. However, because it has become law, they cannot prevent it from being enforced. Zarif has said the government will be forced to implement the law, according to which Iran will abandon almost all its nuclear obligations.

If such a law is implemented, it is possible that the JCPOA—which has survived four years of Trump administration’s immense pressure—would die in the first month of Biden’s presidency. Biden could lift the sanctions that were suspended by the nuclear deal with several executive orders, and then, as Rouhani recently announced, Iran will return to its nuclear obligations.

Saheb Sadeghi is a columnist and foreign-policy analyst on Iran and the Middle East. Twitter: @sahebsadeghi