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As Trump Ignores Election Results and Plans 'Flood' of Sanctions, Biden Signals Possible Shift in US Relations With Iran

Advocates of diplomacy are urging the president-elect to "take the opportunity to think bigger, even, than the Obama administration was able to."

A man reads about the U.S. election results on November 9, 2020 in Tehran, Iran. The people in Iran seem hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden will lift the sanctions imposed by outgoing President Donald Trump. (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A man reads about the U.S. election results on November 9, 2020 in Tehran, Iran. The people in Iran seem hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden will lift the sanctions imposed by outgoing President Donald Trump. (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

While President Donald Trump and his allies in Washington continue to ignore and reject the results of last week's election, President-elect Joe Biden signaled on Tuesday that his administration may shift away from the Trump White House's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran in favor of easing tensions with the Middle Eastern nation's government.

Biden spoke with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday—though, as Washington Post reporter Matt Viser noted, those calls were not coordinated by the U.S. State Department because the General Services Administration, headed by Trump appointee Emily Murphy, has refused to allow the federal government to begin the Biden transition.

During his conversation with Macron, the U.S. president-elect "expressed his readiness to work together on global challenges, including security and development in Africa, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and Iran's nuclear program," Biden's transition team said in a press release emailed to Newsweek.

Both France and the U.K.—along with Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union—remain supporters of the Iran nuclear deal that Trump ditched in 2018. Negotiated under President Barack Obama's administration, in which Biden served as vice president, the deal is officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The Financial Times had reported earlier Tuesday:

Mr. Biden has said he will return to the multi-party 2015 deal that limited Iran's nuclear program, as long as Iran also returns to strict compliance, as a "starting point for follow-on negotiations." But while the president-elect has promised to offer Iran "a credible path back to diplomacy," the task is fraught with complexity and Biden advisers are playing down expectations of a deal.

While analysts say the multi-party deal could be resurrected, it is a less straightforward undertaking than rejoining other multilateral forums ditched by Mr. Trump, including the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization.

If the U.S. raises issues such as Iranian ballistic missiles or its support for militias in the region—which did not feature as part of the original deal—or Tehran demands compensation for U.S. withdrawal from the accord, then the talks immediately become more difficult.

The current administration's withdrawal from the JCPOA has been followed by the imposition of devastating economic sanctions on Iran, along with other moves that have heightened fears of war, such as the U.S. military harassing a civilian plane over Syrian airspace and Trump ordering the assassination Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January, which a top U.N. expert has determined was a violation of international law.

In addition to playing a key role in the Trump administration's campaign against Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now abetting Trump's attempt to cling to power, even though major news outlets called the November 3 presidential contest for Biden over the weekend. Pompeo made the "astounding and tyrannical" claim on Tuesday that "there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration."

Amid the weekend declarations of the former vice president as the victor, Axios reported Sunday that Israeli sources said that "the Trump administration, in coordination with Israel and several Gulf states, is pushing a plan to slap a long string of new sanctions on Iran in the 10 weeks left until" Biden's inauguration on January 20.

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According to Axios' Barak Ravid, who is based in Tel-Aviv, "The Trump administration's envoy for Iran Elliott Abrams arrived in Israel on Sunday and met Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to discuss the sanctions plan."

Jamal Abdi, head of the U.S.-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC), declared on Twitter Monday that the forthcoming sanctions "are designed to box us in."

In response to reporting on the "flood" of sanctions, Trita Parsi—a NIAC co-founder, current executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy—urged Biden to go even bolder than Obama did.

"The Trump team apparently hopes that Biden will not wish to incur the political cost of backtracking on these sanctions, which will be tied to non-nuclear concerns such as ballistic missiles and human rights," Parsi wrote for Foreign Affairs on Tuesday.

"But the transparent sabotage actually only sharpens Biden's choices and may force him to go bigger than just restoring the agreement," he continued. "Contrary to the calculations of the Trump administration and its allies in Israel, Biden may now seek not only to rejoin the nuclear deal but also to improve relations with Iran in order to insulate the agreement from Saudi, Emirati, and Israeli efforts to kill it."

As Parsi put it:

Rather than allowing Trump to force his hand, President-elect Biden should take the opportunity to think bigger, even, than the Obama administration was able to. Instead of asking himself what degree of sanctions relief he is willing to fight for in Congress to revive the nuclear agreement, he should ask himself what kind of relationship the United States would like to have with Iran in this century. If being trapped in unending enmity no longer serves U.S. interests, but instead makes the country less safe at a time when the public wants an end to wars and a withdrawal of forces from the Middle East, then Biden should outwit Trump just as Obama outsmarted Netanyahu and think beyond the nuclear deal. For instance, direct diplomatic ties with Iran could help the United States avoid conflict in the region and allow it to more effectively influence Iranian policies that it finds problematic. Biden could clearly signal that beyond the nuclear deal, he is open to normalizing relations with Tehran.

Iranian leaders, meanwhile, have cautiously welcomed Biden's victory. Citing the state-run IRNA news agency, the Washington Post reported on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's suggestion that there may be hope for the nuclear deal.

"Now, an opportunity has come up for the next U.S. administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms," Rouhani said on Sunday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif weighed in on the U.S. election results in a tweet Sunday, writing that "the world is watching whether the new leaders will abandon disastrous lawless bullying of outgoing regime—and accept multilateralism, cooperation, and respect for law."

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