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Why reviving the Iran nuclear deal is crucial for Joe Biden’s presidency

The revival of the agreement would allow Biden to appeal to US voters both as oil consumers and as citizens worried about climate change.

By Helen Thompson

On no other foreign policy issue is Joe Biden as determined to break with his predecessor as he is on Iran. When in 2018 Donald Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that constrained Iran’s nuclear development, Biden attacked the decision as a “profound mistake” that would lead to an “unnecessary crisis”. During the presidential election campaign last autumn, Biden accused Trump of freeing Tehran to stockpile and enrich uranium, as well as breaking the alliance with Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany that had forced Iran to reduce its nuclear activities. Biden insisted that the US “urgently [needed] to change course”. 

Little has changed during his presidency. Talks on getting Iran to comply once more with the 2015 deal began in April, although the Iranian government suspended those negotiations in June. On 1 September, Iran’s new conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, indicated that his government has little inclination to resume direct talks with the US. A few days later, a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted that Iran had delayed some of the UN agency’s scheduled inspections. In response, Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that time was running out for Iran to secure a nuclear deal that would satisfy the US. Even though Tehran has since made some technical concessions to the IAEA, the prospects for an actual breakthrough remain uncertain.  

A definitive collapse in talks would create significant problems for the Biden administration. Geopolitically, it would raise the stakes over the end of American combat operations in Iraq this year. Iraq’s post-American fate is inseparable from Iran, despite the considerable efforts of the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, to improve relations with Washington and reduce direct engagement with Tehran. This summer’s drought and extreme heat have already deepened Iraq’s dependency on Iranian electricity and gas imports. Without a new nuclear agreement that imposes constraints on Iran’s extra-territorial activities such as supporting armed groups in a number of Arab countries, the end of American military action in Iraq is likely to lead to greater Iranian influence across the western Middle East. 

A new crisis in Iraq is likely to have major repercussions for US-Franco and European relations. For Emmanuel Macron, Iraq is already the testing ground for his ambitions of European strategic autonomy. Despite the reality that France has only 800 troops for its operations against Isis in Iraq, the French president said on a recent trip to Baghdad that “no matter what choices the Americans make, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight against terrorism”. With the US and France diverging over Iraq, Macron and Biden may well part company over Iran, too. To repel Isis in Iraq, France must accept the Iraqi government in whatever form it comes, especially if no new European military contributions are forthcoming. This will mean some form of co-operation with Iran. Macron has already made it clear that he wishes to work with Iran’s new president over the political crisis in Lebanon.  

Domestically, Biden appeared to have banked on another Iran nuclear deal that would end the sanctions imposed by Trump in 2018, which prevented other countries from buying Iranian exports. If the return of Iranian oil to international markets was imminent, Biden could pursue his climate objectives in energy policy without risking a sharp rise in oil prices. But with sanctions on Iranian oil exports still in place, US oil prices surged back this summer to over $70 a barrel, up from a low of $20 last year – the territory Biden and his advisers regard as politically dangerous. To the dismay of many on the left of the Democratic party who regard higher oil prices as necessary for a credible climate plan, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, issued a plea on 11 August to Opec Plus – the large oil producer cartel led by Russia and Saudi Arabia – to increase output to alleviate the price pressure on American consumers.

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It would be one thing for Biden to abandon Trump and Obama’s illusory pursuit of American fossil-fuel energy independence in a world in which there were no oil sanctions on at least one of Iran or Venezuela. It will prove quite another if Iranian output is permanently restricted and the ensuing supply constraint means there is little to check Russia becoming the decisive swing oil producer for the world economy. 

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For Biden, the alternative to resetting relations with Iran is more pro-shale policies at home. This would please Democratic politicians in oil-producing states such as New Mexico and Colorado, but it would antagonise those in the party who want the administration’s energy policies to be all about stopping the climate crisis. One of the great attractions for Biden of restoring the Iran nuclear deal was that it would allow him to appeal to American voters both as oil consumers and as citizens worried about climate change, as if, for the moment anyway, there are no painful choices to make about the energy transition. Without a new deal, there can only be trouble from all political directions in the party, at just the same time as events in Iraq and beyond will demand yet another reinvention of American strategy in the Middle East.