Iran proves that Biden’s pro-diplomacy rhetoric is not enough

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Ebrahim Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi

Brigadier General Qassam Soleimani

Brigadier General Qassam Soleimani

This month, one of the world’s most consequential elections occurred with very little drama or fanfare. This election was the presidential race in Iran, which, despite its reputation as a totalitarian state, has a complex political system, with contested elections, opposing factions and close races. And since 2013, Iran has been led by President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who centered much of his presidency around the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan — known by most as the “Iran nuclear deal.”

The deal, which saw Iran scale back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, put Iran’s reformists in a dominant position. Rouhani’s job approval rose as high as 88%, and the country’s hardliners were so shaken that the president ran his 2017 re-election campaign essentially unopposed.

But just four years later, those same hardliners now control the country. After the major reformist candidates were barred from running, Ebrahim Raisi, the incumbent chief justice of Iran, was elected in a landslide with low turnout. Described as the “ruthless enforcer of Iran’s clerical elite” and one of the most conservative leaders in a generation, Raisi will be certain to lead Iran down a repressive and decidedly anti-western path.

How could Iranian politics change so drastically over just four years? Why have the country’s elites, once open to the reformists, so uniformly closed ranks around figures opposed to even engaging with the West? The answer is simple: the Trump administration’s aggressive, uncompromising and failed “maximum pressure” doctrine and the Biden administration’s continuation of it.

This policy saw the U.S. drastically increase military and economic pressure on Iran in order to inflict maximum damage on the country. It began at the start of Trump’s presidency, as his administration unilaterally increased sanctions on Iran, in direct violation of the agreement and in spite of Iran’s continued compliance on their end of the deal.

By 2018, the U.S. pulled out of the deal entirely, deteriorating relations with both Iran and America’s traditional allies in Europe. Throughout 2019, the U.S. began building up forces in the Persian Gulf, and at the start of 2020, relations reached their lowest point in decades with the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, an act that nearly brought the two countries to war.

This policy had a specific goal in mind: to cripple Iran’s economy and military so severely that its people would be inspired to overthrow the ruling government. Not only did this not occur, but the opposite happened.

Rather than inspiring antipathy towards the ruling government, Trump’s new sanctions instead gave the regime more license to blame the U.S. for all of Iran’s problems, enabling them to paper over their own mistakes. The killing of Soleimani only increased the strength of the government, turning one of their top officials into a martyr overnight.

After years of antagonism, it’s no surprise that Iran’s elites have chosen to take a hardline stance towards the U.S. in response. But the blame is not solely on the Trump administration.

President Biden and his State Department also share significant responsibility for these recent developments. Iran’s presidential election was in June of 2021, not 2020. This means that Biden had six months to work with Rouhani, with whom he already had significant personal experience as Vice President, to save the Iran deal. If done correctly, Biden could have revived the political fortunes of the reformists just in time for the election, setting the stage for years of future diplomatic efforts for the rest of his presidency.

The president not only failed to do this, but he didn’t even try.

As a prerequisite to re-entering negotiations, Iran has requested that the U.S. lift the new sanctions created during the Trump administration. In their eyes, this would guarantee that the new administration is acting in good faith. But despite the fact that this offer matched Biden’s own campaign promises, the Biden administration rejected it.

Rather than lift the sanctions that are in violation of an agreement he helped negotiate, Biden has kept the same demands as the Trump administration. His administration has spent half a year demanding that Iran make the first move by unilaterally scaling back their nuclear program.

As a result, both countries have been at an impasse. It is hard to think of a good reason why the U.S. has continued these hardline, Trump-era policies. Perhaps the Biden administration chose this hardline stance because they felt as if Trump’s increased sanctions had given them more leverage. Or perhaps they were afraid of the political consequences of being perceived to have squandered that leverage.

Maybe they really believed their own rhetoric about how “America is back” under Biden, and that foreign leaders would be so grateful about Trump being gone that the new administration would not have to make any hard decisions.

In any case, the last six months have been a failure. Where he once had the opportunity to save Iran’s reformists from political irrelevance, Biden will now have to spend the next four years negotiating with a man who has already ruled out meeting with him in person.

If one positive thing can come out of this debacle, it can be the knowledge that merely not being Trump is not enough to fix the damage that the former president caused internationally. If the U.S. is truly to move on from Trump’s presidency, it will have to make the first step — in Iran and around the world.

Source » redandblack

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