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Biden Presidency Could Lessen Tensions With Iran, But Shift Unlikely To Happen Overnight

A man reads a copy of Iranian daily newspaper Sobhe Nou with a cartoon depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and a headline reading "Go to hell gambler" in Tehran on November 7.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to stake a new course with Iran, pledging that Washington will rejoin the 2015 landmark nuclear deal if Tehran returns to full compliance.

In a September opinion piece published on CNN, Biden said he was "ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready, too." He also promised to repeal what he called the "disgraceful" travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump against Iran and several other Muslim-majority countries.

But the road to a shift is likely to be long and arduous.

There are hurdles on both sides, including domestic politics -- a possible Republican-controlled U.S. Senate and a June 2021 presidential vote in Iran -- that could prevent a quick return to the deal and complicate potential negotiations.

Under the nuclear deal, which the United States and five world powers signed with Iran when Biden was vice president, Tehran significantly limited its sensitive nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief.

In past months, Tehran has gradually stopped adhering to its commitments under the deal in response to Trump's 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the accord and reimpose tough economic sanctions, including a ban on oil exports.

Iranian authorities have, however, made it clear that the steps Tehran has been taking to ramp up the country's nuclear program the past several months are reversible.

A return to the deal, which has been on life support since the U.S. withdrawal, could eventually result in the easing of the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and deprived it of its most important source of income.

Biden has said that he would use the agreement as a starting point for follow-up negotiations with Iran and that the United States would then work with allies to extend the nuclear deal's provisions and address other issues and concerns.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) "will provide the foundation for broader engagement with Iran, which would seek to tackle regional and missile activities among other issues, as well as releasing Americans detained by the regime," Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told RFE/RL.

But Tabatabai added that, in the meantime, the Trump administration could take more actions to make a return to the nuclear deal increasingly difficult.

"What remains to be seen, though, is what kind of Iran file the new administration inherits on January 20. A lot can change between now and then, including actions by the Trump administration (which has shown it's eager to make it more difficult for Biden to rejoin the JCPOA), as well as potential actions by Iran and others."

Iranian leaders have repeatedly said that Tehran remains committed to the nuclear deal and that the United States should rejoin it. But they have ruled out negotiations regarding the country's controversial missile program. Speaking to CBS News on November 2, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that "under no circumstances" would Tehran consider renegotiating the terms of the deal.

"We can find a way to reengage, obviously. But reengagement does not mean renegotiation," said Zarif, who is among several Iranian officials blacklisted by the Trump administration.

No Easy Path

The country's devastated economy could mean that Tehran will have no choice but to negotiate with the Biden administration.

The coronavirus pandemic -- the deadliest in the Middle East and with which Iran has desperately struggled to contain since February -- has exacerbated the economic crisis. And there has been also growing public frustration with the clerical establishment.

Henry Rome, a senior Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group in Washington, says the Biden administration is likely to take some steps in the first weeks in office to show goodwill toward Tehran, including a repeal of the travel ban and the issuing of licenses to ease access to medical supplies needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

But he believes a Republican-held Senate -- if it remains in that party's control -- could complicate a diplomatic outreach with Iran.

"Divided government will fundamentally constrain Biden's options," Rome said. "While it is likely that the U.S. and Iran reach a 'freeze for freeze' interim deal in 2021, it would rely heavily on a third country, like France, to do the heavy lifting," he added, suggesting that Washington could allow Tehran limited oil exports in exchange for a rolling back of some of its nuclear activities.

But finding common ground to make a deal could be difficult, as Iranian officials have said they expect a lifting of the sanctions and compensation for the damage to the economy due to Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign.

Official Tehran Reacts

Reacting to Biden's win, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on November 8 that "the future U.S. administration should compensate for its previous mistakes."

Such statements are seen by some observers as a ploy for Iran to gain leverage for economic relief in any deal.

Zarif suggested on Twitter that Tehran will be carefully watching U.S. actions. "The American people have spoken. And the world is watching whether the new leaders will abandon [the] disastrous, lawless bullying of [the] outgoing regime...and accept multilateralism, cooperation, [and] respect for [the] law," Zarif wrote on November 8. "Deeds matter most."

Iranian Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri expressed hope on November 7 that there will be change in the "destructive policies of the United States and a return to the rule of law and international obligations and respect for nations."

Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Rohani, said on Twitter that "Iranians stood their ground bravely until that coward [Trump] left."

The United States broke off ties with Iran following the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage and held for more than a year.

Early this year, tensions between Iran and the United States reached a high point after Washington used a drone in Baghdad to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, the powerful head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force.