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October 06, 2020

A Return to Diplomacy

The Iran Nuclear Deal and a Democratic White House

A Joe Biden administration would likely make an early diplomatic push to ease tensions with Iran. Biden has said he favors the United States rejoining the nuclear deal if Iran also returns to full compliance. In that case, Tehran demands reliable sanctions relief and compensation for the economic fall-out of U.S. sanctions. During the U.S. transition, Europe would need to shift quickly from trying to save the nuclear deal to forging a new transatlantic approach to Tehran, helping kickstart U.S.-Iranian negotiations.

 

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The flags of Iran, the US and the EU with a nuclear danger sign

Remarks: This analysis was first published by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Read below the introduction by our Associate Fellow and co-editor of the publication, Dr. David Jalilvand as well as the contribution by Dr. Cornelius Adebahr.The online version of the text contains no footnotes. To view the footnotes and bibliography, please download the PDF version on the website of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung here. 

Introduction 

by David Jalilvand & Achim Vogt

January 16, 2021, marks the fifth anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal’s implementation. It remains far from certain, however, whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known, will still exist by that time. Even before assuming office in 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump rejected the deal entered into by the Barack Obama administration as the »worst ever signed.« Trump’s government then waged an all-out campaign against the agreement, leaving no stone unturned. After the unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, the US reimposed previous sanctions and introduced new sanctions. In the fall of 2020, then, the United States sought to dismantle the deal outright at the UN Security Council through a controversial legal move that was rejected almost unanimously.

Four years of the Trump presidency have not only left the JCPOA in tatters, but have also profoundly damaged the very principles and foundations of multilateralism and international law. His administration’s blatant maneuvering against the JCPOA has in particular undermined the integrity of the Security Council. Its actions alarmed the Europeans to the extent that France, Germany, and the United Kingdom felt obliged to emphasize in a formal statement that they remained »committed to preserving the processes and institutions which constitute the foundation of multilateralism.«

The geopolitical fallout from the Trump administration, as seen from Europe, also extends to relations with China and Russia, the other parties to the JCPOA. Both countries, rather than meaningfully taking steps to protect the JCPOA, appeared to have largely followed Napoleon Bonaparte’s credo to never interrupt an enemy committing a mistake. Their strategy paid off, with Iran being pushed into the arms of Beijing and Moscow politically and in part economically. By fall 2020, the United States had isolated itself to the point where Europe effectively sided with Moscow and Beijing in opposing Washington’s moves against the JCPOS at the Security Council.

Meanwhile on the ground, both Iran’s nuclear activities and regional policies became significantly more assertive after the United States reneged on the nuclear deal. In 2019, after remaining in full compliance with the JCPOA, and hoping that Europe would take steps to mitigate the economic damage from Washington’s sanctions, Iran upped the ante, in part to gain leverage against the West. Tehran began to gradually violate key provisions of the JCPOA that effectively shortened its breakout time from more than a year to several months. In parallel, Iran also pursued more assertive tactics in the Middle East, including strikes against tankers and oil infrastructure as well as attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Domestically, the Islamic Republic’s more hardline factions strengthened their position at the expense of supporters of diplomacy abroad and reform at home. In addition, this resulted in a further deterioration of Iran’s human rights record, with authorities violently clamping down on demonstrators protesting dire economic and political conditions and the number of political prisoners and executions rising.

A Return to Full Compliance is Complicated

In light of the Trump administration’s assault on the JCPOA, proponents of the deal have pinned their hopes on a change in the White House following U.S. presidential elections in early November. Joe Biden, while vice president under Barack Obama, had been a staunch supporter of the JCPOA, leading the administration’s defense of the accord in 2015 in the face of a highly critical congress. Now, as the Democratic presidential nominee, Biden has vowed to return the United States to the deal, provided that for its part Iran is in full compliance. In Europe, the prospect of a Biden presidency is also accompanied by a desire to revive the transatlantic partnership. Notwithstanding differences pertaining less to objectives and more to means, the Europeans are largely convinced that policy toward Iran can only be effective when Europe and the United States act in tandem, as demonstrated by their working together to conclude the JCPOA.

At any rate, in January 2021, the JCPOA will continue to provide a framework and reference point for transatlantic (and global) policy toward Iran. This will be the case regardless of whether the agreement remains formally in place. After all, the JCPOA entails the key formula for addressing the international community’s central concerns about Iranian nuclear activity: limitation and, crucially, verification.

A plethora of challenges stand in the way of reviving the nuclear deal, making a return to the JCPOA by a Biden administration far from a simple and straightforward policy shift. Before returning to full compliance, Tehran is already demanding compensation for the economic harm it has suffered at the hands of Washington’s sanctions. It also expects guarantees of effective sanctions relief going forward. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether there will be enough political momentum in the United States to lift the extensive sanctions regime, as several important limitations on Iran’s nuclear program set out in sunset clauses will begin to expire in 2023. All this means that a Biden administration would likely be confronted with major challenges involving Iran’s nuclear program soon after assuming the presidency.

A revival of the JCPOA is also complicated by factors beyond the provisions of the agreement itself, namely, the situation in the broader Middle East. With Iran’s role in the region already deemed problematic by Europe and the United States, Iran’s shift toward a more assertive strategy substantially exacerbated the situation. Although the parties to the JCPOA decoupled nuclear issues from regional affairs, the two dossiers are obviously linked. Given this, geopolitical tensions in the region stand to severely complicate any effort at reviving the nuclear agreement.

About this Report 

Against the backdrop described above, our report seeks to address the challenges at stake should a change in U.S. administrations create room for diplomacy and revive the prospects of the JCPOA succeeding. The approach here presents a range of relevant perspectives by experts from Europe, Iran, and the United States: Ilan Goldenberg and Hassan Ahmadian examine the political situations in Washington and Tehran, respectively. Ellie Geranmayeh outlines the contours of a road map for reviving the JCPOA, and Cornelius Adebahr looks at Europe’s broader strategic picture. Their analyses illustrate the numerous challenges ahead for policy makers around the world in a position to use the window of opportunity that a Biden presidency would provide for the nuclear accord and present ideas on how these hurdles can be approached in a constructive manner.

 

Europe's Strategic Position between Iran and the United States 

by Cornelius Adebahr 

With four years of President Donald Trump in the White House coming to an end, there is some good news to be had: The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal is still alive. Admittedly, that’s a description of its general condition, not a diagnosis of good health. In fact, it is hard to foresee the agreement, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), surviving another Trump term. On the other hand, the simple fact of former Vice President Joe Biden winning the electoral college could enable the United States to build on the existing framework of the nuclear deal – whether through a »more for more« or »less for less« approach – to craft some sort of JCPOA 2.0, rather than constructing an entirely new agreement. For Europeans, this would mean resuming their role as a constructive mediator between Washington and Tehran.

The 2020 US Elections: A Chance for Europe to Reassess its Approach 

For decades, Europe’s relations with Iran have been a function of a broader triangular relationship that includes both the United States and Iran. Transatlantic bonds have been the foundation not only of European security, but also of a rules-based international order for the past seven decades. Meanwhile, relations between Tehran and Washington have been fraught with enmity since 1979. In contrast, interactions between Iran and Europe – widely understood as the European Union or its member states – have been comparably less pronounced; in effect, they are open to influence from the other sides of the triangle – U.S.-Iranian relations and the state of the transatlantic partnership.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal had been at the core of this fragile triangle until the U.S. withdrawal in may 2018. Since then, the JCPOA has gone from being the only unifying political issue among the three parties to becoming a hotly contested matter, initially between the Europeans and the United States, and later, following Iran’s gradual ceasing of its own commitments to the agreement, also between the EU and Iran. This comes on top of such persisting concerns as acts of sabotage in the Persian Gulf area and inside Iran, ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Ye-men, regular rocket attacks in Iraq against U.S. troops, and the dire socioeconomic situation of the Iranian people as exemplified by recurring strikes and unrest. There is also the matter of increased hostage-taking of dual nationals in Iran under spurious accusations.

As current U.S. policy threatens to broadly undermine the foundations of Europe’s security and prosperity, and Iran contributes to increased instability in its immediate neighborhood, the EU needs to reassess its approach to Iran. Of importance, in the case of a Biden electoral victory, Europe will have to quickly reverse gears and switch from fighting for the survival of the JCPOA to developing concrete proposals, backed up with political will and resources, to forge a new transatlantic approach toward Iran. The window of opportunity will be short: The Europeans cannot substantively engage with the incoming Biden team during the transition period, from the election to the president’s inauguration, as this would amount to foreign interference. An unclear electoral outcome would obviously also play a factor time-wise. But even more at issue, there are not even five months between the U.S. presidential inauguration in late January 2021 and the Iranian presidential election scheduled for mid-June 2021.

The triangular relationship of Iran, the EU, and the United States over the past two decades offers a number of valuable lessons learned relevant to any discussion of a possible Democratic presidency. For the EU, looking ahead to 2021 means examining how European interests in the region can best be aligned with the new approach of a Biden White House.

Two Decades of Trilateral Relations: Lessons Learned

The 2015 transatlantic agreement on how to deal with Iran has been the exception rather than the rule over the past forty-one years. More often than not, policy makers in European capitals have been at odds with their counterparts in Washington over how to deal with the regime in Tehran.

Different Approaches on Both Sides of the Atlantic Hinder an Effective Policy

Since the 1979 islamic Revolution in Iran, the United States has been much more confrontational toward Tehran than have its European allies. Where the latter sought to incrementally nudge Tehran toward a less ideological course by maintaining diplomatic ties and investing in trade, Washington pursued, by and large, an approach focusing on isolation and economic sanctions. The discord resulting from these differing approaches was one of the reasons for the breakdown of early European-Iranian negotiations over the country’s nuclear program between 2003 and 2005.

Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities revealed in 2002 had posed two particular threats to European interests. The first was to Europe’s normative interest in maintaining the global non-proliferation regime, expected to crumble in the face of a nuclear arms race in the Gulf and beyond following Iran’s eventual acquisition of the bomb. The second threat was to Europe’s security interest in maintaining regional stability, as military action by Iran’s rivals to impede its nuclear program would likely have led to major conflict.

Whereas France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (E3), along with the EU high representative for foreign and security policy, were determined to defuse these twin threats through diplomatic compromise, Washington was unwilling to budge. Regardless, the E3/EU invited Tehran to negotiations aimed at producing verifiable guarantees of the solely peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Although the threat of a U.S. military strike following the 2003 invasion of Iraq helped prompt Tehran to enter such talks with Europe, Washington’s insistence on »zero enrichment« weakened the latter’s diplomatic hand. Without the Americans sitting at the table, the Europeans could not offer what Iran wanted most: effective security guarantees and official recognition of its »nuclear rights« – an acute problem that returned when the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.

The absence of the United States from the negotiations was one important reason those talks effectively collapsed. Others can be found in Iran, where the political factions disagreed over what concessions to make in return for international recognition. In addition, the Europeans were unwilling to formulate a position that differed from the Americans’ (then-nonnegotiable) »no« to enrichment and to back it with a substantive offer to Iran. In contrast, it remains remarkable in the face of differing national interests that EU member states by and large allowed the E3 to drive policy on the Iran file jointly with the EU high representative, thus achieving and maintaining a fairly coherent European position over the years.

To unify across the Atlantic in a dual-track approach from 2006 onwards, the Europeans and the Americans each had to give up one of its planks. Ultimately, the EU warmed to the idea of toughening its diplomatic efforts with multilateral sanctions, while the United States agreed to back up its decades-old sanctions with a concerted push for negotiations that included China and Russia. Foreshadowing a possible Trump-to-Biden transition in the White House, it certainly also helped that incoming president Barack Obama embodied this common approach both in symbolism (his «stretched hand« to Iran on the occasion of Nowruz in 2009) and in substance (a renewed push for negotiations backed up by United Nations (UN) and bilateral sanctions).

The JCPOA: Combining Better Instincts

Combining diplomacy and sanctions eventually provided the common ground on which the E3 / EU were joined by the non-European permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, Russia, and the United States – to form the E3/EU+3. It was thus that the Vienna accord emerged to curtail Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for economic respite: building upon a gradually strengthened UN sanctions regime, itself buffeted by autonomous EU and U.S. sanctions, and continuously extending secret U.S.-Iranian talks until eventually yielding the JCPOA in July 2015.

Compared to the previous »deals« that the Europeans had negotiated in the mid-2000s, the JCPOA benefitted from all sides being represented. of significance, the EU’s willingness to act, initially alone, evolved into an ambition to bring all the relevant players to the table and keep them there. Moreover, Europe’s insistence on a multilateral solution underscored the importance of a negotiated compromise. Finally, negotiators opted for a »compartmentalization« of the problem. By focusing on shared interests vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program and disregarding differences over other matters, such as the ongoing wars in Syria since 2011 or Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the negotiators could work out a compromise. This approach, however, left a number of countries in the Middle East unsatisfied, as they feared that both the recognition and the material reward that Iran received from the nuclear deal would embolden it to intensify its regional campaign.

Despite the near-global consensus on the positive value of the JCPOA, or precisely because of it, the new Trump administration in 2017 – following its America First approach – immediately began to work against the deal. By may 2018, it declared the United States’ withdrawal despite ongoing talks with the E3 and some last-minute high-profile interventions by European leaders to halt such a move. By November, under its »maximum pressure« policy, Washington had reinstated all the U.S. sanctions previously suspended under the JCPOA. Since then, more measures have followed, including sanctions on the Iranian foreign minister and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards corps, against JCPOA-mandated international collaboration on Iran’s nuclear program, and on specific industries, such as mining, metal products, textiles, and manufacturing. The result, as intended, has been to severely disrupt Iran’s domestic economy.

America First hurts, but without Achieving Intended Results

Increasingly stringent U.S. sanctions have not only exposed Europe’s lack of economic defenses but have also demonstrated their reach and severity even without broad international support. After announcing their intention to uphold the trade aspects of the nuclear deal in may 2018, and creating the insTEX special purpose vehicle in January 2019, the Europeans only managed to conduct a single transaction by September 2020. Even China, an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in general and toward Iran in particular, but careful not to escalate its own trade war with Washington, has largely abided by the U.S. sanctions. At the same time, Tehran realized that it could not count on Europe’s active support, and thus in May 2019, began to gradually reduce its commitments under the deal. Consequently, in January 2020, European powers triggered the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism over Iran’s overt non-compliance.

Given the stalemate on the nuclear deal, supporters of the JCPOA are naturally looking to the U.S. presidential election to bring about another policy change. Before exploring how Europe’s position between the United States and Iran may differ under a Biden presidency, it is worth reviewing the factors that played a role in the past successes and failures of this triangular relationship.

First, as the EU is both an international actor in its own right and a Union of states, a coherent position of its members is a sine qua non for any foreign policy action. E3/EU coordination is therefore crucial, in particular after the United Kingdom left the bloc in early 2020. Notably, by weighing on its status as security guarantor against Russia, the United States has leverage over many of the smaller EU states for whom general alignment with Washington is more important than a particular policy position. Crucially, it may have even more sway over a post-Brexit United Kingdom, as the prospect of a U.S.-UK trade deal could lead London to abandon the current hard-fought E3 consensus on Iran policy.

Second, it was only after a convergence of interests and preferred causes of action across the Atlantic that the nuclear file advanced. Europe’s earlier efforts at getting Oran to compromise proved unsuccessful without U.S. backing. Likewise, even maximum pressure from Washington has not made Tehran crumble, not least because the deal’s signatories insist, with the Europeans front and center, that the agreement be upheld.

Third, Europe on its own has little leverage over Iran. Its promises to shield European companies from the effects of U.S. sanctions and to establish a separate payment channel have failed to maintain sizeable trade. Snstead, some Iranians view Europe as merely playing the »good cop« to the United states’ »bad cop« rather than acknowledging the difficulties of staking out an independent position.

Five years after concluding the Vienna accord and just ahead of decisive presidential elections in both the United States and Iran, it is obvious that European influence has declined vis-à-vis Washington and Tehran. Whereas the former is irritated and annoyed by Europe’s refusal to toe the line, the latter is immensely frustrated by Europe’s lack of political will and actual economic clout. A potential Biden presidency has the potential to change much of this.

Looking to 2021: Regaining European and American Interest? 

The assumption here is that in January 2021, there will still be a nuclear agreement in place for both the United States and Iran to rejoin. This does not mean, however, that there can be a return to the status quo ante before Washington’s departure from the deal. Years of sanctions and bullying have not only hardened positions in capitals around the world, but have also created facts on the ground that need to be overcome through increased diplomacy. This means that despite agreeing in principle on reaching another deal with Iran, the Europeans and the Biden administration would still have to haggle over how to get it done.

The EU’s strategic interests in regard to the Islamic Republic involve three interconnected goals: first, to uphold the international non-proliferation regime and to keep Iran, or any other country for that matter, from developing a nuclear weapon; second, to avert a full-blown, interstate war involving Iran and risking further regional instability; and third, to demonstrate the EU’s ability to act on the international scene. The EU had achieved all three of these goals with the JCPOA of 2015, and European policy makers have clung to the deal ever since.

From an Iran-Centered Approach to Broadly Addressing the Persian Gulf

It is important to note, that maintaining the JCPOA is not, and ought not be, an end in itself. The nuclear file is but one area of concern for the Europeans, with Iran’s potential for regional destabilization, whether through its support for proxies or its missile program, being another. Also shared with the United States is Europe’s unease over the regime’s dismal human rights record, including a penchant for anti-semitism and homophobia. In turn, with nuclear energy programs now active in the United Arab Emirates (which brought its first reactor online this year) and Saudi Arabia (which has boosted its missile program), a clear regional dimension to the nuclear file has emerged. Resuming talks on the JCPOA should therefore also take in the regional picture.

Just as much as the nuclear deal was meant to »positively contribute to regional and international peace and security,« Europeans were also betting on gradual change inside Iran. The implicit wager was that the economic opening in the wake of the 2015 deal would strengthen the moderate, technocratic forces in the Islamic Republic. Europe, to this end and based on its fundamental foreign policy disposition, sought to engage Iran across the board rather than ostracize it. This is demonstrated by the EU’s comprehensive policy agenda encompassing »economic relations, energy, environment, migration, drugs, humanitarian aid, transport, civil protection, science and civil nuclear cooperation, as well as culture.«

None of these goals per se is contrary to the United States’ declared interests. Rather, the problem lies in how to (jointly, if possible) achieve them. Currently, with Washington bent on bringing down the Iranian regime, but failing to even get it to the negotiation table, no such operational overlap exists. The dual-track approach of the late 2000s and early 2010s would have to be replicated by the next U.S. administration together with the Europeans and, ideally, with China and Russia.

With a Biden presidency, there is potential not only for shared European-American interests vis-à-vis Iran, but also for joint action to realize them. The presumptive Democratic candidate has vowed to reenter the JCPOA if and when iran also resumes compliance. This should not come as a surprise given that the Vice President himself vehemently defended the deal to an unconvinced congress. From a European perspective, this would mean undoing, as much as possible, the wrongs of current U.S. policy and a return of sorts to the status quo ante, at least on the nuclear file.

After the Deal is Before the Deal: Renewed Diplomacy in Uncharted Territories Required

In reality, returning to the JCPOA would be no small feat. For one, positions in Iran have hardened over the most recent years of sanctions, and the region itself has only become more volatile. In addition, with the JCPOA’s sunset clauses beginning to end some of Iran’s nuclear limitations in 2023, there will be a need to extend some of the deal’s constraints. As suggested by Jake Sullivan, a Biden campaign advisor and who as Vice President Biden’s national security advisor was part of the team conducting secret negotiations with Iran, a President Biden should »immediately begin the process of negotiating a follow-on agreement,« a »JCPOA plus.«

This is where the Europeans come in – as potential facilitators of multilateral talks – because a President Biden would be willing to tackle Iran’s regional reach in consultation with U.S. allies. in particular, France has been vocal about the need to check Iran’s missile capabilities, for example through a regional arrangement on missiles. In addition, negotiations to end the wars in Syria and Yemen and to stabilize the security situation in Iraq would have to address the issue of Iranian proxies, from Hezbollah and the Houthis to its many shiite militias.

Strengthening Europe as a Transatlantic Interest

Rather than treating U.S. allies in Europe like vassals, Biden could use Europe’s goal of becoming a more autonomous actor to the United States’ advantage. American policy makers often, and somewhat unfairly, tend to visualize »hawkish« Washington against »feeblish« European capital. Yet, especially in the final stretch of the 2013–15 nuclear negotiations, it was the Europeans who held their ground when U.S. negotiators were willing to compromise, for example on the inclusion of the Arak heavy-water reactor in the deal and with regard to limiting Iran’s centrifuge research and development. A Democratic president could resume such fruitful transatlantic role sharing. Moreover, with better relations, those EU member states that would rather side with Washington than develop an autonomous European position on Oran could be more easily brought on board. The lack of Europe’s leverage over partners (i. e., the United States) and difficult partners (i. e., Iran) alike has heightened calls to increase European sovereignty beyond the Iran file to include everything from energy supplies to digital taxes.

With pressure from U.S. sanctions likely easing and European businesses returning to Iran, there would be less need for Europe to circumvent American regulations. Rather than construing insTEX as an instrument to defy U.S. sanctions, whether against Iran or against Russian gas pipelines, this instrument could be developed in greater coordination with Washington. From a U.S. perspective, this would have the additional advantage of avoiding the risk of overusing sanctions, that is, excessively conditioning the use of the dollar and the U.S. financial system on adherence to U.S. foreign policy, a situation about which former U.S. treasury secretary Jack lew warned.

Bringing in China and Russia on renewed negotiations will be trickier than it was back in 2006, when the E3 / EU+3 emerged. Even without the current president’s blunders involving Beijing, sino-American relations will be fraught by superpower rivalry. Any flashpoint, from bilateral trade to control of the South China Sea to the Uighur detention camps, will make compromise over Iran-related issues arduous. China already appears to have seized the moment by signing a twenty-five-year strategic partnership with Iran aimed at giving Beijing access to energy and infrastructure dominance in a critical region, much as Washington enjoyed under the Shah from the 1950s to 1970s. Russia too – following its reemergence as an actor in the region due to its involvement in the Syrian and Libyan wars, partly in close collaboration with Tehran – will be less inclined to cede any ground to Washington.

What these geopolitical frictions allow for, however, is a closer realignment between the transatlantic partners. Rather than siding with China and Russia and against the United States as over the JCPOA, as became the case under the Trump administration, the Europeans could forge a common approach with a Democratic White House. Moreover, Biden, a self-ascribed Zionist, and with a long-standing record of support for Israel’s security, could seek a new understanding with the Israeli leadership, including on how to approach Iran. With some Arab Gulf states seeking a more pragmatic line toward Iran, this could also provide room for maneuver for European ideas to promote regional cooperation.

Transatlantic Realignment to Bring in, Rather than Put off, Other Powers

A Biden administration would, for the better, fundamentally change the EU’s strategic context in regard to Iran. As much as the U.S. maximum pressure campaign is contrary to Europe’s security interests, a return to the decade of transatlantic cooperation from 2006 to 2016, both in style and substance, would be an enormous relief for the Europeans. Restoring JCPOA compliance on all sides, negotiating a possible follow-on deal (such as more sanctions relief for extended deadlines), and beginning talks on regional security arrangements are all issues that a Biden agenda could entail from 2021 to 2024, despite a potential conservative turn in Iran after the 2021 presidential election.

There would still be transatlantic divergences, no doubt. Even with a likely new agreement on the nuclear front, the United States and Europe will differ on how exactly to deal with Iran’s missile program and its growing regional clout. While these threats are more pertinent for Europe because of geographical proximity, the Europeans also appear more inclined to acknowledge that Iran has its own legitimate security concerns. Given an entrenched U.S. sanctions architecture, any future economic benefits for Iran are likely to again come from Europe, not the United States (though with the latter’s blessing). Still, the EU and U.S. positions would be much closer to one another than over the past three and a half years, and together they hold more sway in getting the likes of China and Russia, israel, and Saudi Arabia to enter the tent.

Lastly, a realignment with the United States could help the Europeans overcome their irrelevance vis-à-vis Iran. Because Europe still lacks political and economic independence from the United States, it has had few tools available in trying to uphold the nuclear deal in the face of U.S. pressure. Moreover, the trajectory of the past two decades has shown that only when acting in tandem can Europe and the United States achieve their own, and their shared, goals.

For as long as mutual enmity remains the defining feature along the Tehran–Washington axis, Europe will have to play a balancing role and approximate its own interests. Should the situation in Iran fundamentally change, however, Europe and the United States could become competitors for partnership with the new powers that be, even under a Biden presidency.