THE US-Iran relationship has been characterised by confrontation ever since 1979, when Tehran, following Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, broke away from the American orbit and chose to chart its own path. There have been several ups and downs — mostly downs — over the past four decades, but Donald Trump’s four years as president were arguably the worst when it came to the bilateral relationship. At one point, following the American assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq earlier this year, it seemed as if war was imminent. Moreover, the American unilateral exit from the Iran nuclear deal, and Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy targeting the Iranian economy, ensured that both states remained in a state of perpetual confrontation. Now, with Joe Biden headed to the White House, the relationship may go back to being far less combative. As a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry told a press conference on Sunday, “carefully considered exchanges” between Washington and Tehran are possible despite America’s “repeated crimes”. Mr Biden has also earlier indicated he may return to the nuclear deal.

Indeed, engagement and dialogue are always preferable to combative rhetoric, especially in a tinderbox such as the Middle East. However, considering the high-pitched rhetoric that has been emanating from Washington during the Trump era, re-engaging Iran will not be easy. The powerful conservative faction in Tehran will be even more wary of dealing with the US, especially after the Soleimani strike and the American exit from the nuclear deal. If Mr Biden is serious about reopening channels with Iran, he needs to put in place confidence-building measures. For a start, he can start peeling away the layers of American sanctions that have contributed to destroying Iran’s economy. These sanctions have scared away foreign investors even after Iran was given some relief under the nuclear deal. However, considering Joe Biden’s closeness to Israel, talking to Tehran will be tough. For example, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a reckless statement addressed to the US president-elect, has said “there can be no going back” to the JCPOA, while America’s Gulf Arab allies, now working in lockstep with Tel Aviv, will also protest loudly any attempts by Mr Biden to soften his Iran policy. The challenge before the new incumbent of the White House is considerable. Either he can ignore such pressure and extend the hand of peace to Iran, or continue on a collision course with Tehran.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2020

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