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Biden’s Iran Negotiations: How to Win a Zero-Sum Game

Over the past few weeks, the prospect of resuming negotiations between Iran and the United States has been the main item for U.S. foriegn policy in the Gulf region. The importance of this dialogue cannot be overstated, and it has forced itself onto the agenda for discussion in both Washington and Tehran. However, any American-Iranian rapprochement will be linked not only to Washington’s return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but also to Iran’s influence in the broader region.

Already, we have the stated facts. The new administration has declared that it will not lift sanctions on Tehran prior to any negotiation. (At the same time, however, it says that it will give sanctions waivers for humanitarian aid.) It seems that there is no rush in Washington to reach a final decision regarding Tehran, and Iran has the same position; both governments appear reluctant to make the first concession, and are demanding that the other do it first. Since any advantage to Washington will be a disadvantage to Tehran, and vice versa, negotiations between Iran and the United States are rightly regarded as a zero-sum game. How, then, can this game be resolved?

Actions in Side Cases Hint at Iran Policy

Before looking at the main narrative – direct negotiations, nuclear or otherwise, between the United States and Iran – we must look at the parallel conflicts between the two powers. The most significant of these concerns the Houthi rebel group in Yemen, a close ally to Tehran, which was removed from America’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) during President Biden’s first weeks in office. The purpose of this action was to facilitate humanitarian aid; it was feared in Washington that officially designating the Houthis as terrorists would make it difficult to provide aid to the Yemenis living within the group’s controlled territory, impacting hundreds of thousands of lives. However, while the appearance of the decision was humanitarian in nature, the reality is that the Houthis are essentially holding millions of Yemenis hostage, hindering aid and distributing it according to their own agenda. If this was not a capitulation to the Houthis, what was it?

Another side issue is who will handle Iran negotiations within the Biden administration. This has brought much discussion in Washington, and the positions that the negotiating team in the new administration will take. Yet this, too, does not reflect reality, because while most of those individuals had opinions when they were out of power, their perceptions are altered once they are in power. Ultimately, the negotiators are not the decision makers in this case, but mere employees who carry out the decisions of their superior, President Joe Biden. If they do not approve of the decisions made by their boss, their only recourse is to leave. This has been the case elsewhere, particularly in Iran, where Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted that he does make the policy. (The difference, of course, is that if an Iranian official refused to carry out a decision, he would probably be arrested, while the United States does not operate in this way.)

Yet another side incident is Iran receiving two back-to-back delegations from the Afghan Taliban and, immediately afterward, from the U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. The visit indicates that Iran is a crucial player in the important conflicts in the Middle East. Even if it was a regular visit for the Taliban, because Iran is a neighbor to Afghanistan, receiving the Special Envoy to Yemen, which does not share a border with Iran, suggests Iran has significant influence over the Houthis and decisions made in Sanaa. If we connect all these peripheral incidents, we will have a better understanding of the future relationship between Iran and the United States.

Learning from Obama and Trump’s Failures

Despite the recent statement from President Biden insisting that the United States would protect the security and stability of its GCC allies, the lack of clarity from Washington suggests a return to the naive policies of President Obama and part of the Democratic Party. These policies had different names, some moralistic and others humanitarian, but none were effective.

Going back to the zero-sum game between Washington and Tehran, how can we solve it? We are not reinventing the wheel, because we have already seen U.S. foriegn policy initiatives toward Iran that did not work. Under President Obama, the United States pursued a policy of appeasement that ignored all Iranian violations, both inside Iran and throughout the region. Yet Obama’s policies have failed. Even Obama himself mentioned in his latest book that he refused to provide any aid to the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran – although the Green Revolution was fundamentally an internal conflict within the Islamic Revolution’s different factions, rather than a revolution against the Iranian regime. 

President Obama’s policy of appeasement is contrary to the “maximum pressure” policy employed by President Trump, which drastically impacted the Iranian people. However, while Trump’s policy made the Iranian people poorer and more vulnerable, it was unsuccessful at shaking the foundations of the Iranian regime; the regime controls whatever remains of the government budget, and spends much of it on the IRGC, the regime’s tool for prospering inside and outside Iran, and to gain more influence in the region. In short, we are now facing a regime whose main intention is to stay in power at any cost, relying on the political support of the clergy and the few who benefit from patronage and corruption. 

Iran’s Top Priority: Survival at Any Cost

It is clear by now that the Iranian regime is only focused on expanding its military capabilities and influence in the region, and not on improving the living conditions of the Iranian people. Therefore, it seems obvious that Washington should not separate its negotiations with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program from its ballistic missile program and its regional policy. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, whose nation is a JCPOA participant, made it clear that the three issues could not be separated. He even called for Iran’s neighboring countries to be part of any future negotiations. Additionally, separating the nuclear program from the other issues directly contradicts President Biden’s assertion that his foreign policy would be based on human rights. The Iranian government, of course, has one of the worst human rights records in the world; according to international organizations, infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, forced disappearances, and other severe violations of human rights have all happened in Iran and by its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. 

From Tehran’s perspective, on the other hand, it may be necessary to meet the United States in the middle, to show good intentions in finding a solution to their problems. The Iranian government could agree to back down on some of its policies and give up some of its regional influence, providing a concession (if a very small one) to the United States. In doing so, it would kill two birds with one stone; it would reduce tensions within Iran, but it would also give the government a freer hand outside its borders. Moreover, it would give Biden’s administration an early win, allowing deeper negotiations to proceed – negotiations that could benefit both governments, as well as the Iranian people, if Biden and his staff can learn from the mistakes of his predecessors.

 

Dr. Mohammad Al-Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.


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