Iranians pose with a US President Donald Trump mask as they take part in a protest against the Trump administration's designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a 'terrorist organization' in Tehran on April 12, 2019. Photo: AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu

In his nomination acceptance speech on August 20, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden paid little attention to foreign policy issues and focused instead on four major crises: the pandemic, recession, racism and climate change.

On the same day, his rival in the White House was busy hammering the UN Security Council with the demand to re-impose sanctions on Iran, only to be firmly rebuffed by all the other permanent and non-permanent members of the council.

That was a repeat of a showdown a week earlier, in which Washington failed to pressure the Security Council to indefinitely extend an Iran arms embargo, thus reflecting a crisis of confidence in the US’ post-WWII global leadership.

The question remains: can a Biden presidency restore America’s prestige and undo the extensive damage to world order wrought by the Donald Trump administration?

In probing the answer to this question, it is important to bear in mind that between now and the early November election, Trump is capable of causing more mischief abroad, such as provoking a war with Iran, whereby he can appear presidential and rally the nation behind him, thus compensating for his shortcomings that have been aptly exploited by his Democratic challenger.

US President Donald Trump was rebuffed at the UN. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

Indeed, an important clue to this possibility is given by the administration’s odd behavior of instantly pushing for “snapback” UN sanctions immediately after losing the battle on an Iran arms embargo at the Security Council, knowing full well that their chance of success was practically nil.

But like Heremia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this administration has a knack for seeing things in parted ways.

Diplomatic acrobatics

The embarrassments at the UN are viewed as worthwhile insofar as they highlight Trump’s steadfast commitment to the anti-Iran agenda of allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, and make the Iran nuclear issue once again into a domestic political issue to bash the Democrats led by Biden, who has called for re-engaging the nuclear agreement abandoned by Trump two years ago.

Yet, in an act of diplomatic acrobatics, the administration has pretended that it is still a “participant” in the deal, a poor argument that did not fly with European allies and others at the UN.

Even in the absence of a full-scale crisis with Iran in the next few months, a Biden victory would simply mean that he will inherit a profound crisis in US-Iran relations that defies simplistic solutions.

If former US vice-president Joe Biden becomes president he will take a different stance on Iran to Trump. Photo: AFP

Both Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, are on record favoring a US return to the Iran nuclear agreement, albeit with the caveat that Iran would impose new restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear program, a view endorsed by Biden’s foreign policy advisers such as Tony Blinken.

In other words, the expectation of a straightforward US return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement must take into account the subtle nuances of Biden’s position which, in essence, translates into certain continuity with the present tough Iran approach of the Trump administration, instead of a clean policy break.

Blinken and other Biden advisers are quoted in the media as favoring the continuation of US sanctions on Iran as well, evading the question of how they expect Iran to be brought back to full compliance with the nuclear agreement without the carrot of sanctions’ relief.

Long road to diplomacy

According to a Tehran-based political science professor who wishes to remain anonymous, Iran’s reformists “are anxiously waiting for the result of the November election in the US. They hope that Biden can win and will re-engage Iran just as the Obama administration did.”

Iran has its own presidential elections next year and, indeed, a Biden victory would likely be a big help to the reformists’ cause in Iran. Vice versa, a Trump victory will likely benefit the hard-liners, who are in control of Iran’s Parliament due mainly to the Trumpian confrontational policy.

It is noteworthy that Biden’s policy record harking back to his six-term Senate service is a mixed one. He is on record favoring a “preemptive strike” at enemies, unwavering support for Israel, warning about the US acting as a “high tech bully” by bombing Afghanistan, favoring Iran’s “containment” and questioning the Republicans’ one-dimensional reliance on hard power.

Thus, in his memoir, Biden criticizes the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for believing “they could scare rogue states into subjection.” A pragmatic realist, Biden is apt to resurrect Obama’s penchant for multilateralism and healing the Trump-inflicted severe transatlantic wounds.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Then again, there is a flip side to all this from Iran’s perspective. A US return to the nuclear deal and repairing transatlantic relations may end up working against Iran’s interests, as these would strengthen the US’ hands and perhaps even make it more likely that a potential Biden attempt in the future to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran would succeed.

Needless to say, much depends on the ebbs and flows of policy from both Washington and Tehran in the near future, notwithstanding Iran’s Spiritual Leader’s antipathy to dialogue with the US.

A great deal of preparatory confidence-building is necessary before the Obama-era environment of direct talks, using both open and secret channels, between the two sides can be restored.