Former US Vice President Joe Biden will meet Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York this week as part of Iran’s delegation to the UN General Assembly, but will have an uphill task in persuading Mr Rouhani to change his mind about a 2015 nuclear deal.
The US made two big mistakes at the end of the Obama administration. Firstly, Mr Obama made a deal with Iran without consulting Congress – although several Republican senators did represent Congress at the talks. Secondly, the administration failed to stand up to Russia, which had its eye on the prize of a US nuclear deal with Iran.
The Iranians have come to believe that by ruling the world through the nuclear deal, they can now do whatever they want, subject to only the narrowest of American security guarantees.
In the talks at the UN, Mr Biden will have to offer more carrots and fewer sticks. He needs to be mindful of President Donald Trump’s threat to scrap the deal if the US cannot get the “best deal” possible.
But he also needs to rekindle trust in the US, and the prospect of fresh talks, so that the Iranians do not turn on the US with the fear of abandonment. To be clear, the US could very well continue on this path. The Trump administration has spoken of doubling or tripling sanctions on Iran in a new crackdown. They are as sophisticated on this issue as it gets, but Iran will be suspicious of the motives of the White House.
It is also worth keeping the pressure on Iran to respect its responsibilities under the nuclear deal by ensuring that it honors the nuclear accord and does not cheat in the nuclear field. President Trump has given one clear example of this so far, as he has openly denounced Iran’s leadership as the likes of Stalin or Hitler. Iran’s clerical rulers need to know the American message loud and clear: If Iran destroys the nuclear deal, it will pay a much higher price.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Mr Biden reportedly met earlier this month for a “30-minute conversation”, according to a report in Russian news agency Sputnik. In return, Mr Lavrov said, the US side made a “very positive” suggestion about “a second round of negotiations”, as well as positive statements about seeking a rapprochement with Russia. The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was quoted as telling Mr Lavrov that his team would hold a conversation with the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry and that the two sides would start consulting seriously.
After years of heartache with Russia, the Americans want to move on to more constructive relations with Moscow. The US can now afford to be friendly with both China and Russia as it is trying to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while trying to work with Russia to keep Iran in check.
At a Eurasia forum in New York a week ago, Mr Lavrov noted that “this year brings new opportunities to pursue the relationship with the US”. Secretary of State Tillerson in turn welcomed the talks in New York and said that the US was eager to intensify bilateral dialogue.
The US has a good reason to be, as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in the last election, Mr Biden won’t make any value judgements based on a shared dislike of the leader in the White House. The Americans have to build an apparatus that helps them deal with a dangerous Iran. Mr Obama won praise and credibility by standing up to Russia in the Ukraine crisis. Mr Trump has so far not done that. That is exactly the approach that Mr Biden will have to make with Iran.