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No Matter Who Is U.S. President, Iran Will Drive a Harder Bargain Than Before

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U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018 with the express purpose of pressuring Iran into negotiating a deal more favorable to the United States. To that end, the United States has pursued a sanctions policy of “maximum pressure” that has inflicted extraordinary damage on Iranian society. Iran’s economy contracted by seven percent in 2019–20, and its currency has devalued to a record low. Washington imposed still more sanctions on Iran’s banking system just last week.

Tehran has nevertheless refused to renegotiate the agreement, as it views conceding to U.S. demands as a total surrender. Instead, Iran has resumed some of its previously suspended nuclear-related activities; continued, if not expanded, its missile program; and deepened its regional influence.

Despite this dangerous escalation on both sides, many expect a new round of shuttle diplomacy between Tehran and Washington to follow the U.S. presidential election next month. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said that if elected, he would return to the nuclear deal, which was negotiated while he was vice president. Meanwhile, President Trump has expressed confidence that he can cut a new deal with Iran within weeks if he is reelected.

Despite their differences, both opponents and proponents of the original nuclear deal believe that reimposing sanctions in the past two years has provided the United States with critical leverage to use against Iran. The two sides, however, differ on whether the United States should use this leverage to get a better deal for itself within the framework of that agreement or ratchet up the pressure still further to get more attractive concessions from Iran, including an end to its enrichment program. A Biden administration would offer sanctions relief in return for more restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities than the original deal required. A second Trump administration, on the other hand, would likely offer few incentives and increase the pressure on Iran to make concessions beyond the original framework. Both sides........

© Foreign Affairs

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