U.S. President Joe Biden entered office two months ago, eager to repair the U.S.-Iran relationship. That job just became more complicated, though, following the signing of a 25-year cooperation agreement between China and Iran, and recent bipartisan activity in Congress that could tie his hands in relation to reentering the nuclear deal Donald Trump exited in 2018.
Haaretz spoke to Iranian Americans from across the country, including policy experts, about recent developments, their expectations and their concerns for how Biden will handle the Tehran portfolio. (The interviews took place before this weekend’s China-Iran deal to expand ties.)
Although data on Iranian-American voting trends for last year’s election is scant, a 2020 survey by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans showed that Iranian Americans preferred Biden to Trump by a margin of 56 percent to 31 percent.
According to the survey, which polled more than 400 Iranian-American adults, “about one-half of Iranian-American respondents regardless of party affiliation want a more comprehensive deal with Iran that addresses both the country’s nuclear ambitions and its role in regional conflicts.”
Late last month, Tehran rejected an offer by the European Union to broker direct talks with the United States and other key members of the original 2015 nuclear deal, casting doubts on hopes of a rapprochement. The “time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting,” Saaed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted.
The rejection from Tehran came days after the United States conducted airstrikes on Iran-sponsored militias in eastern Syria, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said killed 22 people.
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Iranian officials have since stated that they would return to the nuclear deal after receiving sanctions relief. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, however, insisted that the ball is in Iran’s court, as the United States committed to providing financial incentives only after Iran returns to compliance.
“The Biden team is off to a wobbly start,” Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, told Haaretz. “Iran views itself as the aggrieved party since it was President [Donald] Trump who left the nuclear deal, and asking Iran to put down its ace card (enrichment) before the U.S. talks to them is as unrealistic as when the U.S. demanded zero enrichment on Iranian soil.”
Tanya, who lived in Iran for eight years during the Iran-Iraq War and asked that her surname not be published, has high hopes for Biden, despite the initial diplomatic hurdles.
The New York-based fashion executive said that Biden’s first foreign policy moves in office are a great indicator that “the U.S. is focused on reestablishing itself as an anti-isolationist nation and key player on the global stage.”
She added: “Biden should strongly consider rejoining the nuclear deal. This will help ensure that there is structure and collaboration in trying to keep citizens of both countries – and the world – safer ”
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed, an attorney based in Southern California, expressed more caution about the road ahead for Biden. “President Biden’s plan to rewind the times of the nuclear deal will be an uphill battle,” the 27-year-old said. “Under President Trump, the relationship between Iran and the U.S. was seemingly irreparably harmed. Now, President Biden’s interference in Syria is going to add complications to the U.S.-Iran relationship,” she added.
“There really is no clear-cut way to approach the situation, but I do think we need to prioritize a diplomatic, positive relationship,” Sadeghi-Movahed said. “In order to achieve that, the Biden administration will have to possibly make concessions with Iran on how to repair the relationship.”
Fateme, a postdoctoral student based in Baltimore with roots in the Iranian city of Tabriz, is less concerned about the mechanics of the nuclear deal and more concerned about the implications worsening relations between Washington on Tehran would have on the people of Iran. “I think Biden should focus on not harming the people of Iran,” she said.
“The governments may not get along, but a lot of U.S. policy just ends up hurting ordinary Iranians,” Fateme, who also did not want her full name published, said. “Biden doesn’t have to get into the [nuclear] deal, but he can stop putting such pressure with sanctions. That just hurts people like my mother and father, who are both sick.”
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of 140 House Republicans and Democrats penned a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the Biden administration to adopt an approach that is “comprehensive in nature to address the full range of threats that Iran poses to the region.”
The letter, spearheaded by Reps. Anthony Brown (Democrat, Maryland) and Michael Waltz (Republican, Florida), continued: “As Democrats and Republicans from across the political spectrum, we are united in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior.”
The letter came after 150 Democrats urged Biden in December to “swiftly” reenter the Iran deal without conditions, while a more recent letter signed by 120 Republicans warned Biden to “not allow history to repeat itself” by returning to a “fatally flawed” Iran nuclear deal.
American lawmakers are not the only ones who find themselves divided along partisan lines regarding the deal. According to the Public Affairs Alliance survey, roughly three in 10 Iranian-American respondents would prefer to return to the deal, while a quarter want no deal at all with Iran.
“Biden’s first month in office has seen him undo everything that Trump did that worked,” said Simon Michael Aslanpour, a 40-year-old events company owner in San Jose, California. “Biden’s plan to rejoin the nuclear deal and offer sanctions relief will give Iran a renewed ability to sell more oil on the open market. This will bolster the Iranian government and will essentially undermine U.S. policy and interests throughout the region,” he said.
Aslanpour, a Republican who harbors hopes of running for Congress in 2022, went on to quote excerpts from Trump’s 2018 deal-reneging speech: “It’s clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current nuclear agreement. The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen.”
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Haaretz that, thus far, the Biden administration has made little progress in its policies. “Not much has happened, so there isn’t much to judge – but therein lies the problem,” he said. “Given the very limited window to get back into the nuclear deal, the fact that more hasn’t happened yet is a bit alarming.”
Time is not on Biden’s side. The looming Iranian presidential elections in June will likely usher in an Iranian president less amenable to nuclear diplomacy with the United States. Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, both proponents of the 2015 nuclear deal, won’t be running for reelection.
For Betty Fariz, a therapist in Miami, Biden is unexceptional because the Middle East has proved to be an inextricable morass for every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.
“As a Persian American, I closely watch the relationships our presidents have with Iran,” she said. “Trump did not present himself as an ally and perhaps moved the Iran-U.S. relationship into even more dangerous territory. Biden seemed to support strengthening the relationship the U.S. has with the Middle East, but so far, I’m underwhelmed by the administration’s efforts. We’ll see what happens.”
Jonathan Harounoff is a British analyst and alumnus of Columbia Journalism School, the University of Cambridge and Harvard University. Arman Amini is a management consultant and a Zuckerman Fellow at Harvard University.