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Iran and the US: No Exit

Iran and the US: No Exit

Early this morning the US government hit Iran with a raft of sanctions that make it illegal for companies to do any business with Iran involving precious metals, sovereign debt, airplanes, or cars. It also outlaws Iranian purchases of US banknotes and, for American lovers of Iranian pistachios and carpets, this is a very bad day – importing those is now forbidden again.


 

These sanctions, to refresh your memory, had been suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which President Trump ditched earlier this year.

Now they are back in place, and they’ll contribute to an economic crisis that could see Iran’s GDP shrink as much as 8% this year, a far cry from earlier expectations that fresh economic opportunities under the nuclear deal would boost growth. And greater pain awaits the Islamic Republic: in November, the US is set to reimpose a much harsher set of sanctions that target Iran’s energy sector, which is crucial for the economy.

Is this economic pressure from the Trump administration the prelude to a breakthrough between Iran and the US? Don’t bet on it.

First, Trump is demanding things that Tehran can’t realistically give. Leaving aside President Trump’s seemingly instinctive revulsion at anything that bears his predecessor’s fingerprints, Washington’s had three specific beefs with the Iran deal (which Tehran was adhering to, according to international inspectors and the US Defense Secretary): it expires; it allows Iran to test new ballistic missiles; and it doesn’t stop Iran from supporting proxy fighters in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Now, even if Tehran were willing to discuss the first two – which is somewhere between implausible and impossible -- the third would amount to a complete reorientation of Iran’s foreign policy and an inconceivable humiliation for a regime that bases its legitimacy in large part on resisting the historic, and continuing, attempts by Washington to alter Iran’s politics.

In short, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Ahvaz of Iran agreeing to what Trump (along with the Saudis and the Israelis) would want. Moreover, why, Iran’s president has already asked, should Tehran believe any commitments that Trump makes to a new deal after tearing up an old deal that was working?

Second, domestic pressures aren’t going to change Iran’s position. It’s true that economic protests (a longstanding tradition in Iran) have recently intensified and taken on a political coloring, but the regime can still rely on loyal, efficient, and ruthless security services to keep things in check. What’s more, sanctions by the US give the government a convenient, if certainly not inexhaustible, excuse for the economic crisis.

In short, unlike the Trump administration’s other major foreign policy tangles, there is no conceivable exit from the deadlock with Iran right now. Trade spats with China and the EU can, in principle, be resolved with deftly-packaged concessions and proper massaging of the relevant ego(s), not least because in each of those cases, both sides have lots to lose if things truly go off the rails. With North Korea, meanwhile, Trump and Kim seem committed to reaching some accommodation, even if that means artfully redefining terms like “denuclearization.” And even without a deal, the diplomacy can remain stalled indefinitely as both sides have already gotten a bit of what they want (Trump the pomp and splash, Kim the legitimacy and a fresh start with South Korea.)

But with Iran, there’s no clear way out. In fact, all signs point to a sharper escalation of tensions between the US, its regional allies, and Iran… Want to guess one area where that might happen sooner rather than later? My pal Kevin Allison will have some thoughts on that in tomorrow’s edition…

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

With the transition of power formally beginning now, what can we expect between now and inauguration day?

Well, there's a couple of important deadlines between now and Inauguration Day. The first is the December 14th meeting of the Electoral College, which will make the state certifications official and will make Joe Biden officially president-elect in the eyes of the US government. Another really important date is going to be January 5th, which is when Georgia has its runoff for the two Senate seats that will determine majority control in the Senate. If the Republicans win one of those seats, they'll maintain their majority, although very slim. If the Democrats win both of the seats, they'll have a 50/50 Senate with Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote and slightly more ability to enact Joe Biden's agenda next year. Also, between now and Inauguration Day, we're going to see Joe Biden announce his cabinet and senior staff. Most of whom will probably get confirmed fairly easily early, earlier ... Excuse me, later in January or early in February. And of course, we're going to see what President Trump is going to do next. I think that it's still a little bit up in the air what his post-presidency plans are. He has yet to concede the election. So, anything is possible from him, including a lot of new executive orders that could try to box Biden in and limit his options when it comes to economic policy, foreign policy, and social policy.

What can we expect out of the Biden administration's first 100 days?

Well, the biggest priority of the Biden administration first is going to be to confirm all of their cabinet appointees, and that should be pretty easy at the cabinet head level for the most part, even with a Republican controlled Senate. It's going to be a little more difficult once you get below the cabinet head, because then you're going to start to see some more ideological tests and some more policy concerns be flushed out by Republicans in the Senate. The second thing you're going to see is Biden start to undo as much of the Trump legacy as he can, and his primary vehicle for doing this is going to be executive orders, which is a lot of what president Trump used in order to enact policy. Expect Biden to reenter the Paris Climate Accord on day one and expect him to start undoing things like Trump's immigration orders and perhaps reversing some of his decisions on trade. Yet to be determined is if Congress is going to have fully funded the government for the entire year in December in the lame-duck session, and if they haven't, Biden's going to have to work out a deal probably in March or so to do that.

Joe Biden is well known as the kind of guy who will talk your ear off, whether you're a head of state or an Average Joe on the campaign trail. But Evan Osnos, New Yorker staff writer and author of "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run and What Matters Now," thinks that reputation may be outdated. "Here he is in his eighth decade when a lot of people are, frankly, in more of a broadcasting mode than a listening mode, he's actually become a more attentive listener." Despite one of the longest political careers in modern American history, there remains more to Joe Biden than may meet the eye. Osnos spoke with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

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