Trump’s foreign policy left the world in disarray
President Trump’s presidency not only was not successful but left the world in disarray. He abandoned multilateralism and polarized the international system. President Trump left most of the international agreements, like the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA) and the Treaty on Intermediate Missiles (INF) and he attacked multilateral Institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Paris Climate agreement.
The Great Power Competition with China and Russia became priority and Trump imposed heavy sanctions on Iran. He threatened European companies with secondary sanctions if they do business with Iran although the Europeans considered the JCPOA a master piece of “effective multilateralism”. All the sanctions did not change Iran’s behavior according to his policies. Neither “maximum pressure” nor friendly relations between Trump and North Korea’s Kim led to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Under Biden’s presidency same multilateralism will return, great power conflict is here to stay
Will president elect Joseph Biden change course? He will certainly cooperate within some multilateral organizations like the WHO, the WTO and return to the Paris Climate Agreement. He will act more diplomatically. There will be no new international Treaties, however, because they would require two thirds of the votes in the senate. Republican Senators will not support a Treaty that has been negotiated by a democratic president. Presidential directives still would be possible instruments; they can be abandoned by the next president, however.
Tensions with China and Russia will remain. The bipolarity will be structural. The historian Graham Allison even predicted a possible military conflict what he calls the Thucydides Trap. In such a case for both Europe and Iran the best solution would be to stay neutral in order not to get entangled in a Great Power War. Some European states would ally with the US, because they will meet their NATO commitments.
The JCPOA and regional dialogue
As presidential candidate Joseph Biden said that he would return to the JCPOA if Iran also abides by the agreement. It is still not clear whether he would attach further conditions since the Congress will put pressure on him to take a tough position towards Iran. Iran for its part said it will not accept that the JCPOA will be renegotiated. Nevertheless, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani expressed the expectation that the newly elected US-President will correct the failures of the previous administration and return to international law and treaties.
Probably, Joseph Biden will address the missile issue. Referring to the experiences of the war with Iraq, Iran argues it needs missiles for defense. Therefore, Iran’s missile program cannot singled out. Saudi Arabia’s missiles e.g. already have a longer range than those of Iran. On the basis of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif proposal of regional dialogue, Iran could agree to regional arms control negotiations if all actors of the region will be involved, however. A regional dialogue would leave the JCPOA untouched.
Diplomatic relations beyond the JCPOA
President Trump wanted to prevent the next president to restore normal relations with Iran. He made Iran responsible for all the tensions in the region. The killing of General Soleimani and the alliance of Arab states with Israel should isolate Iran politically and diplomatically. If President Biden thinks within a larger context, he could ignore Trump’s policies and offer new diplomatic relations with Iran in order to save the nuclear deal. Such an initiative would go beyond Obama’s rapprochement with Iran.
In order not to be isolated, Iran itself could request that all the regional powers cooperate on the basis of the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 that would recognize Israel only within the borders of 1967. This would not alienate the Palestinians and would keep the door open to a Two-State-Solution which Joseph Biden supports. Trump’s current peace plan for West Asia confirms Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and ignore the rights of the Palestinians.
In sum, on the one hand Biden’s foreign policy will be more diplomatic and multilateral. He could establish some diplomatic relations with Iran. On the other hand great power competitions will remain and maybe even tensions will increase. Iran itself could offer regional arms control talks and confidence building.