Although Iran’s newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi has expressed his support for returning to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and for engaging in talks with the US and the E3 partners (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), the true chances of reviving the JCPOA are still questionable.
Recently, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi claimed that Iran restricted the Agency’s inspectors’ access to its enrichment plant at the Natanz facility and will probably continue to use its enriched uranium to produce uranium metal during ongoing negotiations. While the IAEA expressed its concern with Iran’s failure to cooperate with the Agency’s monitoring activities, Raisi reiterated former President Hassan Rouhani’s argument that in order to restore the nuclear deal, US sanctions must be lifted. Such can be interpreted as Iran’s principal policy, as it seems that the Raisi government will not halt its enrichment activities for the next round of negotiations.
From the viewpoint of the Biden administration, Tehran seems to have engaged in very limited cooperation with the IAEA. Though the US administration has insisted on pursuing diplomacy to further negotiations with Iran revolving around the JCPOA framework, it launched airstrikes against Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria just after the collapse of talks between Tehran and IAEA inspectors. The US appears to be pressuring Iran to return to the table by using force to curb its influence in the region.
On the one hand, Biden tries to revive the JCPOA, but on the other hand, he works to counter Iran’s influence in the region. This endeavor is reminiscent of the carrot and stick approach to Iran that was employed by former US President Barack Obama. In principle, it would seem that the Biden administration remains determined to turn away from Trump’s more provocative approach; because, if the JCPOA is revived, this would be an important mechanism of de-escalation between the two adversaries in the region and would likely lead to the initiation of new negotiations that could limit Iran’s ballistic missile program (a topic that hasn’t been a subject of the ongoing negotiations in Vienna).
In the end, US airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, in combination with a renewed Iran nuclear deal could play to Turkey’s advantage. Even though Turkey’s regional strategy has not explicitly aimed at encircling Iran and its proxies in the region, the US’s current strategy could work to inadvertently increase Turkish influence in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Of its own accord, Ankara has also been recently challenging Iranian influence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan. In addition, Turkey’s military presence in Qatar is effectively containing Iran in the region. However, while Ankara has supported anti-Iranian forces in Syria, radical militant groups in Libya are being funded by both Iran and Turkey despite their rivalry. Though Ankara and Tehran hold a similar stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict, Turkish President Erdogan has spoken with his new Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog. Turkey’s attempts at rapprochement with Egypt also underline a move toward future cooperation despite the two countries’ differences.
As competition between Ankara and Tehran waxes, the US strategy toward Iran in combination with Ankara’s quest for regional leadership and the revival of mutual relations with Israel and Egypt, opens new doors in challenging widespread Iranian influence in the region. Plus, if the Iran nuclear deal is revived and international economic sanctions against Iran are lifted, Turkey will undoubtedly benefit from greater commerce with Iran. Needless to say, this dynamic, empowered by the US strategy, could ultimately and politically strain Turkey-Iran relations.
Under this scenario, US support for Ankara would be a necessity. Nevertheless, distrust between Erdogan and Biden continues to grow. Here, even if the JCPOA is restored, Turkey and the US will need to come to see eye to eye on a slew of issues including Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense systems and the resultant US sanctions, US cooperation with Syrian Kurds, the US court case against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, and Biden’s views on Turkey’s human rights record, just to name a few.
*Esra Serim holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Sciences Po d’Aix in France. She is interested in nuclear security, US foreign policy, disarmament, and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter, @esraserimm.