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Will Biden Be Able To Reopen The Door To Negotiations With Iran?


Let's take a look now at how Iran's leaders might respond to President-elect Biden's policies. He says he'll replace the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign with what he calls a smart and tough approach. Biden could bring the U.S. back into the nuclear deal that President Trump pulled out of if Iran does its part to comply with the deal. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that could be a hard sell in Iran right now.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Joe Biden may want to reach out to Iran after taking office, but recent events could be driving Iran away. The Trump administration is levying new sanctions as it goes out the door. And then there's the dramatic assassination of a leading Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iran blames it on U.S. ally Israel. Naysan Rafati, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, says there are now voices in Tehran saying President Hassan Rouhani's government should be tougher in responding to these provocations.

NAYSAN RAFATI: We get that. But risking a military escalation or nuclear crisis, especially with the remaining members of the agreement and potentially with the Biden administration a few weeks from now, is more of a concern. And the benefits for Tehran of holding out a few months longer and then seeing how the situation unfolds - that is the more prudent course of action.

KENYON: Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech, sees signs that Biden is looking to reset Iran policy in some of his early cabinet and staff picks. They include former Obama administration officials who played a role in convincing Iran to sit down and negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement. That's the deal that curtailed Iran's nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. Trump pulled the U.S. out of it two years ago.

DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: Same team can, I think, bring a similar message that it's not too late, that if Iran is willing to go back to its promises, that the U.S. can deliver on its side, which is to first ease the sanctions and then remove it.

KENYON: Salehi-Isfahani says Iran still has a middle class, which, although shrinking, has turned out twice in large numbers to elect Rouhani - first with 51% of the vote on the promise of a nuclear agreement, and then with 58% after he delivered. He says this key voting bloc sees a choice for Iran's immediate future, focusing on the economy mainly in competition with Turkey or a military rivalry with Saudi Arabia.

SALEHI-ISFAHANI: And U.S., I think, as the leading country for open economies, should really want Iranians to focus their competition with Turkey - better education, better health, better productivity - rather than force them into a competition with Saudi Arabia.

KENYON: A couple of other factors to consider - Biden's team may find the Trump sanctions initially useful, providing leverage to gain new concessions from Iran. And secondly, Iranian politics are looming. Just a few months after Biden's inauguration, Iran will hold presidential elections, with the pragmatic Rouhani not in the running as he finishes his final term. Naysan Rafati with the International Crisis Group says a resounding conservative win in parliamentary elections earlier this year could mean hard-liners have the inside track toward recapturing the presidency in June.

RAFATI: But for the time being, if the parliamentary results are the precedent, it's going to be an uphill struggle.

KENYON: For now, Rouhani and his top aides are offering near daily reminders that the door to talks with the U.S. could be reopened. Even as Iran continues to break its commitments under the nuclear deal, it can reverse those steps if sanctions are lifted.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST OF MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.