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Biden Has Options To Leverage Trump's Sanctions On Iran


A look now at what it might take from the Biden administration to get Iran back into the 2015 nuclear deal. Reviving the deal that Trump pulled out of was a campaign promise, but the countries are in a standoff. Iran is ramping up its program and demanding that Biden lift economic sanctions that were imposed to deprive the regime of cash. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on what lifting sanctions involves.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The 2015 nuclear deal was based on lifting crippling sanctions, like blocking billions in Iranian oil sales, in return for Iran limiting its nuclear program. Ardavan Amir-Aslani is an Iranian French lawyer who advises foreign companies wanting to do business in Iran. Speaking from Paris, he recalls when the deal was signed, there was great optimism that sanctions relief would create investment opportunities in Iran.

ARDAVAN AMIR-ASLANI: With, you know, thousands of European executives walking down the streets of Tehran and billions flown into the country, Iran would change automatically its behavior. That was the bet.

NORTHAM: But then in 2018, former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and began outlying business with Iran's economy, manufacturing, steel and aluminum companies and its banks. Amir-Aslani says the impact was immediate.

AMIR-ASLANI: All of these world-class corporations wanted to go into Iran. But, you know, with Trump's withdrawal, all of them left within 24 hours.

NORTHAM: The Trump administration threatened international companies they would be cut off from the U.S. financial system if they dealt with Iran. Richard Goldberg, an official on the National Security Council during the Trump administration now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says Biden shouldn't rush to ease these sanctions just yet.

RICHARD GOLDBERG: So if you're in a negotiation, it's all about leverage. And if you give up that leverage from the beginning, you're never going to quite be able to get to that final deal with the best outcomes you're looking for.

NORTHAM: But if Biden is too inflexible, Iran won't believe he's interested in talks. Amir-Aslani again.

AMIR-ASLANI: So in Tehran, people are going to say, there is no difference between Biden and Trump because Biden, despite his promises, has kept the Trumpian (ph) sanctions in place.

NORTHAM: There are half-measures Biden can do to show Iran he's serious. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani is a professor of economics at Virginia Tech. He says there are so many sanctions on Iran that the U.S. could start easing some of them, allowing both sides to save face. For example, the Treasury Department could turn a blind eye to companies dealing with Iran.

DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: The, moment they can ascertain that something is going to happen, I think the businesses in every country are going to hear or get a memo that from now on, it's OK to do A, B and C. The fact that there's not going to be a billion-dollar fine at the other end for a company - I think that's really the key.

NORTHAM: The U.S. could also allow access to oil revenues that are locked in foreign countries, says Salehi-Isfahani.

SALEHI-ISFAHANI: What I'm told is that some telephones were made to Koreans. And if they wanted to release 1 billion of the 7 billion they owe to Iran, U.S. would look the other way.

NORTHAM: That's the kind of move businesses are looking for. Omid Gholamifar, the Tehran-based CEO of Serkland Invest, a Swedish company, says they've invested about $60 million into four major Iranian companies dealing in pharmaceuticals and beverages, which are allowed under U.S. sanctions. Gholamifar recently took part in a European Iranian business forum looking at opportunities if the sanctions are lifted. There were about 2,000 participants.

OMID GHOLAMIFAR: There is a sense of optimism. I think everybody who was at the forum by definition believes that, you know, things are going in the right direction and that there is a huge opportunity to be capitalized on.

NORTHAM: But that's if and when negotiations ever get underway.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERBALL SONG, "THE MOON, THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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