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HomeBlogPanel Summary Report: The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Under the Biden Administration

Panel Summary Report: The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Under the Biden Administration

By Bailey Cordrey

On December 17, 2020, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) hosted a virtual panel discussion entitled ‘The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Under the Biden Administration.’ The panel was assembled to bring into conversation the perspectives of various experts—from Washington and Vienna to Geneva and Tehran—on the future of nuclear negotiations with Iran under the incoming Biden administration, and assess non-invasive junctures for Canada’s potential contribution to these matters.

We are honoured to have welcomed Ambassador Stephan Klement, EU Head of Delegation to International Organisations and EEAS Special Advisor on Nuclear Implementation of the JCPOA, as our keynote speaker in conversation with Younes Zangiabadi, Executive Vice-President of the IPD. Our forum of foreign policy and sanctions experts also included:

  • Dr. Trita Parsi – Executive Vice-President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Washington, D.C.
  • Dr. Erica Moret – Senior Researcher at the Centre for Global Governance Graduate Institute, Geneva
  • Dr. Hassan Ahmadian – Assistant Professor of Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran
  • Dr. Thomas Juneau – Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa
  • Moderator – Negar Mortazavi, journalist and political analyst covering Iran in English and Persian

In the first session of the event (12:00-12:30), Ambassador Klement delivered an informative introductory address, followed by an informal question and answer period among panel participants. Klement’s appearance in this first half-hour was held under Chatham House Rule and is therefore excluded from our recording and summary. 

The second session (12:30-1:30) convened a discussion about the complexities associated with US-Iran relations and the possibility of the next US administration rejoining the Iran Nuclear Deal. Throughout, Negar Mortazavi lent her moderation skills in posing questions from our research team and the larger audience of attendees. 

After a short round of introductions, Ms. Mortazavi opened the panel by citing President-elect Biden’s on-the-record commitments to pursue rejoining the JCPOA, asking Dr. Parsi how this might come to fruition when his administration comes into office next month. Dr. Parsi speculated that both parties would likely seek a quick return to a compliance-for-compliance agreement before initiating more rigorous negotiations on various amendments to the former agreement. However, Dr. Parsi expects the re-entry process to be time-consuming in the face of opposition from other regional actors such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates and perhaps U.S. Congress, should the Republicans claim additional seats in Georgia as a result of the upcoming run-off elections. The JCPOA has sustained high levels of support from the Democrat Party, evidenced by a letter of support for a swift return to compliance circulated by several influential US House of Representatives Democrats. Should this come to fruition, Dr. Parsi cautioned that challenging rounds of negotiations would follow as both parties seek favourable revisions, but reminded the audience that these issues should be treated as supplementary to the core deal. The early positions taken by Biden’s team on matters of regional importance will be closely watched to predict the ideological preferences of this incoming administration. 

Turning to Dr. Ahmadian, Ms. Mortazavi asked for clarification on Tehran’s perspective—reminding the audience that Iran will elect a new president next year, as President Rouhani’s second term ends and conservatives gain seats in Parliament. She wondered what conditions Iran may seek to add to the deal, such as compensation for financial losses, or a legally binding commitment that extends beyond Biden’s term in office. Dr. Ahmadian offered that a widely-held perception in Tehran is that the U.S. violated the JCPOA, therefore Iran would not be returning to the deal in the same way—it would instead return to full compliance. In practice, official reviews supply that Iran has continued to downgrade its nuclear program in-line with JCPOA standards. On Dr. Parsi’s point—that Tehran will take cues from the new U.S. administration and react accordingly—Dr. Ahmadian was in agreement; but was less optimistic that the U.S. would avoid ‘maximum pressure’ tactics favoured by Trump. As a result of the mistrust that has accumulated over several years, Tehran may favour an incremental re-engagement approach, to seek leverage and balance against potential pressure tactics. 

Should maxim pressure tactics continue to be used, Dr. Ahmadian believes that Iran could be emboldened to push for progress on regional issues and compensation for losses incurred since the U.S. departure from the deal—a resolution that has already reached the International Court of Justice. Iran’s shifting domestic political landscape will also shape forthcoming negotiations, and the JCPOA will be top-of-mind for voters in this year’s federal election. Carrying forward trends seen in regional politics, the Conservative party will likely continue to gain popularity, absent a breakthrough in restoring the nuclear deal—then the chance of electing a more moderate administration would increase. 

Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Erica Moret to comment on Europe’s role in moving forward with a new agreement, as the E.U. has been an important actor throughout each phase of the JCPOA, keeping the agreement alive under maximum pressure campaigns from the U.S. Dr. Moret opened her answer in acknowledging the central role played by the E.U.—politically, and in terms of technical support provision. She emphasized the E.U.’s primary role as a diplomatic channel in this current juncture, as the U.S. is likely more receptive to change in the transition to a new government. Dr. Moret also sees an opportunity for European countries to participate in strengthening the Iranian economy through encouraging investment. 

A revival of the JCPOA does not ensure that the Iranian economy will suddenly stabilize after enduring years of punitive sanctions. Sanctions that attempt to harm a country’s economy and population in this way are widely criticized as ineffective across academia. Dr. Moret explains: “When we look at what the Trump administration is doing with maximum pressure campaigns, we can’t expect these tactics to work. Sixty years ago, this naive sanctions approach was coined. What I and my colleagues have found, is that these approaches are entirely ineffective in achieving what they set out to do, and we need to talk about this more publicly.” Further, in the case of Iran, Dr. Moret finds evidence that the simple provision of licenses or exemptions on humanitarian grounds is not effective and instead results in a phenomenon of financial sector de-risking and over-compliance in key sectors of private industry (medical, food, shipping and insurance, for example). This pressure cumulates in a ‘chilling effect’ felt by humanitarian, public health and financial institutions—a global crisis recognized by major multilateral organizations and E.U. countries that work discreetly to alleviate harm where possible. For example, the Iranian Central Bank’s ability to pay for COVID vaccinations was limited by other financial institutions’ reluctance to be involved with a target of U.S. sanctions. Dr. Moret explained that Europe’s extensive experience in facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogues in development practices would be essential to a smooth revival of nuclear negotiations as the new administration assumes office. However, should the aforementioned macroeconomic issues be left unaddressed, the stability of any new agreement will be compromised.

Bringing Canadian perspectives to the fore, Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Juneau to comment on potential shifts in Canada’s foreign policy strategy. Trudeau’s Liberal government has not yet realized an election promise to reinstate diplomatic relations with Iran, though pundits expect renewed interest after Biden’s inauguration. Dr. Juneau answered by first offering a brief historical background on contemporary Canada-Iran relations. In 2012, Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In the preceding federal election in 2015, Liberal Party candidate Justin Trudeau committed to re-engagement, but this project was eventually stalled in 2018 due to consular politics, growing divisions within the caucus of the Liberal Party, and a lack of political will. In January 2020, Flight PS 752 was tragically shot from the sky, leaving 176 dead including 55 Canadians. Canada’s lack of an embassy in Iran presented insurmountable challenges for diplomats and relief workers, resulting in massive mismanagement and unnecessary suffering for the families of crash victims. 11 months later, Special Advisor Ralph Goodale released Canada’s first official report on the Flight PS 752 tragedy that surprised many with strong accusations of blame against the Iranian government. Dr. Juneau asserted that Canadians will likely continue to push for transparency, accountability and compensation for the families who lost loved ones in the aviation disaster. He also does not expect the Canadian government to take steps towards re-engagement as long as the PS 752 issue remains contentious. Moving to the question of potential shifts in foreign policy strategy post-Trump, Dr. Juneau expects more ideological alignment between Biden and Trudeau. He predicted that Trudeau would publicly support a revival of the JCPOA after Trump departs from office. Canada will not play a role in renegotiating the deal but has interests in reducing security risks in the Middle East as the Canadian military remains stationed in Iraq. 

Ms. Mortazavi noted that Trudeau has said that this massive loss of life would have been avoided if tensions between the U.S. and Iran were not heightened following the assassination of General Soleimani a few weeks prior. Bringing the focus back to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Parsi to discuss the top issues beyond the scope of the JCPOA that would likely follow negotiations. Dr. Parsi shared that Biden’s team has signalled interest in add-on discussions that would include other regional states, such as Syria and Yemen. Dialogues involving a broader range of Persian Gulf states will need to address the intersecting conflicts levied via domestic policy and actions, such as arms purchases or financing of paramilitary organizations. Dr. Parsi expressed doubt that Persian Gulf states with ties to the U.S. would not be motivated to reach an agreement on these long-standing issues, as long as they can rely on continued American presence (and protection) in the region. For many, continuing to operate under the shield of the U.S. security umbrella is preferable to entering potentially painful compromises with Iran, though Dr. Parsi believes that Biden’s administration will push states towards real engagement. Regardless, earnest dialogue between these actors cannot be expected unless the U.S. moves away from its protective role in the region. Dr. Ahmadian returned to comment on Iran’s perspective of such ‘add-on’ negotiations. Should other states be invited to discussions, he speculated that Iran’s defence capabilities would be scrutinized and therefore doubted that Tehran would willingly enter a negotiation that might endanger its ability to balance against local and international actors operating in the region. If these kinds of negotiations go forward, he imagines that Iran would push for reduced arms control exports to the Persian Gulf and encourage the U.S. and E.U. to consider how they can improve safety and security in the region. 

Posing a question from the audience, Ms. Mortazavi asked the panellists whether the E.U. would continue their mediating and supportive role in JCPOA negotiations after Trump’s departure. Dr. Moret recognized that European governance circles have uncharacteristically hardened their stance, but viewed these shifting temperaments as par for the course. Sanctions regimes fuel conflict among their participants, adding to their ineffectiveness. Dr. Moret again highlighted the importance of wider dialogue in the public arena about why punitive sanctions are used in the first place. Dr. Parsi added that European states may be pursuing these strategies to assert their relevance and shore up a strong position before potential renegotiations begin.

Ms. Mortazavi sought additional context on regional matters from Dr. Juneau, asking how he felt regional issues might play out, in terms of other parties and talking points that may be included. Dr. Juneau was optimistic that a new nuclear deal could be realized at some point in 2021 but unsure that regional agreement on subsidiary issues like ballistic missiles, support for non-state groups and regional security architecture would arrive any time soon. Dr. Ahmadian added that Iran has been very successful in regional deterrence and many of its allies currently hold powerful positions over rivals across the Gulf. Iran, therefore, maintains a powerful negotiating position, as evidenced in talks with E3 states on Yemen and Syria. Attempts to precondition a revival of the JCPOA with compromises on subsidiary issues can not be expected to succeed. 

Addressing earlier commentary on the ineffectiveness of sanctions, Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Moret to offer an alternative that is in alignment with humanitarian values, especially as the world continues to struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Reading a question from the audience, Ms. Mortazavi also asked whether the EU should independently pursue their foreign policy interests on behalf of an audience member. Dr. Moret revealed that she is not an absolute opponent of sanctions, however, they must respect the core values that informed their creation as a tool of international relations and be accompanied by rigid measures that target their impact. For example, asset freezes, travel bans or arms can be imposed uncontroversially—when sanctions are broadened in ways that impact people and whole economies, creating sharp declines in access to hard currency, their effectiveness is lost. These scenarios make life hard for vulnerable groups such as women, children, those with disabilities or people on fixed incomes. Bearing this in mind, sanctions should be used very judiciously—in the Iranian case and all others—combined more strategically with diplomacy and a host of other policy tools. Dr. Moret treated the audience question about pursuing a more independent E.U. foreign policy strategy by extension, noting that the Trumpian approach to sanctions has been very problematic for Europeans and most other American allies around the world. She expressed that a critical tipping point has been reached within the international community, and trust must be restored before the E.U. states can be expected to align foreign policy strategies with the U.S. After a round of concluding remarks, the panel discussion closed at 1:30 PM EST. 


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor