Trouble at home may change Biden's hand in Iran nuke talks

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Iranian Revolutionary Guard

In this photo released on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran. Irans paramilitary Revolutionary Guard conducted a drill Saturday launching anti-warship ballistic missiles at a simulated target in the Indian Ocean, state television reported, amid heightened tensions over Tehrans nuclear program and a U.S. pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

A lot of the characters are the same for President-elect Joe Biden but the scene is far starker as he reassembles a team of veteran negotiators to get back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

President Donald Trump worked to blow up the multinational deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program during his four years in office, gutting the diplomatic achievement of predecessor Barack Obama in favor of what Trump called a maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Down to Trump's last days in office, accusations, threats and still more sanctions by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Iran's decision to spur uranium enrichment and seize a South Korean tanker, are helping to keep alive worries that regional conflict will erupt. Iran on Friday staged drills, hurling volleys of ballistic missiles and smashing drones into targets, further raising pressure on the incoming American president over a nuclear accord.

Even before the Capitol riot this month, upheaval at home threatened to weaken the U.S. hand internationally, including in the Middle East’s nuclear standoff. Political divisions are fierce, thousands are dying in the pandemic and unemployment remains high.

Biden and his team will face allies and adversaries wondering how much attention and resolution the U.S. can bring to bear on the Iran nuclear issue or any other foreign concern, and whether any commitment by Biden will be reversed by his successor.

“His ability to move the needle is ... I think hampered by the doubt about America’s capacity and by the skepticism and worry about what comes after Biden,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Nasr was an adviser on Afghanistan during the first Obama administration.

Biden's pick for deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, acknowledged the difficulties in an interview with a Boston news show last month before her nomination.

“We’re going to work hard at this, because we have lost credibility, we are seen as weaker” after Trump, said Sherman, who was Barack Obama’s lead U.S. negotiator for the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. She was speaking of U.S. foreign objectives overall, including the Iran deal.