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Trump sanctions could give Biden a bargaining chip in deal talks with Iran

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The Trump administration’s imposition of new sanctions on Iran may have been intended to forestall a new nuclear deal with Tehran if Joe Biden is elected president, but it could backfire instead by strengthening Biden’s hand at the bargaining table.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Monday slapped counterterrorism sanctions on key players in Iran’s oil sector for supporting the Quds Force, the elite paramilitary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The move, just before the Nov. 3 U.S. election, followed sanctions on 18 banks in Iran that Washington imposed earlier this month.

Biden supports returning to diplomacy with Iran if it comes into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal Washington struck with Tehran and five other world powers. Doing that could eventually add some 2 million barrels per day of Iranian oil to world markets that had been cinched off by President Donald Trump’s wider unilateral sanctions on the OPEC member.

Analysts have said Monday’s action was among moves by the Trump administration attempting to make it harder for a potential Biden White House to lift sanctions.

“It seems clear that one of the primary reasons for yesterday’s action was to try to make it more difficult for a potential next administration to go back into the JCPOA,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department official and supporter of Biden, referring to the nuclear deal.

While Biden could remove Trump’s new sanctions by executive order, he would pay a price.

“The new sanctions do not create a legal barrier to relieving sanctions under Biden,” said Henry Rome, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, a consultancy.

Still, the new sanctions could “provide ammunition to congressional critics,” who might say a Biden administration was glossing over Iran’s support for terrorism if it sought a new deal with Tehran, Rome said.

It could also create added paperwork and bureaucratic process to unwind the raft of sanctions, making the effort marginally more difficult, experts said.

But Monday’s sanctions could also offer Biden collateral when cutting an eventual deal, said Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners.

“Biden can blame Trump for the strictures he put in place even as he offers their elimination as a source of goodwill during negotiations,” with Iran, Book said.

Tristan Abbey, a former aide to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski who worked at the national security council in the Trump White House, agreed. “A cynic would say it’s more stuff they can barter away in a deal,” said Abbey, now president of Comarus Analytics.

The White House did not comment. Neither did the Biden campaign.

Trump left the JCPOA deal in 2018, saying it did not do enough to curb the Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and militant influence across the Middle East.

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