When the Deal Goes Down: Joe Biden, Iran, and a Withering Nuclear Deal

 /  Feb. 5, 2021, 5:35 p.m.

Iran nuclear deal talks. Vienna, 2015. From left to right: Foreign ministers/secretaries of state Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Federica Mogherini (EU), Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran), Philip Hammond (UK),

Former president Donald Trump’s mantra “America First” in large part meant dismantling his predecessor’s foreign policy achievements which were built on internationalism and deliberative diplomacy. Nowhere was this dichotomy more evident than the Iran nuclear deal: a 2015 multilateral treaty designed to curb Iran’s burgeoning and potentially weaponizable nuclear program in exchange for economic relief. Former president Barack Obama heralded the deal as a landmark on the path to peace and stability in the Middle East. Trump derided it as “disastrous” before unilaterally pulling the United States out of the deal in 2018. Now, in line with his former boss, President Joe Biden wants to return to the nuclear deal. His path, however, is strewn with obstacles—Trump and Iran among them—that threaten to bog down, if not halt, the renegotiation process. 

The so-called Iran deal—officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—is a 2015 agreement between Iran, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany, the European Union, and, until 2018, the United States. Under it, Iran agreed to cease high-level uranium enrichment and stockpiling, verified by rigorous international inspections, in exchange for the other signatories lifting crippling economic sanctions. Having ostensibly removed the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Western proponents proclaimed a new era of security in the Middle East. Iranian leaders touted economic prosperity and greater mobility of assets. 

Critics of the deal, however, complained that due to “sunset provisions” many of the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would end after 2025, and by 2030, enrichment limits would cease. In other words, Iran would have fifteen years of economic liberation before resuming a threatening march towards nuclear weaponry. Others criticized the limited scope of the JCPOA, which failed to address Iran’s other threatening antics: owning ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel and American assets in the region, and funding militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syrian, and Yemen. 

Trump amplified these criticisms as he ascended to the presidency, claiming that Iran had taken advantage of Europe and the United States in the negotiation process. Announcing the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, Trump remarked at the deal’s “very weak limits'' and promised increased leverage over Iran’s Rouhani regime through a maximum pressure campaign of targeted sanctions and political duress. He suggested that an economically desperate Iran would slink back to the negotiating table and agree to tighter restrictions. 

Biden’s Strategy 

Despite these promises, the United States made no serious attempts at renegotiation under Trump, and the path to a deal is more complicated as a result. In re-entering the nuclear deal, Biden will have to traverse four years of debris, competing influences, and an Iran more skeptical of America. 

Although sorting out domestic crises will consume much of Biden’s opening months, renegotiation is of great importance to the new administration. In an interview, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, situated the nuclear deal in a larger framework of pressing multilateral arms control ambitions, such as the recent renewal of the New START agreement with Russia. But rejoining the JCPOA will be no simple act of recommencement. The Biden administration is poised to drive a hard bargain with Tehran. For example, Sullivan laid out two key preconditions for a deal: Iran must promptly return to compliance with the JCPOA and must agree to further negotiations over regional proxies and ballistic missiles in the near future. 

Before the Trump administration, these demands would have been unrealistic. But his maximum pressure campaign has actually given the United States some of its promised leverage. Iran’s economy is in tatters. US sanctions contributed to a whopping 6 percent decline in its GDP in 2019, a blow compounded by a reduced demand for oil due to COVID-19. Iran should be itching to relieve the suffocating pressure, and, in exchange for renegotiation, Biden has the power to do so. 

Iran’s Aims

However, the United States still faces obstacles to a deal as Trump’s forceful strategy also partially backfired. Angered by American aggression and resentful towards moderate Iranian politicians for letting the deal disintegrate, ultra-conservative Iranian lawmakers now control parliament. Citing American sanctions and aggression under Trump, Iran’s parliament recently passed a new law allowing the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, much higher than the 4 percent limit set by the deal. 

This blatant act of delinquency is by no means a rush to create a bomb, as nuclear weapons require 90 percent purity, but it ratchets up the pressure on the United States to rejoin under the original terms. As Iran’s foreign minister tweeted, the illegal enrichment is “fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.” Although Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani is less keen on the antagonistic law, he is dead set against Biden’s preconditions of future negotiations over militias and missiles, viewing them as an unacceptable encroachment on Iran’s regional power and sovereignty. Instead, Iran offers America a simple quid pro quo: the United States rejoins and lifts the sanctions and Iran will revert back into compliance. 

Rouhani may be bluffing, attempting to cover his political and economic desperation. He is fighting for his political life in an upcoming election against hardline rivals in June, and Iran desperately needs pandemic relief funds. The lifting of American sanctions could provide the boost Rouhani needs. And, to a certain extent, the United States has a stake in Rouhani’s political future as well. If Rouhani fares poorly in the June election, a potential hardliner win would scrap the West’s hopes to tack on negotiations, and in the long term could result in an unsympathetic Iran for years to come. 

The question, then, is which side will budge first. Iran insists that since the United States pulled out first, it should be the first to make a “goodwill gesture”—to Iran, that means rejoining the deal immediately. More realistically, Biden could lift certain sanctions as a peace offering before cajoling Iran to stop enriching uranium past the prescribed level and to come to the table. But Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated in a press conference that the United States is waiting for Iran to move first. If Tehran does cave first, concessions could come in agreeing to lengthen the sunset clauses—prolonging the period of inspections and enrichment restrictions—in exchange for the Biden administration promptly re-entering the deal. Longer sunset clauses would please international skeptics worried about too short a nuclear deal and would come at little cost to a well-intentioned Iran. Yet if both nations remain stubborn, a compromise would be extremely hard to reach.

The Eyes of the World  

Yet, no matter how tempting to the Biden administration, acceding to Iran’s demands and rejoining the deal “immediately” would squander the US diplomatic leverage with Iran and likely upset many key allies in the Middle East. Addressing the US Congress in 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the terms of the deal “very bad,” primarily because it left Iran with the nuclear infrastructure to pursue the path to a bomb. Trump’s withdrawal, sanctions, and hands-off policy delighted Israel, giving it free rein to launch covert operations against Iran’s nuclear arsenal and industry. But, in light of his enthusiasm for swift renegotiations, Biden’s election considerably changes the dynamic.

Israel and a growing number of Middle Eastern states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are extremely anxious about the United States returning to the deal. They believe that any economic liberation of Iran—potentially allowing for massive military build-ups and increased support for militias—would greatly destabilize the Middle East. Aside from slowing Iran’s progress, Israel’s attacks can also impede, if not halt, Biden’s path to a deal. In November, just weeks after the US election, Israel reputedly assassinated Iran’s top nuclear physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, outside of Tehran. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination was a chance for Israel to flex its advanced clandestine operational capabilities in Iran and it put Iran in an awkward bind. Iran is now raring to avenge the deaths of Fakhrizadeh and General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US airstrike last January, but a strong retaliation could sour Biden on working with the regime. 

In comparison to the previous administration, Biden is not likely to find much room to maneuver with Middle Eastern allies on most issues, given his unwillingness to turn a blind eye to issues Trump ignored, like human rights abuses and proxy wars in the region. But if Biden can maintain a tough posture towards Iran and demand follow-on negotiations, he may just be able to thread the needle to salvage some political capital in the region. 

Across the Mediterranean views on the JCPOA are strikingly different. European signatories were horrified when Trump unilaterally withdrew and lumped on sanctions counter to the multilateral spirit of the deal. French President Emmanuel Macron frantically lobbied Trump to rejoin the deal but made little headway. Conversely, European countries are largely pleased with Biden’s first foreign policy steps, such as returning to the Paris climate accord. Given that Biden and Europe are largely on the same page regarding foreign policy, rejoining the JCPOA could be the next US step towards reintegrating with the international community. 

However, a few key differences remain between European leaders and Biden. Although top European officials have voiced their support for expanded negotiations with Iran—a “nuclear agreement plus,” as the German foreign minister put it—they insist that the United States rejoins first. They envision Europe and the United States renegotiating with Iran as a bloc. In any case, Iran agreeing to add-on negotiations could be a major breakthrough in rebalancing state power in the region.

The Bottom Line

While the JCPOA is unlikely to reshape the Middle East by itself, it is poised to become a defining moment in Biden’s early foreign policy. Domestically, support for the deal falls along partisan lines, with Democrats largely in favor of a renewed deal and Republicans opposed. However, because the JCPOA is technically an executive agreement and not a treaty, which needs congressional ratification, rejoining could be as simple for Biden as it was for Trump to leave. But of course, rejoining presents both advantages and risks. If Biden quickly rejoins the deal, Europe and Iran would warm back up to the United States. In exchange, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states would grow more hostile. If Biden waits too long and allows Rouhani to fall out of power, the possibility of a hostile successor threatens to jeopardize both the deal and the transatlantic relationship as a whole. 

Either way, Biden has a difficult choice to make and a rough path ahead. Though there is no hard deadline, Rouhani’s incumbency—and with it, the realistic window of opportunity for the JCPOA— is steadily closing. If Iran and America sincerely want to salvage the deal, the time to exit their stalemate and sit down together for negotiations is now. 

The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license , which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Fotostream des österreichischen Bundesministeriums für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten

Eli Wizevich


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