Salvaging the Nuclear Deal

Obama built a bridge to Iran, Trump blew it up and Biden will try to piece it back together

The race to revive the Iran nuclear deal won’t be a sprint to the finish line, but rather a series of carefully choreographed moves taken in lockstep so that both sides can claim victory.

But the path is littered with obstacles, and the likelihood of victory — whatever form that may take — is up in the air.

And while it may not be a sprint, time is not on President Biden’s side.

For months after Biden was elected, Washington and Tehran engaged in a blinking contest, with Iran insisting that the onus was on the U.S. to lift sanctions before Iran would return to its obligations under the 2015 nuclear accord, arguing that it was the Trump administration, not Tehran, that walked away from the deal in 2018.

Biden took the reverse position: The U.S. would rejoin the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, only when the Iranians returned to compliance. Then the U.S. would seek a follow-on pact on other issues such as ballistic missiles — which Iranians say is a nonstarter and even some Biden supporters admit might be a stretch.

Recently, though, there has been positive movement.

Four rounds of talks in Vienna that began in April have yielded tentative progress, as the U.S. and Iran — negotiating indirectly, with the other JCPOA signatories acting as go-betweens — agreed to working groups that will try to synchronize the steps each side will take to return to the deal.

It will be a delicate balancing act to figure out the exact sequencing and how far Washington and Tehran are willing to go so that each can claim victory back home.

On May 1, Russia’s top representative to the talks said “indisputable progress” had been made, although senior European diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press, were more cautious.

“We have much work and little time left,” they said. “We have yet to come to an understanding on the most critical points. Success is by no means guaranteed, but not impossible.”

Still, speculation has been rife that a deal could be imminent. There’s been a flurry of meetings recently among top U.S. officials, including Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley. And reports emerged that the U.S. and U.K. gave Iran billions of dollars for a swap of American and British prisoners held by Iran. While the U.S. promptly denied those reports, as the AP’s Matt Lee wrote, “Such an exchange could be a confidence-building measure to revive the deal.”

Crunch Time

Time is of the essence because Iran holds presidential elections in June that are likely to favor the hard-liners who’ve been itching to derail the nuclear deal for years. (Also, in late May, an agreement ensuring continued International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of Iran’s nuclear activities expires.)

Meanwhile, on the U.S. side, there’s no shortage of spoilers itching to kill the deal as well.

That includes not only Republicans (and some Democrats), but also the Saudis and, perhaps most notably, the Israelis, whose actions have threatened to sabotage any U.S.-Iran rapprochement. In November, Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who founded the country’s military nuclear program, was killed in an attack that Iran has blamed on Israel. More recently, Iran blamed Israel for an explosion at its Natanz nuclear site.

But there’s a more fundamental obstacle to reviving the JCPOA: Biden himself.

While he’s pledged to rejoin the agreement, Biden has far bigger things to worry about at home as he tries to guide Americans out of the pandemic, tackle a nationwide reckoning on race and enact a sweeping FDR-like agenda that would dramatically expand the size and scope of the government.

On the latter, one of the main arguments Biden gives to justify his large spending proposals is that the U.S. must invest to compete with China, which, along with Russia, are seen as his top foreign policy priorities.

Iran is not at the top of the list (although, as almost every U.S. president has learned, Iran — and the Middle East in general — has a way of rearing its head).

It’s not clear how much capital Biden will invest to resurrect a deal that Republicans will seize on to paint the president as weak — and that many members of his own party were never crazy about to begin with.

Scaled-Down Ambitions

Given the various constraints, it’s likely Biden’s goals will be modest. That could mean a basic “compliance-for-compliance” return to the JCPOA (for example, lifting some key sanctions in exchange for Iran walking back its uranium enrichment and reducing its stockpiles). It could even mean an interim agreement ahead of the June elections.

Michael Hirsh, writing April 15 in Foreign Policy, believes Biden will opt for reciprocal steps that are just enough to resurrect the nuclear accord, but (hopefully) not enough to face too much blowback at home.

“According to sources close to European and U.S. negotiators, Malley is expected to offer Tehran a Goldilocks-style deal: just enough sanctions relief so Iran will return to the pact but not so much that it would leave Biden vulnerable to attacks from hard-liners at home, including those in his own party who oppose any concessions at all to Iran,” he wrote.

Yet he points out that it will be no easy feat to untangle the hundreds of sanctions that former President Trump slapped on Iran for non-nuclear-related issues, including those targeting Iran’s Central Bank and other entities that oversee the country’s all-important oil industry.

“The Trump team knew that even if the JCPOA were resurrected, such new sanctions would invalidate the deal’s effects because these companies would be banned from international commerce,” Hirsh wrote.

Former President Trump's special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, talks to reporters at the State Department on Dec. 5, 2019. After exiting the Iran nuclear accord in 2018, Trump piled roughly 1,500 sanctions on Iran, both for nuclear and non-nuclear-related activities. (State Department photo by Freddie Everett)

Biden will have to find a way to lift some of the oil and banking sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy while preserving those linked to other activities, such as Iran’s support for militant groups and its ballistic missile program. That could mean easing terror sanctions against Iran’s central bank, for example, while keeping the “foreign terrorist organization” designation on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Given the enormity of just returning to the basics of the JCPOA, Biden may quietly abandon his pledge of forging a broader agreement that could reshape U.S.-Iran relations, as his former boss had hoped for.

“The rosiness from the rose-colored glasses that we saw during the Obama administration has begun to fade,” said Suzanne Maloney, director of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, during an April 20 Council on Foreign Relations virtual discussion.

“There is a recognition at this point that even if we are able to establish some set of new parameters or restored parameters with the Iranians around the nuclear issue, that isn’t going to be a sort of spillover effect on any of the other issues,” she said.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Georgetown University, who also spoke at the CFR event, agrees.

“There was a hope that the JCPOA could be transformative, that it could transform Iran’s internal politics, and it could transform the U.S.-Iran relationship into something more cooperative rather than confrontational.”

But he argues that none of that was ever going to happen because the JCPOA “is not going to change Iran’s regional positions, whether it’s support for groups like Hezbollah, the Shia militias in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, Houthis in Yemen and, most importantly, Iran’s fundamental opposition to Israel’s existence. None of those things are going to change as a result of a revival of the nuclear deal.”

A Landmark Achievement

While it may have been wishful thinking to hope that Iran would abandon policies that are intrinsic to its identity and security, we’ll never truly know what Iran would or wouldn’t have done because the nuclear agreement was never given a chance to realize its full potential. And the potential was there.

It’s important to remember just how historic the JCPOA was — and how herculean the diplomatic effort was to overcome the powerful forces aligned against it.

Indeed, it stands as one of the most consequential, albeit controversial, foreign policy achievements of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In the near term, it delayed the so-called breakout time for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon from roughly three months to over a year.

In the long term, it put strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program over a period of 15 years in exchange for sanctions relief.

It also established a comprehensive regime of international inspections to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.

Beyond addressing the immediate nuclear threat, the agreement was meant to serve as pathway to reshape the relationship between the U.S. and Iran and bring the latter back into the international fold.

That’s why Trump’s claims that he was walking away from the nuclear agreement to negotiate a tougher, broader deal were so disingenuous.

The nuclear agreement was never meant to address every single disagreement America had with Iran. It was meant to curtail Tehran’s ability to build a bomb — and it did just that.

International inspections repeatedly confirmed that Iran was abiding by the terms of the deal.

Conservative howls of outrage that the U.S. was “giving” Iran billions of dollars also ring hollow. That was Iran’s money that had been frozen in bank accounts and was returned because Tehran had upheld its end of the nuclear bargain.

Is is highly likely that at least some of that money was used to finance the kind of malign activities that have made Iran a pariah on the world stage.

But again, here we return to the original vision for the nuclear deal: It was always meant to serve as a jumping-off point.

If Trump really wanted to address Iran’s support for Hezbollah or its ballistic missile program, why exit the vehicle whose purpose was to pave the way to tackle those thorny issues?

Trump’s fanciful vow to negotiate an even “better deal” was seen by many as a thinly veiled excuse to nix the JCPOA, if for no other reason than to spite his predecessor.

In addition to Trump’s fixation on dismantling anything and everything related to Obama, his withdrawal made geopolitical sense. Trump, after all, had a close affinity for two of the loudest opponents of the deal, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Couple that with Trump’s disdain for America’s traditional European allies that supported the deal; his aversion to the complexities of multilateralism and diplomacy; and the hawkish advisors he surrounded himself with — and it’s a wonder he didn’t bow out of the JCPOA sooner.

Critics also say that the true aim of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign was not to coax Iran back to the bargaining table, but rather to suffocate Iran’s economy in the hopes that its people would rise up and topple the regime.

Maximum Pressure, Minimal Results

Of course, none of that happened. Whatever their intent, Trump’s sanctions failed on multiple fronts.

They hurt average Iranians but did nothing to dislodge the regime. To the contrary. The maximum pressure campaign sidelined the moderates who championed the deal and empowered the hard-liners who now stand to gain at the polls in June.

This isn’t too surprising: Sanctions don’t exactly have a stellar track record (look no further than Cuba for proof).

Iranians are undoubtedly aware that their leaders use U.S. sanctions as a scapegoat for their own government’s incompetence and corruption.

But they also know that those sanctions have played a major role in their suffering as well. And nothing galvanizes people to rally around their leaders — no matter how disliked — than outside attempts at regime change through punishing isolation tactics.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on June 30, 2015, in Vienna during negotiations over the Iran nuclear accord, also known as the JCPOA. The decision by former President Trump to walk away from the accord and impose hundreds of sanctions on Iran may help hard-liners during presidential elections this June — while hurting moderates like Zarif who had championed the JCPOA. (Photo: State Department)

That’s not to say sanctions never work. They coaxed Iran to the negotiating table the first time around because Obama assembled a coalition that included not only the Europeans, but also the Chinese and Russians — two key financial lifelines for Iran.

But Trump destroyed that united front when he unilaterally abandoned the deal, alienating the other P5+1 members who then refused to go along with Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.

Meanwhile, for every new sanction Trump imposed, Tehran dug in further, steadily violating its commitments under the JCPOA by, among things, increasing its stockpiles of enriched uranium and reinstalling equipment it had mothballed.

This gets to the other failure of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign: We’re now back where we started before the nuclear deal was signed.

By some estimates, the breakout period for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon today is — yet again — down to several months.

The Iranian Tightrope

Up until recently, most of the steps that Iran took to restore its nuclear program were carefully calibrated and largely reversible.

They were designed to pressure the Europeans to stick to their promises of sanctions relief while leaving the door open for the U.S. to eventually rejoin the nuclear deal.

Iran was essentially biding its time for Biden.

That’s not to say Iran is going easy on the new president. Just the opposite. It’s ramped up its nuclear violations in the hopes of pressuring Biden to quickly rejoin the JCPOA.

In early January, Iran began enriching uranium to 20%, a key technical threshold to weapons-grade levels.

It also threatened to kick out international inspectors (although it never fully followed through on that threat).

In April, after the suspected Israeli attack on its Natanz nuclear facility, Iran announced it would begin enriching uranium to 60% purity.

And in February, Biden ordered airstrikes against Iran-backed militia groups in Syria in response to what U.S. officials say was a series of attacks orchestrated by Tehran on outposts in Iraq that targeted Americans.

Experts say those attacks were in retaliation for the Trump-ordered January 2020 killing of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Iran is walking a fine line between provocation and negotiation. It needs to show some kind of pushback to avoid appearing weak but can’t go too far and risk torpedoing the prospect of sanctions relief.

The mullahs in Tehran may be cruel and extreme, but they’re neither stupid nor suicidal. Their battered economy needs help — and they’re well aware that nothing incites public discontent more than bread-and-butter issues.

Hard-liners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps surely know this, too. The IRGC may gain power in June thanks in part to voter anger that the promised economic benefits of the JCPOA never materialized, but they’ll still be expected to turn the economy around — and that won’t happen without the lifting of some U.S. sanctions.

And while a hard-liner victory will certainly complicate nuclear negotiations, it may not necessarily derail them.

The New York Times revelation of a leaked audiotape in which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif admits that the IRGC controls many government decisions confirmed what most people already knew: The military is in charge.

Perhaps the extent to which Zarif said the military tried undermine him and sabotage the nuclear deal was surprising, but it’s well-known that Iran’s diplomats (and even elected officials) don’t dictate policy.

And yet, despite the military’s fierce opposition to the nuclear deal, it survived — even though Trump repeatedly tried to kill it — confirming yet another truism in Iran: the ultimate decision-making power rests with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Having been burned by Trump, it remains to be seen if Khamenei decides to trust Biden. His intentions, as always, are murky. On the one hand, he’s warned that the current talks should not drag on, but he’s also expressed confidence in his negotiators.

At the same time, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in secret talks to de-escalate regional tensions. While Khamenei is not about have a sit-down with a country he considers his mortal enemy, no such negotiations would’ve taken place without his approval. And, as Middle East Institute scholar Alex Vatanka points out, the meetings could be a way for Tehran to ensure that Riyadh does not act as a spoiler in the JCPOA negotiations.

The Shift Away from the Saudis

The fact that Saudi Arabia even agreed to speak to Iran is a sign of the Saudis’ diminished standing under their de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salmon.

U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grew increasingly fed up with the brash young ruler after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a corruption purge that was widely seen as a power grab and the disastrous Saudi-led war against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen that has pushed the country to the brink of starvation.

This bipartisan frustration with Saudi Arabia could give Biden just the opening he needs on the Iran front.

Biden has already imposed a temporary freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia — which Trump pushed despite lawmaker objections — and is reviewing weapons purchases made by the UAE.

Even Trump, widely seen as coddling the Saudis, didn’t rush to their rescue after a devastating 2019 attack on Saudi oil plants allegedly directed by Iran.

It’s been a sobering lesson for Riyadh: Americans, no longer wholly dependent on the region for oil and tired of Middle East military adventures, won’t reflexively come to the Saudis’ defense.

That’s become especially true in recent years as the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran engulfed the region.

And while Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Sunni Islam, often frames that war as a battle against Shiite extremists in Iran — a touch ironic given the Saudis’ own embrace of Islamic extremism — the rivalry is more about naked ambition than ancient religious grievances.

“The long-standing Saudi Arabian-Iranian rivalry is a sectarian battle, to be sure, but it is first and foremost a conventional geopolitical competition — one that has more recently intensified into a battle for survival,” write scholars Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid in the report “Islam as Statecraft: How Governments Use Religion in Foreign Policy.”

Saudi Arabia of course is far more powerful economically and militarily, but Iran still poses a threat to Saudi hegemony in the region thanks to its sizable oil and gas reserves, a young, highly educated population and its ability to wage asymmetric warfare.

As such, scholars like Trita Parsi, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, argue that America’s allies in the region have a vested interest in perpetuating hostilities between the U.S. and Iran.

“So long as the United States and Iran view each other as adversaries, Washington will sustain its military commitment to the Middle East,” Parsi wrote in a Feb. 23 article for Foreign Affairs. “That commitment provides a security umbrella on which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel have come to depend. Moreover, so long as the United States works to contain Iran’s political influence and undermine its economy, the balance of the region will artificially tilt in favor of these states — a tilt that their own power cannot sustain.”

Thus, many foreign policy realists argue that America should not sacrifice its own national security interests — i.e., keeping Iran from getting the bomb — to prop up the economic interests of Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

As Parsi writes, the Gulf states are now demanding that Biden include them in the current negotiations over the JCPOA, even though they never entertained the thought of helping Obama during the original talks. “If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom,” Parsi argues.

Resistance from Iran Hawks

So far, Biden is trying to thread the needle by agreeing to get input from the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis in the current talks. His administration has also praised the Abraham Accords, orchestrated under the Trump administration, that normalized relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.

But unlike Trump, Biden won’t be as deferential to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s battling for his political survival back home.

Although weakened, Bibi should never be underestimated, and he won’t hesitate to act if he thinks Israel’s security is being threatened. So far, Israel has engaged in a covert shadow war against Iran, but there’s always the possibility that Israel could launch an all-out pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Any such strike would seriously jeopardize relations with the Biden administration, especially if nuclear talks are ongoing, so the odds of Israel acting unilaterally at this point are low.

What’s more likely is that Biden, like Obama, will face the same formidable coalition of forces who will paint Biden as weak for offering any concessions to Iran.

Critics will also fault Biden for not capitalizing on the economic leverage that Trump amassed to strengthen the JCPOA by, among other things, eliminating sunset clauses and addressing Iran’s malign activities in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

But Joseph Cirincione, also of the Quincy Institute, says this argument is a poison pill.

“Opponents of talks with Iran know that ‘Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran’ is not a convincing slogan. So they have come up with a more appealing one: A Better Deal. They want to persuade Americans to abandon a deal that is working, like Aesop’s greedy dog with a bone in his mouth, who, seeing his reflection in the water, drops what he has to grab what he thinks is a bigger bone,” he wrote in an April 7 op-ed for NBC News.

Cirincione, who previously served as president of Ploughshares Fund, which focuses on nuclear nonproliferation issues, wrote about a dinner he had in 2013 with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani just before the initial JCPOA talks.

“The history between Iran and the U.S. is long and complicated,” Cirincione recalls Rouhani saying. “The table will not bear the weight of all these issues at once. That is why we have decided to tackle the nuclear issue first.”

Hardwired Hostility

“Long and complicated” is an understatement when it comes to the decades of enmity between the U.S. and Iran, where supporters of the JCPOA will also face formidable resistance to re-engaging with the U.S.

While it’s often a footnote in American history books, the CIA-supported 1953 coup that ousted Iran’s democratically elected leader is intrinsic to the Islamic Republic’s identity. Trump’s decision to renege on the JCPOA only served to reinforce the mistrust of the U.S. that has become hardwired among many Iranians.

“It’s one of the central pillars of revolutionary ideology for [Ayatollah Khomeini],” said Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment. “So don’t think a revival of the JCPOA is going to improve U.S.-Iran relations.”

Sadjadpour, speaking at the CFR event, said a more likely scenario is that long-term relations with Iran could resemble America’s approach to the Soviet Union. “The same ways we had this kind of combination of cooperation, containment, confrontation with the Soviet Union, we’re going to need to be similarly flexible on Iran policy,” he said.

Biden’s airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in February, for example, were a proportionate response that didn’t ratchet up tensions, Sadjadpour said. “So they’re going to be times when confrontation is necessary. But, in a lot of ways, I think the bulk of the policy will be a form of containment.”

That, in essence, gets to the impetus behind the JCPOA: contain Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon.

Turning the Tables

Yet there’s another analogy to be made about the Cold War. While the fall of the Soviet Union was precipitated by myriad factors, U.S. engagement — not isolation — helped speed up communism’s demise.

American sanctions and threats of regime change have been a convenient foil for Iran’s theocracy to deflect from their own shortcomings.

Biden can call the mullahs’ bluff by offering Tehran tangible economic relief, upending the regime’s narrative that the U.S. is solely responsible for the country’s woes.

Much of the world blamed Trump for abrogating the JCPOA. If Iran does not negotiate in good faith this time around, the blame shifts to Tehran, which, if it continues its march toward a nuclear weapon, could then face a military response by the U.S.

Thus, both sides have a strong incentive to keep the JCPOA alive. Iran needs money and the U.S. doesn’t need a Middle East crisis on its hands.

Fortunately, Biden, unlike Trump, understands that foreign policy is nuanced and requires give and take. A return to the status quo may not sound sexy, but if it means keeping Iran from the bomb, it would still be transformative.