Something is going very wrong with President Joe Biden’s Iran policy and it’s not clear why. Unless he corrects course, Biden risks losing a vital agreement and putting the two nations back on a path towards war — at precisely the time he wants to focus on the multiple domestic crises gripping America.
In his first month in office, Biden quickly reversed the most damaging of Donald Trump’s policies on climate, immigration, health care, and many others. But he has left untouched Trump’s Iran policy. He has retained all of Trump’s onerous sanctions and has not renewed the diplomatic exchanges between the two nations that were routine during the last years of the Obama-Biden administration.
Biden is, in effect, continuing Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” campaign. Why? This week he took the first tentative steps to resume diplomatic dialogue with Iran, agreeing to meet with the Europeans, China, Russia and Iran and to lift travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats at the United Nations in New York.* ButPolitico reports that inside the administration, “debates have churned among top aides over whether this is the best path or whether to take other, potentially more complicated, routes that may sidestep the original deal.”
Logically and legally, Biden should rejoin the agreement he helped craft, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The current crisis with Iran began when Trump pulled out of the multi-nation accord. Biden harshly criticized Trump’s action then, calling it a “manufactured crisis” that made “the U.S., the region and our world less safe.”
Biden’s team — starting with the president himself, through national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Iran Envoy Rob Malley, Deputy Secretary of State-designate Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of Defense-designate Colin Kahl and more — is highly capable and deeply informed on Iran. They want to get both Iran and the United States back into compliance with the deal that shrank Iran’s nuclear program, froze it for a generation, and put it under the most rigorous inspection system ever negotiate. As Biden said, “The Iran Deal put Iran’s nuclear program in a box.”
Until Trump left in May 2018, Iran was in complete compliance with the agreement. Iran had removed over two-thirds of its operational centrifuges, exported all but a token amount of low-enriched uranium, drilled holes into the core of their plutonium reactor and filled it with concrete, and had put all their facilities under cameras, seals, and inspections.
Iran waited a full year after Trump violated the accord. Then, it took what it says are compensatory steps away from the agreement, but repeatedly insists it will immediately reverse those steps once the United States returns to compliance by lifting the Trump sanctions.
During the presidential campaign, it seemed that Biden’s plan was to quickly rejoin the JCPOA, as he has quickly rejoined other critical arrangements Trump shunned. During the transition, his team likely developed a plan to do so. But in the first month, they have made no progress, exchanging their original theory of “compliance for compliance” with the mantra that Iran must first come back into complete compliance before the United States moves. This is a variation of John Bolton’s “Libya Model.” The other side must do everything before the United States does anything.
The Biden team may believe that this approach provides “leverage” and that it can use the so-called “sanctions wall” — erected by Trump’s hawkish advisers to block Biden’s return to the deal — as pressure to compel Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program or other issues. But, as Rebel Alliance Admiral Gial Ackbar from Star Wars warned, “It’s a trap.”
Leverage works two ways. Iran responded to each Trump move with its own moves and a dangerous cycle developed. On February 7, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Tehran’s “final and irreversible” decision was to return to compliance only after the United States lifted sanctions. On February 23, Iran will likely take another step away from the deal, implementing a law passed by Iran’s parliament that will reduce the access of nuclear inspectors to some of Iran’s facilities.
In this deadly game of nuclear chicken, Biden may believe that he will look weak if he moves first. His advisers are likely angered by Iran’s pressure tactics. They are also under pressure from some donors and conservatives in the Democratic Party, such as hawkish Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, to punish Iran.
Secretary Blinken may worry that moving quickly on Iran could jeopardize the dozen or so nominees requiring Senate confirmation. The administration may want to avoid a divisive issue while its focus is on corralling 50 votes for a vital COVID rescue plan. Some may believe that Biden could get a better deal if he waits for Iranian elections in June which will likely bring a more hardline government to power.
All are valid political considerations. But Biden can’t simply put Iran on hold. Time is not on his side. There are too many things that could go wrong and too many saboteurs in both nations that want to kill the deal. The longer he waits, the more likely it is that an incident in the Middle East wars, such as Israeli attacks on Iranian sites and personnel, or the recent Iraqi militia attack that killed an American contractor in Erbil, will trigger a larger conflict.
The only certain path away from war is through a quick return to the agreement that prevented one.
“Biden is right to insist that Iran return to full compliance,” wrote the editors of the Los Angeles Times last week, “but it would be a mistake for him simply to wait for that to occur before demonstrating to Iran … that he is serious about saving the agreement.” Instead, the Times says, “Biden should authorize Robert Malley … to open a channel of communication with Tehran. The U.S. should also seriously consider a suggestion by [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif that the U.S. and Iran take synchronized steps leading to Iran’s return to full compliance and the reversal of Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA.”
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria agrees that Biden must be bold. “Democrats should keep in mind that when they run scared on foreign policy, they never win,” he wrote for his column in the Washington Post last week. Like many Iran experts, Zakaria is confused. “Many of Biden’s officials helped negotiate the Iran accord and argued strenuously that it was the best deal that the United States could get,” he says, “Have they changed their minds?”
Most experts have not. In a recent Washington Post survey, 75 percent of Middle East experts polled said that returning to the JCPOA would make it less likely that Iran would get a nuclear bomb in the next decade — about as certain a prediction as is possible in global security. Only 2 percent said that returning would make it more likely. Sixty-seven percent said that returning immediately to the deal before addressing other issues would serve U.S. national security interests. Only 23 percent wanted to go for a “grand bargain” instead.
The greatest danger of Donald Trump’s Iran policy was that the two sides would stumble into a war that neither government wanted. Now the greatest danger of Joe Biden’s policy is that the two sides could fumble away a deal that both governments actually want.
*Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect new developments, 2/18/2021.