Brief # 102


Foreign Policy

Where do Things Stand with Iran?

By Will Solomon

February  24, 2021

Policy Summary:

A central premise of the Biden candidacy was reentering the JCPOA (the Iran Nuclear Deal), which was negotiated and signed by the Obama administration in 2015, and subsequently exited by the Trump administration in 2018. This goal was seen as both a rebuke to Trumpism, as a means for international diplomatic re-engagement, and as practical step to avoid increased nuclear proliferation and potential war in the Greater Middle East.

There were always logistical challenges in doing so—among them, that Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement led Iran to stop complying with aspects of the deal. Still, the onus was clearly on the United States, who had breached the agreement, to take the first steps towards re-engagement.

Why, then, has the Biden administration been slow to adopt practical measures demonstrating its intent to re-enter the deal?


The Iranian government continues to be clear that they expect all Trump-era sanctions to be lifted before re-engaging with the JCPOA. But the Biden administration has resisted taking this step. One likely issue for their intransigence seems to be domestic politics; the Biden administration presumably desires not to be seen as weak or caving to Iranian demands. Long-standing bipartisan hostility to Iran make this absurd policy more practicable.

Whatever the case, there is no good excuse. These tired debates over whether engagement emboldens Iranian leadership are of another era. The fact is that the United States reneged on a vital and complex multilateral agreement, and the burden has since been on the United States to (attempt to) make good on its previous failure.

This position is largely shared by American allies and other signatories to the deal. Other signatories have done what they could to keep the deal alive since the 2018 American withdrawal, though America unquestionably retained the most power in the agreement. This said, President Macron of France recently expressed support for strengthening the deal and bringing in other regional states, like Saudi Arabia, a position Iran is likely to refuse

Despite an effective months-long delay, the Biden administration has recently taken steps to indicate they wish to re-engage with Iran. But as noted above, Iran justifiably insists that sanctions imposed by Trump be removed prior to good faith negotiations.

There clearly is potential, in this moment, for renegotiation on this crucial issue. Multilateral diplomacy was successful in the past, and could be once again. But as Joe Cirincione writes in Responsible Statecraft: “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.”

Indeed, the Biden administration must act quickly; there is no good reason for a delay. In doing so, they must implicitly acknowledge US fault in exiting the accord by committing to re-enter the deal in good faith—and this almost certainly will involve removing Trump-era sanctions. It is incumbent upon Biden’s supporters, and those who simply voted for him seeking a change from Trumpism, to push him to make the right decision.


Resources: — “The Arms Control Association, founded in 1971, is a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.” — “The Quincy Institute is an action-oriented think tank that will lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. The current moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing.” — “The Bulletin equips the public, policymakers, and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to our existence.”

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