There’s No Hurry for Biden to Re-Enter the Iran Nuclear Deal

What sounded so simple during last year’s presidential campaign has turned out, like everything related to Iran, to be quite complicated.

President Joe Biden’s administration would like to return to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it was negotiated and signed in 2015. The White House would be satisfied with a highly orchestrated process in which the U.S. and Iran would come back into compliance at the same time, allowing neither to claim a victory over the other. Tehran, perhaps overplaying its hand as it so often does, seems to think there is a better outcome for it in the offing.

However frustrating, this current impasse may not be all bad. At a minimum, it gives the Biden team time to consider a different approach that could yield better results over the long term.

Members of Congress have sent a flurry of letters to the White House, endorsing various approaches to Iran, which differed mostly in relation to sequencing.  After a series of consultations with allies, partners, experts and lawmakers, the Biden administration decided it would pursue first a return to the deal, and then seek to negotiate modifications to the agreement, such as extending current sunset provisions and curbing other problematic Iranian behavior not covered by the agreement. The Biden team has apparently concluded that only by returning to deal can it re-establish America as a credible negotiating partner, and hope to begin subsequent negotiations with Iran based on a modicum of trust.

Getting back into the pact would require lifting the preponderance of U.S. sanctions, many of which were “snapped back” by President Donald Trump when he withdrew from the deal in 2018. Yet the Biden administration believes it would still maintain some leverage that it could translate into concessions from the Iranians for a subsequent “longer and stronger” agreement, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Specifically, the current agreement is likely to produce an impasse in October 2023, on “transition day,” when Iran’s parliament is supposed to ratify an additional protocol to allow more rigorous inspection of its nuclear facilities, the European Union is to lift all remaining sanctions, and the U.S. Congress is to do the same by legislative action (rather than suspending them through executive order). The hope is that the U.S. could gain leverage over Iran in negotiations following the restoration of the pact by signaling its intention to snap back sanctions (presumably along with the Europeans and others, rather than unilaterally as under Trump) if there has been no progress on a revised agreement by this October, 2023 date.

Proponents of this “return to the JCPOA first” camp also suggest the U.S. would maintain significant leverage after it lifts the nuclear sanctions re-imposed by the Trump team because other sanctions — specifically ones that effectively bar Iran from accessing the U.S. financial system — will still be in place.

While these arguments are attractive in certain respects, they are weak bases upon which to build the U.S. strategy. First, it seems unwise to adopt an approach whose main rationale is to restore some element of trust with the Iranians. It is true there are strong personal relations between veterans of the Barack Obama administration now working for Biden — including former Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the U.S. side in the nuclear negotiations — and the Iranians. But those relationships cannot obscure the reality that establishing a foundation of trust between Washington and Tehran is close to an impossible dream right now.

In addition, America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia are asking whether they can view the U.S. as a credible partner after the last four years. They know that, at worst, Trump himself could return to office; at best, Trumpism will remain strong among significant swathes of the electorate. Assuaging those concerns is a daunting, but worthwhile, task. Expecting to do the same with Iran — as recent revelations about Iranian meddling in the U.S. election underscore — seems fanciful, and hardly a reasonable basis on which to forgo most U.S. leverage up front.

Yes, the threat of another snapping back of sanctions in 2023 should supply some leverage to U.S. negotiators if explicitly articulated, or even put into legislation. But that approach has some significant downsides that work against success in the short term. For instance, one of the problems with the deal back in 2016 was that, despite the waiving of sanctions, businesses from around the world were extremely wary about engaging with Iran, given fears of a re-imposition by the U.S. or of a legal dispute arising from some gray area. Now that snapback has happened once, the possibility of it occurring again in 2023 would seem real to companies that might want to do business with Tehran.

This looming threat will virtually ensure a limit on how much economic benefit Iran can derive from rejoining the nuclear pact, undermining its incentive to make further concessions in subsequent negotiations in the hope that any new sanctions relief would be more meaningful than the last. It will also create political problems for the Iranians, who will struggle to justify the steps they took to come back to the deal at the same time they are pressed to make arguably more difficult decisions around their ballistic-missile program and activities in the region, such as supporting attacks against Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels in Yemen and against Americans in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias.

What, then, is a better approach? One starting point would be to relax the assumption that an improved strategy toward Iran must begin with the nuclear deal. The Iranians are trying to create a sense of extreme urgency around rejoining the agreement, and the Europeans are certainly interested in seeing a swift U.S. return to it. (France, Germany and the U.K. are signatories to the 2015 deal.) But the extreme focus on the nuclear pact is distracting from the most critical policy question: How can the U.S. construct an Iran strategy that changes, if possible, and deters, if necessary, the worst elements of Iran’s behavior across the board — in the nuclear realm, in the region, and toward its own population?

Getting into a constructive diplomatic exchange, as the Biden administration has sought, is an important early step. One hopes that dialogue would lead to some constraints on Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for some economic relief, as has been done before. But a full return to the nuclear deal may not need to be the focal point of these discussions, nor should they by design exclude conversations about the destructive actions of Iran across the Middle East.

In addition, the administration should not be under the illusion — as is implied by talk of a “longer and stronger” deal — that it and its partners can only address these nefarious non-nuclear elements of Iranian behavior with a Washington-Tehran agreement. The U.S. and its partners have other military, diplomatic and intelligence tools for dealing with Iran’s behavior should they prove impervious to negotiations, as ballistic missiles and regional activities may be.

In the end, the Biden administration may be setting the bar too high in defining success as both a quick return to the nuclear deal and the achievement later of a longer and stronger agreement. American interests would be well be served by a multifaceted approach that includes some limited agreements with Iran (which may or may not involve the 2015 pact), aiding partners in Iran’s neighborhood to strengthen their civilian and military institutions, and other measures that allow the U.S. to manage the problem of Iran, not solve it. Hardly as satisfying as a comprehensive agreement that allows the U.S. and Iran to end decades of enmity, but a thousand times more likely.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the North American chair of the Trilateral Commission, and a member of the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations and the board of Raytheon Technologies Corp. She served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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