Shadow Government

After Trump, the United States Should Return to Obama’s Iran Deal

A new administration could re-enter the accord within 60 days.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on April 22, 2016.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on April 22, 2016. Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

The narrowing of the field for the 2020 U.S. Democratic Party presidential nomination has thrown the contenders’ policy differences into sharp relief. Nearly every candidate set to take the debate stage Thursday, however, agrees on at least one thing: The United States should reenter the Iran nuclear deal. But none of them have fully explained how they intend do so.

The accord, from which U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, contained a complicated mix of U.S. and Iranian commitments—which means the precise way in which the United States might choose to rejoin matters just as much as the will to do so. Getting these nuts and bolts right would solidify the deal, lay the groundwork for progress to follow, and free up a new administration to pursue new foreign-policy priorities.

Some skeptics of a return to the deal say that Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign and Iran’s regional activities have created conditions under which a successor agreement is likelier than, and preferable to, a return to the Obama administration’s accord—as Dana Stroul and Dennis Ross have argued in Foreign Policy. But going back to the 2015 nuclear agreement remains possible, and it is the best option. Should Trump lose in 2020, a new administration, with determination and the right approach, could within its first 60 days reenter the deal.

Upon taking office on January 20, 2021, the new president should immediately issue an executive order stating that, subject to Iran’s renewed compliance, the United States will remove all sanctions imposed on Tehran since May 8, 2018—the date the United States withdrew from the deal.

The executive order should provide a deadline, ideally no more than one or two months away, by which Washington must lift sanctions. This deadline should allow Iran enough time to walk back the violations it has committed since July 2019, reducing its nuclear stockpiles, enrichment levels, and research and development activity. It should also allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify its compliance. Once verified, the new U.S. administration should hold up its end of the bargain.

This approach has two key features: using May 8, 2018 as a cutoff and speedy implementation.

The cutoff is a key response to international and domestic obstacles to rejoining the deal. When former U.S. President Barack Obama first implemented the agreement, Washington lifted sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear behavior while keeping in place those related to its destabilizing regional activity, human-rights abuses, and missile programs. After Trump left the deal, he reimposed the lifted nuclear sanctions—and on top of that added wholly new measures. Though a new administration could try to parse these, picking out nuclear-related sanctions and leaving the others in place, in practice this approach would open contentious, time-consuming negotiations with Iran—derailing the quick time frame that would be necessary to reenter the deal.

The tight timeline also solves a domestic problem. The Trump administration has deliberately structured its new sanctions to last—an approach urged by Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who called for Trump to “build a wall of additional sanctions that a pro-Tehran successor could not easily dismantle.” This “wall” has purposefully blurred the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions and piled on redundant measures meant to be hard to undo.

The May 8 cutoff would skirt this wall. Sanctions policy is arcane, and even minor technical changes attract outsized attention. For example, a 2018 Republican Senate investigation managed to make an obscure question about currency conversion seem like proof that the Obama administration had given Iran an American “crown jewel”. Similarly, Trump continues to claim that the 2015 deal showered $150 billion in benefits on Iran, no matter how often his claim is debunked.

In today’s climate, there is little reason for a gradual or methodical dissection of the Trump administration’s policy. Instead, the new administration could concentrate the political blowback into a one-time sanctions rollback, then pivot to other priorities.

Speed will be a key factor. The new administration should not slow down to pursue confidence-building measures, as Ilan Goldenberg and Eric Brewer have argued it should in Foreign Policy. Each passing day will make it harder to reenter the deal, as political capital dwindles and opposition hardens. The 2021 Iranian presidential elections could further complicate matters. U.S. wavering in January will suggest that the new administration does not actually want to rejoin, boosting Iranian politicians skeptical of diplomacy. And with time, the benefits of the deal will fade. For example, constraints on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which are scheduled to end in 2023, become less desirable as their expiration nears.

The Trump administration has shown how quickly an administration can overturn its predecessor’s legacy. In the case of the Iran deal, this was especially easy because it had been active for less than a year by November 2016, when the international community correctly guessed that Washington would withdraw. By then, Iran had hardly reintegrated into the global economic system or rekindled its economic relations with Europe. Immediate reentry would provide a minimum of almost four years to entrench the agreement, making it costlier for a future U.S. administration to exit the deal again.

Returning to the deal does not mean giving Tehran a blank check. Were Iran to violate its renewed commitments, the United States and its partners could use the deal’s snapback provision to reimpose multilateral nuclear sanctions. In a crisis, Washington could even reimpose some of the post-May 8 non-nuclear sanctions that it had lifted in one fell swoop.

A quick reentry would also give the president time to negotiate a follow-on agreement. Upon the deal’s restoration, Washington could count on European support for expanding its scope. The United States could try to extend the deal’s so-called sunset clauses (expiration timelines), expand nuclear inspections, or open negotiations over Tehran’s regional conduct, missile activities, or human rights abuses.

The United States would still have bargaining power to reach such an expansion. Lifting sanctions alone would not return Iran to its May 7, 2018 status. Iran would still have to implement reforms countering money laundering and terrorist financing to attract investment. It would also need help from the international community to restore its economic prospects.

If Tehran wants to reestablish connections with the outside world, it needs Washington’s help. The new administration should link negotiations for a broader deal to assisting Iran with its reintegration into the global financial system. Just as the Obama administration allowed the sale of U.S. planes to Iran under the 2015 deal, the new president could facilitate other barred transactions or propose technical tweaks to remaining U.S. sanctions in exchange for broader commitments from Tehran.

Abandoning the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign and the supposed leverage over Tehran that it has created does not mean sacrificing tools to pursue a follow-on deal. In fact, rolling back Trump’s policies would benefit the new administration. Conversely, keeping the sanctions in place in the hope of achieving a better deal could derail its plans.

Enforcing sanctions takes resources. The U.S. Treasury Department must monitor transactions around the world, offer guidance to businesses, and punish evaders. The State Department must explain U.S. policy goals to other countries whose companies must, at high cost, comply with U.S. rules.

Attempting to retain leverage means readjusting priorities all around. For instance, Trump’s hard-line approach has alienated India, Iran’s close trading partner, hobbling U.S. ambitions in the region. Keeping Trump’s Iran sanctions in place would mean wasting the new administration’s political capital asking countries to limit their Iranian oil purchases rather than pushing them to cut carbon emissions, free detained minorities, or crack down on kleptocracy.

Sure, the United States could let up on enforcing sanctions without lifting them. That would be the worst of both worlds. Compliance with U.S. sanctions would suffer around the world, while at the same time Washington would not be able to restore the deal.

A new administration will not be able to solve all of its differences with Tehran overnight. Complications will spring up. Some U.S. allies and partners may resist a quick policy shift. Congress will protest. Iranian elections may interfere with schedules and compliance. Lifting certain measures may prove legally complex. At the very least, though, quick presidential action on the big issues will allow lower-level policymakers to begin work on whatever questions remain.

Major foreign-policy actions usually require a long windup. The Trump administration carried out an extensive Iran policy review before exiting the deal. In 2021, this shouldn’t be an option.

By not reentering the Iran nuclear deal quickly, a new administration would subordinate its foreign-policy goals to Trump’s. Decisive action would free it to pursue its own priorities.

Edoardo Saravalle is a former researcher at the Center for a New American Security and a former fellow at the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Twitter: @esaravalle