Elephants in the Room
Biden Shouldn’t Rush to Restore the Iran Nuclear Deal
Moving quickly to resurrect the JCPOA, as Biden seems set to do, would start his presidency with a hugely divisive controversy.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
It’s now clear that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is determined to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as soon as possible after his Jan. 20 inauguration. Both Biden and his designated national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, have given recent interviews in which they underscore their intent to make Tehran a straightforward offer: If Iran comes back into compliance with the deal, the United States will do likewise. Iran would bring its nuclear activities back within the JCPOA’s limits, while the United States would ease sanctions imposed since outgoing President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018.
Rushing to restore the Iran deal virtually guarantees that Biden will start his presidency with a hugely divisive controversy. Such a step flies in the face of advice from JCPOA skeptics, who have urged Biden not to rush back into the deal. Rather than squander the leverage built up by Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign for no higher purpose than restoring a flawed arms-control agreement, Biden should exploit that leverage (and Iran’s desperate economic straits) to negotiate a better deal. Such a revised deal would delay or even remove the JCPOA’s sunset clauses—which provide for restrictions on nuclear activities to eventually be lifted. Or better yet, ban entirely Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts. Or better still, include constraints on Iran’s most threatening non-nuclear activities, especially its missile programs and regional aggression.
Biden and his team have yet to be convinced. While agreeing on the importance of a JCPOA 2.0—a follow-on agreement in which the constraints on Iran’s malign behaviors are both longer and stronger— they don’t see pursing it as a viable short-term strategy. On the contrary, they clearly fear that a failure to restore the original JCPOA is the surest route not to a better deal, but to a dangerous expansion of the Iranian nuclear program, an escalation of regional tensions, and perhaps even war.
Needless to say, an all-consuming crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has no place in Biden’s agenda, which he has promised will be intently focused on tackling the daunting array of challenges now confronting the American people—from the devastation wrought by COVID-19 to racial inequality, climate change, and competition with China.
That explains the allure of a rapid return to the JCPOA that promises some measure of de-escalation by reversing Iran’s recent nuclear expansion and, in Sullivan’s words, “put its program back in a box” and “time back on the clock.” Biden, similarly, told the New York Times that his overwhelming priority with Iran—and “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region”—was to bring its nuclear program back under control. Once that was done, Biden said, “in consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.”
Concerns about the current trajectory of Iran’s nuclear progress are well founded. “We’re in a dangerous situation,” Sullivan told the Wall Street Journal. “Since the United States left [the JCPOA], Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapon.” That includes expanding its uranium stockpile, enriching to higher levels of purity, and testing more powerful centrifuges. And just two weeks ago, Iran’s parliament dramatically raised the stakes, passing a law that would require the government—within Biden’s first weeks in office should sanctions relief not be forthcoming—to embark upon its most far-reaching violations of the JCPOA yet, including deploying thousands of advanced centrifuges, building a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and placing major constraints on inspectors. All in all, it’s an exquisite act of nuclear blackmail designed to send an unmistakable message to Biden: Either lift sanctions or face a nuclear crisis that could derail your presidency almost before it starts.
Whatever benefits Biden might see in buckling to Iran’s extortion, the risks and potential costs should also be apparent. The U.S. domestic backlash is certain to be fierce—from the majority of Republicans, for sure, and perhaps even a few prominent Democrats. It’s worth recalling that the top two Democrats on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin, not to mention Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, all opposed the JCPOA in 2015. That fight was one of the most bitter of President Barack Obama’s tenure and there’s no reason to believe that a second round would be any easier. Biden has suggested that his presidency’s north star will be rebuilding bipartisan consensus to address the country’s most urgent problems. Opting for a bruising battle over granting an economic lifeline to Iran’s terror-sponsoring regime has all the markings of a poison pill that could derail that agenda.
Biden’s difficulties will be further exacerbated by the international reaction. Whatever chits he earns with pro-JCPOA Europeans will be offset by the opposition triggered among Washington’s most consequential allies in the Middle East. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood alone railing against the deal five years ago, he’s likely to have significant company this time around, particularly from U.S. partners in the Gulf. Things could get ugly quickly, with charges of betrayal flying fast and furious. Biden’s bid to restore U.S. credibility internationally could take a substantial beating.
Then there are the substantive risks associated with rejoining the JCPOA. Far and away the most important is the preemptive surrender of pressure on Iran before any of the original agreement’s flaws are addressed. Once Iran is free to sell its oil and gain access to billions of dollars, what leverage will Biden have to force Tehran into the follow-on diplomacy that he claims is essential? Liberated from the threat of economic collapse, what incentive would Iran have to make further painful concessions on issues such as its missile programs, which it views as central to its security?
Biden and his advisors suggest that if Iran resists negotiations, they’d be prepared to reimpose sanctions using the JCPOA’s so-called snapback mechanism. But under the deal’s terms, snapback is limited to instances where Iran is in significant non-performance of its nuclear commitments. It says nothing about any subsequent Iranian obligation to negotiate an extension of the JCPOA’s sunsets, much less agree to limits on its non-nuclear activities. Assuming that Iran returns to and stays in JCPOA compliance, what exactly would Biden’s grounds be for triggering snapback? He and other critics lambasted Trump for leaving the JCPOA at a time when Iran was, according to inspectors, abiding by its terms. How credible is it that Biden would now choose to blow up the agreement for reasons totally outside its terms?
Biden would be smart to task the intelligence community with providing, by Jan. 20, a National Intelligence Estimate that rigorously tests the key assumption underlying any decision to rejoin the JCPOA: that otherwise Iran will dramatically escalate its nuclear program and war will become more likely. Or could Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special envoy for Iran, be right instead when he argues that maximum pressure has made the Iranian regime so vulnerable that it will soon have no choice but to sue for economic relief on U.S. terms?
Others, such as the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, have suggested that the Biden team’s worries about Iranian nuclear blackmail are overblown. It could be that the Iranians are only bluffing and that their escalation options are in fact heavily constrained—not only by their desperation to see sanctions lifted, but more importantly by their understanding that if they push too far, they will face the implacable determination of an Israel that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s progress toward a bomb.
A National Intelligence Estimate could shed important light on these competing claims and scenarios and help inform what is likely to be one of the most fateful choices of Biden’s presidency. Should the assessment end up supporting his instinct to rejoin the JCPOA, it could also serve as important ammunition in his efforts to manage domestic opposition and fretful friends in the Middle East. Biden’s hand would be stronger still if the U.S. assessment incorporated the views of Washington’s most capable intelligence allies, especially Israel and Britain.
In addition to an intelligence assessment that buttresses his position, Biden would be wise to couple any return to the JCPOA with something approaching a guarantee that would commit to triggering the snapback of sanctions automatically if, within a proscribed time period such as one year, Iran is not engaged in serious follow-on negotiations on the full range of U.S. concerns. It would be better still if Biden’s new snapback guarantee has the upfront backing of Washington’s key European partners. It would also be smart to include a bipartisan delegation from Congress in any follow-on diplomacy that could monitor progress and act as a check on any administration tendency to prevaricate or avoid hard decisions.
None of these measures will prevent the firestorm that surely awaits any attempt to restore the deeply flawed JCPOA. But they might help mitigate at least some of the costs that such a course will inevitably incur. Most importantly, Biden needs to have subjected his own policy biases to rigorous challenge and competing arguments that leave him convinced that, despite all the downsides, the game is truly worth the candle in terms of U.S. vital interests. Otherwise, he may be—to paraphrase scripture—left to wonder: “What does it profit a man if he gains the JCPOA but loses his presidency?”