Analysis

Did Biden Wait Too Long to Engage Iran?

Held back by infighting and hard-liners on the Hill, the administration may have squandered precious time to save the Iran nuclear deal, critics say.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, delivers a foreign-policy statement on Iran at Chelsea Piers in New York, on Jan. 7, 2020.
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, delivers a foreign-policy statement on Iran at Chelsea Piers in New York, on Jan. 7, 2020. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Following Tehran’s partial curtailment of nuclear inspections this week, the Biden administration finds itself in a desperate race to salvage the 2015 pact that the new president has pledged to rejoin. But some critics say internal debates within U.S. President Joe Biden’s team may have led it to wait too long to offer Iran confidence-building and humanitarian relief measures that might have brought Tehran back to the table sooner.

Despite increasingly hard-line statements from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran’s moderates have been waiting for signs from Washington of some measure of relief for its sanctions-strangled economy since former President Donald Trump pulled out of the pact in 2018—especially when it comes to humanitarian aid.

Following Tehran’s partial curtailment of nuclear inspections this week, the Biden administration finds itself in a desperate race to salvage the 2015 pact that the new president has pledged to rejoin. But some critics say internal debates within U.S. President Joe Biden’s team may have led it to wait too long to offer Iran confidence-building and humanitarian relief measures that might have brought Tehran back to the table sooner.

Despite increasingly hard-line statements from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran’s moderates have been waiting for signs from Washington of some measure of relief for its sanctions-strangled economy since former President Donald Trump pulled out of the pact in 2018—especially when it comes to humanitarian aid.

But none has been in the offing. Some officials and nuclear experts say that, due to factional infighting within the administration and fears of opposition from hard-liners on Capitol Hill, the Biden team has hesitated to offer such measures—even though some of its own leaders, such as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, were central to negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the first place.

“I think the Biden administration missed an opportunity in the first week of its term to send a stronger, more concrete signal of its good faith intentions to return to JCPOA,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. “During the time it took for the Biden team to begin to be more proactive, positions hardened in Iran. I’m not surprised at the delay at this point. I think Iran expected swifter action. After all, because of Trump’s withdrawal, it’s the U.S. that is responsible for the crisis around the JCPOA.”

Such “good faith” moves might have included waivers on some sanctions if Iran exported its excess enriched uranium or the heavy water it produced in violation of the JCPOA. Washington could also work with friendly governments, such as South Korea’s, to partially unfreeze Iranian assets—even while maintaining current sanctions—or to prompt the International Monetary Fund or other funding bodies to provide humanitarian aid. As a presidential candidate, Biden suggested he would make such moves but has not followed through.

“There is no doubt that sanctions have limited Iran’s ability to fight the pandemic,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, who until recently worked closely with Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, the organization’s former president. Offering humanitarian aid “was morally and even politically completely defensible for the administration. The mistake is that their failure to take this confidence-building step has created a sense in Tehran that the Biden administration, in fact, wants to continue Trump’s maximum-pressure policy but with a smile.”

The question is urgent because there may only be a few months left to save the deal. Last weekend, faced with a Feb. 23 deadline for cutting off inspections under the pact, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, flew to Tehran to came to an “understanding” with Iranian officials that most inspections could continue for three months, running approximately into Iran’s June election, when a successor to President Hassan Rouhani will be chosen. But the inspection data, including surveillance images, will be held by Iran in the meantime. If an agreement is reached, Iran will turn over the data, which could uncover any further breaches. If there’s no agreement, Iran has said it will destroy the data—and along with it, perhaps the last good chance to save the nuclear deal.

If the United States wants to get Iran back to the negotiating table, as Biden previously vowed, it will likely take precisely the sort of gesture that the administration has been so far unwilling to make. That could mean issuing waivers to allow foreign companies to work with Iran’s civil nuclear program. Germany, France, and Britain, the three European countries who are parties to the nuclear deal, have been pressing the Biden administration to do just that as a way to jump-start engagement, said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations—and a little bit more besides.

“Europeans have also been clear that for Iran to reverse its nuclear activities, there will need to be some corresponding economic relief offered,” she said. The so-called E-3 have been in “almost daily contact” with Malley to make their case, said a European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

But key Biden administration officials seem once-bitten and twice-shy. Sources close to the administration’s thinking say that Sullivan and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been concerned about alienating key votes on Capitol Hill in the face of the administration’s other priorities, particularly passing a giant relief package for COVID-19. They’ve also tried to bring in Israel and the Gulf states, historically hostile to any concessions to Iran, and to learn from past Obama administration experiences.

“The Obama administration really dropped the ball in terms of engaging the Hill on the original JCPOA,” said one Democratic Capitol Hill staffer involved in the discussions, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. “There are still battle scars on the Hill in terms of being left out of the loop by Obama and then having to swallow a deal that had a lot of opposition to it, even among Democrats. Blinken and Sullivan have been reminded they better not do the same thing. And this time, they’ve been much more consultative.”

The obstacles aren’t just Republicans but include important voices on the Democratic side too, such as Sen. Bob Menendez, the new Foreign Relations Committee chairperson. That’s sparked internal debate within the administration about how much relief to offer Tehran, with Malley, the new Iran envoy, and Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer said to be in favor of more inducements to Iran to return to the table while Blinken and Sullivan are toeing a harder line and have dominated the discussion so far, according to congressional sources.

Neither the White House nor the U.S. State Department responded to a request for comment on specific questions related to this story. In briefings on Tuesday and Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that getting Iran back to the table “is an urgent challenge for us” even as he deferred questions about such humanitarian issues as unfreezing South Korea’s Iran assets to future discussions. “We do discuss these issues broadly with the South Koreans, but I wouldn’t want to characterize it beyond that,” he told reporters.

The Biden administration has been trying to walk a fine line between outreach to Iran and presenting a tough facade to Capitol Hill, defenders say. Hawks railed when the administration offered to talk to Iran even before Tehran’s returned to compliance with the deal. Biden also came out against an automatic “snapback” of all pre-JCPOA sanctions, which Trump had insisted be imposed. And according to another European diplomat, the administration is now willing to accede to Tehran wishes and play a mere observer role at European-orchestrated talks that could begin in early March, although Iran has not yet formally agreed to attend such meetings.

But Blinken and other senior officials have continued to talk tough. On Monday, the secretary of state reiterated the administration’s month-long position, saying the United States and its allies are not only insisting Iran come back into compliance with the JCPOA, but they also want to lengthen and strengthen” the 2015 nuclear deal to include Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation,” potentially a no-go area for leadership in Tehran.

Despite the rhetoric, critics note that the administration has failed to respond to a pair of missile attacks allegedly launched by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, including one that killed a U.S. civilian contractor. Price, the State Department spokesman, said Monday the attacks remain under “active investigation” and until then, the administration did not want to “lash out and risk an escalation that plays into the hands of Iran.”

“Ignoring the role of Iran and its militias in the latest string of rocket attacks in Iraq is one of several signals the administration is sending to Tehran that … restoring JCPOA compliance is priority numbers one, two, and three,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposes the JCPOA. “Sadly, many issues have been sacrificed at the altar of the JCPOA in the past and, at this rate, will again meet the same fate.”

He added: “Iran is testing the new administration across multiple domains because it is trying to assess wherein lie the redlines. It is also using these attacks to learn about U.S. resolve and commitment to the area Iran’s proxies are active in.”

Mutual mistrust runs deep. Perhaps the biggest misstep for the Biden team, some critics say, is that by taking a hard line, they have reawakened old fears in Tehran dating back decades that Washington will always renege on a deal and end up demonizing Iran. This goes back at least to 9/11, when Iranian moderates such as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (later a key architect of the 2015 deal) sought rapprochement with Washington. Tehran even helped Washington form the post-Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan—only to find itself attacked weeks later in former President George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech.

Ultimately, though, both Washington and Tehran are facing similar constraints: domestic politics.

“The irony of the situation is that we almost have a mirror image in Tehran and Washington,” said Vaez. “You have two governments who would have loved to restore the JCPOA status quo ante with a push of a button if they could, but they have to deal with parliamentary opposition, which reflects broader political resistance to the deal.”

Update, Feb. 24, 2021: This story has been updated with statements from the State Department.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh