President Joe Biden inherited a mess created largely by “the former guy.” Under Donald Trump’s rubric of so-called “maximum pressure,” the United States imposed layers of sanctions on Iranian individuals, institutions, and entire sectors of the economy, especially its banking and oil industries. In January 2020, U.S. forces killed the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Major General Qassem Soleimani.
Vowing revenge, Iranian leaders retaliated by attacking U.S. forces in Iraq, downing U.S. drones, and seizing and harassing ships in the Persian Gulf. Under a policy of “maximum resistance,” Iran methodically rolled back their implementation of commitments made under the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As of February 2021, Iran possessed fourteen times more enriched uranium than under the deal and was much closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.
Thanks to the sanctions, by early 2021, nearly everyone in Iran (and many surrounding nations) was worse off – except maybe entrepreneurs in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who had taken over the remnants of formerly independent businesses. And, despite more than two years of maximum pressure, no U.S. interest had been advanced.
Is Time a Lever or a Ticking Bomb?
Still, officials in the Biden administration initially appeared to calculate that the Iranian regime is worse off than the United States. They reasoned that the longer it takes to negotiate a return to the JCPOA, the more leverage Washington would have to compel Iranian concessions.
Against that version of realpolitik, another version holds that “stuff” always happens around Iran, so it would be prudent to reimpose verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear activities as soon as possible. This perspective seemed to have prevailed in the White House by March when the administration more actively began seeking negotiations.
Both views have some validity. On April 11, 2021, Israeli operatives reportedly sabotaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. This could be expected to provoke various forms of Iranian retaliation, including a rejection of nuclear negotiations. Days later, however, Iranian diplomats arrived as scheduled in Vienna for high-level talks to revitalize the JCPOA. (Iran may still retaliate in some way. And Israel may still attack people and equipment associated with Iran’s nuclear program whether a new nuclear deal is reached with Iran or not.)
After one hundred days, it is fair to say that the Biden administration, with the help of European and Russian counterparts, has prudently reinvigorated prospects of an agreement to restore verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. It remains unclear whether a new or restored arrangement will be better for all parties than would have been the case had the Trump administration maintained the JCPOA.
The challenge now is to avoid letting the perfect (for the United States and its allies) be the enemy of the good (for everyone).
The JCPOA—or any substantial nuclear deal with Iran—is fundamentally a means for all parties to avoid existential threats to themselves and go on with their unhappy, conflicted lives without decimating each other. Iran spares Israel and other neighbors the threat of annihilation by affirming that it will not acquire nuclear weapons—in greater detail and with more rigorous verification than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires. The United States, Europe, and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council affirm that they will not initiate war with the loathed Iranian regime.
This is what really bothers critics of the JCPOA: they want regime change in Iran. But even if they could somehow remove the clerics from power, they have no idea what sort of governors would replace them. No one can explain how the men with the guns, prisons, and money—Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—would be replaced by friendly democrats. The better bet is to limit nuclear risks and lift the siege on the Iranian people.
The Obstacles Ahead
In determining what deal is good enough to meet the United States’ standards, Americans will naturally focus on how to prevent Iran from cheating on a revived or reinvented JCPOA. However, objectively speaking, the more difficult challenge is to demonstrate that a new deal will be good enough for Iran—that the United States will live up to its side of any bargain. After all, Iran was complying with the JCPOA (according to the CIA among others) when Trump broke the deal.
Congress is the most obvious obstacle to persuading Iranian decisionmakers that Washington will remove sanctions as promised. Highly partisan politics and consequence-free grandstanding by legislators make it difficult to sustain deals with geopolitical foes. Relatedly, Washington has become so addicted to sanctioning that it doesn’t know how to stop once the other side has met the terms of negotiated agreements.
Iranians—Persians—see themselves as great negotiators who can size up whether their counterpart is trustworthy. And the United States has repeatedly shown itself to be unreliable and unable to sustain deals with adversaries. Iranians can point to the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, the spotty implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, the fate that Muammar Gaddafi met in Libya after he negotiated away his WMD capabilities, and so on. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA simply confirmed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s warning that the United States would not deal squarely with Iran.
Biden cannot change the past, and he cannot fix the political structure that makes the United States nearly unable to ratify and sustain treaties or impose and remove sanctions as a precision tool. No president, especially from the Democratic Party, can do this; the White House needs support from Republicans in the Senate to ratify treaties. The uncertain durability of U.S. commitments, especially positive ones like sanctions relief and economic normalization, then limits how much the United States can coax from Iran in a nuclear deal or any other future arrangement. U.S. negotiators and their partners in Vienna have the wherewithal to repair some of the damage that maximum pressure caused to everyone’s security. But fundamental improvements will depend on changes in U.S. and Iranian domestic politics.