In 2017, Donald Trump inherited a better position on Iran than any U.S. President over the last four decades, with Iran’s nuclear program restrained and an opportunity to build on a historic diplomatic accord. More than two years after Trump threw out the successful diplomatic playbook in favor of so-called “maximum pressure,” it is clear that a Biden administration would inherit a far worse scenario. Under Trump, the U.S. and Iran have only narrowly avoided all-out war on two occasions, Iran’s nuclear program is expanding, and Iranian hardliners are exerting increasing control over policy in Tehran. If elected, Biden would need to immediately shift course.
Fortunately, the U.S. can end the failing maximum pressure approach by rejoining the nuclear accord with Iran. Biden has said that his administration would return to compliance with the agreement — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—provided Iran is willing to do the same. At this time next year, Biden could be in the White House and the U.S. and Iran could be fully compliant with the JCPOA and seeking to build on it through further negotiations. As a result, it is worth considering how a potential Biden administration could restore the accord, and how it could maximize momentum to achieve additional diplomatic breakthroughs.
It would be important for a Biden administration to act swiftly to restore international confidence in U.S. policy toward Iran. Attaching any preconditions to the U.S. return, aside from Iran’s own return to compliance, would be profoundly unwise. By January 2021, the U.S. is likely to have been in material breach of the JCPOA for 32 months and will have very little credibility or leverage to insist on changes to the agreement or a grand bargain addressing all of the international community’s concerns about Iran. Not only would such demands be non-starters in Tehran, but Europe and other JCPOA participants would be highly disinclined to entertain more diplomatic brinkmanship after bearing the costs of U.S. sanctions throughout the course of the Trump administration.
Iran’s political calendar will also limit what is politically possible in the opening months of 2021. Following parliamentary elections in 2020 that saw both record low turnout and a triumph of hardline forces, Iran is scheduled to hold presidential elections in May or June of 2021. The outcome of that election will likely dictate how forward-leaning a future U.S. administration can be in seeking to resolve remaining sources of tension with Iran. If a reactionary hardliner is elected and the U.S. has failed to rejoin the deal, the window to return and ensure the restoration of far-reaching restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will likely close.
Given these factors, the safest play for an incoming Biden administration would be to immediately restore compliance with the U.S.’s JCPOA obligations by waiving all nuclear-related sanctions and other Trump designations intended to frustrate a potential return to compliance. Such an act would demonstrate the administration’s seriousness of purpose, shore up international unity and U.S. leadership that Trump has squandered, provide clear incentives for Iran to swiftly adhere to its own nuclear obligations and undercut any excessive Iranian demands for compensation.
Perhaps the biggest question for an incoming Biden administration would not be whether to restore the JCPOA, but what to do after. While there will undoubtedly be pressure to focus on extending certain restrictions under the JCPOA, the U.S. should think bigger, and invest heavily in diplomacy to resolve remaining tensions outside of the nuclear file. Such an approach could begin to move the region toward a more sustainable and collaborative security framework that enables a reduction of the heavy and costly U.S. military footprint.
Such lofty goals could easily fall victim to hard realities without a roadmap or sufficient political will. That is why the U.S. should seek a communique with Iran that lays out a series of issues and negotiating tracks that each nation seeks to resolve by 2024. Of critical importance will be diplomatic tracks aimed at halting the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ending simmering conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and moving the region toward a sustainable security architecture. But a communique could also lay the groundwork for confidence building measures, further prisoner swaps, human rights dialogue and a reduction of tensions between Iran and Israel.
This path would require sustained diplomatic energy. Yet there is more risk in allowing underlying tensions to fester or thinking that a nonproliferation agreement alone can be protected over the long haul from shifting political winds in Tehran and Washington.
Those who have sought to tear down the JCPOA have offered many complicated rationales to obfuscate the simple and only viable solution for a future administration. Some have claimed that Biden could use leverage from Trump’s sanctions to get a better deal. But in reality, the U.S. has less leverage to secure concessions from Tehran given its own diminished credibility and Iran’s increasing nuclear leverage. Critics also claim that the deal is no longer worth salvaging because some limits under the deal are set to expire absent further changes. However, they ignore that many key restrictions are indefinite or continue until 2030, while those scheduled to expire could be extended through further negotiations.
The JCPOA shares many similarities to the Affordable Care Act. It was a pragmatic step that Republicans fought tooth and nail and, despite predictions of doom, succeeded in implementing some modest and popular changes that changed the terms of the debate. Biden could have the chance to restore and build on each signature Obama achievement. But doing so will require tuning out his domestic opponents who only know how to destroy, not to build.
We may never know if a more responsible successor administration could have capitalized on the hard work of the Obama administration and built on the JCPOA. But if a President Biden is in a position to return to the JCPOA in January of 2021, he would be well advised to take the win by getting back into the accord, then seeking to build on it through aggressive diplomatic engagement. Doing anything else would tempt the inexorable forces in both the U.S. and Iran that have destroyed any forward political progress for decades.