Last week marked the first time the Biden administration partook in indirect negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s new ultra-hardline government. Unsurprisingly, after days of discussion, no deal was clinched to revive the faltering 2015 nuclear accord. Iran made maximalist demands and upended initial agreements reached during previous rounds of talks. Washington now faces the uphill challenge of containing Tehran’s expanding nuclear program while recalibrating its Iran policy.
Tehran is increasingly comfortable with reducing international monitoring of its atomic activities and making irreversible nuclear advancements on the ground. The regime may even be inclined to push uranium enrichment to weapons grade. Tehran’s more recent boldness stems in great part from signals Washington sent throughout 2021 that the United States is unwilling to hold the regime accountable.
A close look at Iran’s nuclear advances over the past two and a half years shows Tehran’s most egregious nuclear violations occurred under Biden’s watch. The Trump administration’s May 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provided an avenue—and political argument—for Iranian escalation, yes. But withdrawal merely expedited the fait-accompli of Iran’s growing enrichment capacity. It didn’t create it. The 2015 accord had already allowed for significant Iranian nuclear expansion after 2026.
Tehran’s initial responses to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign was to absorb what it hoped would be a short-lived attempt at unilateral sanctions. In May 2019, however, Iran embarked on a policy of graduated escalation in which it incrementally and overtly breached the JCPOA’s limits. The regime also embraced other forms of escalation—particularly in the maritime and regional domains—in hopes of generating sufficient fear and leverage to make the Trump administration end its mounting pressure policy.