Team Biden Tries to Thread the Needle on the Iran Nuclear Deal

Can anything be accomplished without caving to the Islamic Republic?

After only a month in office, it’s far too early to draw broad conclusions about President Joe Biden’s approach to Iran. But one thing is clear: The Iran deal will be at the center of the political and policy debates over the months, and probably years, to come. 

On Thursday evening, Biden ordered retaliatory strikes on Iran-connected facilities in Syria. A statement from the Pentagon press secretary described the action: “At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militants in Syria. These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel.” 

We’ll learn much more about the strikes and the reasoning that led to them in the coming days. But for now, they don’t fundamentally alter the analysis of Biden’s broad approach to Iran and his attempt to thread the needle on the Iran deal.

Threading the needle is the correct metaphor for the Biden team’s efforts to return to the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, and it is unlikely that will be accomplished without pretty much caving to the Iranians (however much the Biden administration might try to dress that up). If and when the administration moves to lift sanctions, expect it to be spun as the higher realism necessary to stop the Iranians from producing enough fissile material for a weapon. Biden’s people will undoubtedly stress the amount of progress Iran made toward that goal after Donald Trump withdrew from the deal.

It was predictable that the Biden team would find it harder to get back into the deal than the candidate had suggested during the campaign (and I said as much back in December). The administration is now caught up in a number of cross-pressures, some of its own creation.  

First, the team is not united on this subject, and has been unable to arrive at an agreed-upon coherent strategy (although there have been a number of small steps such as loosening the restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York and announcing a willingness to meet with the Iranians at the invitation of the “E3”—France, Germany, and the U.K). Some on the team are relatively hawkish, concerned about the shortcomings of the JCPOA and the domestic politics of this (more below) while others, particularly those who were very invested in the JCPOA as negotiated in 2015, are more committed to resuscitating the Obama deal. John Kerry, whose remit is supposed to be limited to climate change, is allegedly already agitating and being active on the Iran file. To the degree that this is a problem, it is self-created.

As for the domestic politics: There is broad acceptance among even critics of the Trump administration that the Biden team has inherited a lot of leverage and will face withering criticism if it is squandered.  That criticism will come not only from Republicans who are almost unanimously opposed to a return to the JCPOA, but also from Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin, and other Democrats who either publicly criticized the JCPOA’s shortcomings in 2015 or harbored private concerns but didn't speak out at the time. The weaknesses of the agreement—timelines on enrichment activities that were too short, concerns about verification, and the danger of Iranian activities outside the parameters of the agreement (regional proxies, support for terrorism, ballistic missiles, and onward proliferation thereof) have all been thrown into sharper relief in the past several years and especially the past several weeks.

Third, the Iranian leadership around President Hassan Rouhani almost certainly is convinced that the Biden team wants to get back into the JCPOA more than Iran does, and hence believes the Iranians don’t have to do much to entice the U.S. back into the deal. Biden has expressed an interest in returning to the deal, and the Iranians can point to his unconditional renewal of the New START treaty with Russia. They know that Biden’s overwhelming priority is COVID and the U.S. economy, and they are counting on his team’s desire to avoid any kind of military entanglement in the Middle East.

Fourth, the Iranians are pressing their point with the attacks via proxy forces in Iraq (and the Houthi attacks on the Saudis related to the Yemen civil war) both before and after the Biden team made gestures in their direction. This only exacerbates the political problem at home, and this is likely to get worse. It sends the message that the administration is turning the other cheek, something that the Iranians will view as weakness.

Fifth, the Iranians are massively out of compliance with the JCPOA in terms of amounts of low enriched uranium, enrichment up to 20 percent and above, etc.  Moreover, Iranian non-compliance seems to get worse every day. The IAEA has now confirmed that the Iranians are producing uranium metal (banned under the JCPOA) and they have limited access to JCPOA inspectors (although a “face-saving” agreement has been reached with the IAEA that will allow them access to video recordings of covered facilities if the U.S. returns to the deal in three months).

Sixth, the IAEA has discovered uranium particles at two previously undisclosed facilities. This is consistent with information from the Fakhrizadeh archive that was exfiltrated out of Iran by Mossad, and it is powerful evidence that Iran was dealing in bad faith with the IAEA and the other JCPOA signatories in coming clean about the past military dimensions of its activity. This makes it harder for the administration to ignore the noncompliance.

Seventh, the window for Iran to make any kind of concessions to the U.S. is rapidly closing. Even the verification “agreement” with the IAEA mentioned above has been subject to withering criticism (they have questioned whether the agreement is even legal under Iranian law) from Iranian hardliners who seem very likely to win the presidential elections on May 19 less than 90 days from now.

Eighth, they have to navigate not only the European allies, who are chary of putting additional pressure on the Iranians, but also Israel and the Gulf Arabs. The Biden folks recognize that the alliance management of regional partners during the JCPOA negotiations in 2013-2015 was less than brilliant. They have committed to do a better job but, given all of the above, that will be nigh impossible if the overriding imperative is to get back into a deal.

Given all these forces, it is very hard to see how Biden’s people can reach their goal of getting back into the JCPOA without first giving Iran at least some sanctions relief and thereby surrendering some if not all of the leverage that the U.S. has at its disposal. They may well do it because they fear Iran’s progress on the enrichment front and are concerned that if the Iranians cross the threshold of possessing sufficient fissile material to make a bomb that the toothpaste on U.S. non-proliferation policy would be out of the tube, making it impossible to squeeze it back in.