The president-elect has a real but limited window to reinstate a deal that froze Tehran’s nuclear efforts.
In a September op-ed, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden laid out his plan to restore diplomacy with Iran and return to the nuclear agreement signed by President Barack Obama. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
Now President-elect, Biden’s “compliance for compliance” plan is exactly the right approach to revive the deal and avert a catastrophic new war in the Middle East. He should not allow Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu’s scorched earth tactics to blow him off course.
In 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, and has pursued a belligerent “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran ever since. This approach has been an abject failure. The two countries have moved disturbingly closer to the brink of war. Ordinary Iranians have suffered under the crushing weight of American sanctions, particularly with COVID-19 taking a heavy toll on the country. In response to the re-imposition of sanctions, Iran has enriched nuclear materials at levels exceeding the JCPOA caps, shortening its “breakout time” to build a functional nuclear weapon.
Now, on his way out of office, Trump and his allies are doing everything in their power to poison the well and destroy the prospects of renewed diplomacy between the United States and Iran.
On Nov. 27, top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in Tehran. Israel, with its history of conducting similar covert attacks, is widely considered a prime suspect. If they are indeed responsible, it’s unlikely they would have carried out such an attack without at least the tacit approval of Washington.
As many experts have argued, the true target of the killing was not Iran’s nuclear program but the nuclear deal itself. Accordingly, the best way Biden and the Iranian government could respond would be to reaffirm their commitment to diplomacy.
The day after the assassination, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made clear that Iran will not be provoked into falling into the apparent trap set by Trump and Netanyahu. Rouhani, who championed the JCPOA, has previously signaled that Iran would be willing to return to compliance if the Biden administration reciprocates. Even as Trump has brought a wrecking ball to the agreement, Iran’s measured response to our withdrawal and the European parties’ continued support has kept it on life support. This leaves Biden a real window of opportunity to resuscitate it. But that window will be very limited.
Contrary to its stated goal, the maximum-pressure campaign has undermined moderates like Rouhani and emboldened hardliners. With sanctions making life miserable for so many Iranians, anti-American sentiment could propel a hardliner to power during Iran’s June 2021 presidential elections. Such a scenario would greatly diminish the prospects of successful diplomacy between the United States and Iran.
As Biden stated in September, a return to the deal should be a starting point for broader, more ambitious negotiations on a wide range of issues. But if the JCPOA is not restored before Iran’s elections, any hope for broader engagement may be much harder to achieve. Furthermore, while there are many issues that should be solved diplomatically between the two countries, the nuclear issue is chief among them. The deal offers verifiable guarantees to ensure Iran will never possess nuclear weapons.
With the clock ticking, Biden will doubtlessly face a loud and well-funded opposition that will seek to undermine a return to diplomacy. He will likely face resistance from members of his own party, who will urge him to use sanctions as leverage to address a host of additional issues. The “flood” of new sanctions that Trump plans to impose during the lame duck period will add further obstacles to the new administration’s path. None of this should deter President Biden from pursuing a “compliance for compliance” approach.
Despite the many challenges he will face, Biden will have many options to improve the prospects for peace. To start, he should unequivocally condemn the Fakhrizadeh assassination. On day one, his administration should take action to strengthen humanitarian exemptions to sanctions that allow Iran to better respond to the coronavirus. These kinds of good faith measures would go a long way toward easing tensions, rebuilding a degree of trust, and improving the standing of Iranian moderates.
As president, Joe Biden will have both the power and mandate to restore the JCPOA. If Congressional opponents attempt to block a return to compliance, they will need to do so with a veto-proof majority. When he assumes office, President Biden must seize this opportunity. For if it slips away, the long-term stability of the Middle East – and the world – could be irreparably damaged. That’s no way to start a presidency.
Bryan Bowman is the Middle East policy program assistant at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. He works to advance a more progressive foreign policy based on restraint, diplomacy, and peace. Before joining FCNL, Bryan served as an editor and reporter at the Globe Post, an international news publication based in Washington, D.C.