The World

The 2020 Democrats Want to Reenter the Iran Deal. That May Not Be Possible.

Why it’s not so easy to just undo Trump’s exit.

Representatives from Iran and six major powers pose for a group picture at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015, after reaching the nuclear deal.
Representatives from the parties to the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after reaching the nuclear deal. Joe Klamar/Getty Images

It’s Jan. 21, 2021. Still a little bleary-eyed from inauguration festivities, President Pete Buttigieg sits down at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and, with steely determination, signs an executive order lifting the sanctions reimposed on Iran by President Donald Trump in 2018, and recommitting the United States to the 2015 nuclear deal.

At least, that’s the scene that might have come to mind from the South Bend mayor’s first major foreign policy speech on Tuesday. To enthusiastic applause, Buttigieg pledged to “rejoin our international partners and recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal. Whatever its imperfections, this was perhaps as close to the real ‘art of the deal’ as diplomatic achievements get.”

Buttigieg wasn’t exactly going out on a limb. Nearly every major Democratic candidate has pledged to reenter the deal. It’s an easy applause line: The deal is very popular, and pledging to reenter it is an easy way to draw a clear distinction with Trump’s foreign policy. Unfortunately, it may not actually be possible.

First of all, a lot can happen in the 18 months before a Democratic president can take office. For instance, it’s possible that full-scale military conflict between the U.S. and Iran could break out. Or Trump could sit down with Iranian leaders to negotiate his own “new” deal. Neither scenario seems very likely right now, but neither can be entirely ruled out.

But even if neither of those scenarios comes to pass, there may be no actual deal to rejoin. To refresh, under the 2015 agreement officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—negotiated with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany and the EU—Iran agreed to restrictions and inspections on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from nuclear-related sanctions.

For now, Iran is still holding up its end of the deal, but it may not be doing so for long. As the New York Times reported this week, international inspectors say that Iran is ramping up its production of nuclear fuel. On May 8, President Hassan Rouhani announced a 60-day deadline after which Iran will begin enriching uranium to a higher level than allowed by the JCPOA, unless the country receives additional sanctions relief. This, he said, would be followed by a series of 60-day deadlines after which Iran would discard the terms of the deal one by one. The next U.S. presidential term won’t begin for another 590 days. This means that the next president can’t just unilaterally lift the sanctions. He or she will need to negotiate with the Iranians to get them back into compliance.

It’s possible Rouhani is bluffing, or that some arrangement can be reached with him. European governments are currently trying to develop workarounds to allow their companies to do business in Iran despite U.S. sanctions. (These companies are understandably wary.)

But even if the deal still exists in some form in 2021, it still may not be possible to just slide right back into the JCPOA.

For one thing, if Iran keeps up its end of the deal until the end of Trump’s term, while the U.S. doesn’t, Iranian leaders might (justifiably) demand reparations for the three years of sanctions that were imposed on it. It’s hard to imagine even the most dovish Democratic president agreeing to this, or selling it to the public.

For another, the clock is ticking on the deal. Under the “sunset clauses” that were the target of much of the criticism of the JCPOA in the U.S., the U.N. embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran is due to lift in 2020, before the next election. By 2023, within the next presidential term, a ban on assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile program will be lifted, as will a ban on its research and development of some types of advanced centrifuges. Additional sunsets will come into effect over the course of the next decade, until stringent inspection requirements end in 2031. (Normal monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency will continue after that.)

During the debates over the JCPOA, its proponents defended these sunsets by pointing out that that the deal was not an endpoint. If Hillary Clinton, or perhaps even a Republican other than Trump, had been elected, they could have spent the past two years building on the work of the JCPOA to negotiate additional concessions from Iran on its nuclear program—or other activities, such as its ballistic missile program or support for proxy militias throughout the Middle East—before the sunsets went into effect. The next president, by contrast, will be starting from scratch with little time.

“We’re behind schedule in terms of making progress,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert and deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, during a panel on Iran policy at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday. “What we need to be doing today is negotiating the successor to the JCPOA. If that wraps in a reentry to the JCPOA, wonderful, but we have to be looking to extend those timelines.”

It’s also not clear that the Iranian government will be interested in restarting negotiations. By the time the next American president takes office, Iran will be a few months away from its own presidential election. Rouhani is barred by term limits from running again. It’s quite possible the next president will be far less enthusiastic about improving relations with the West. Even if another “moderate” becomes president, he will be wary about agreeing to any additional concessions to the U.S. after Rouhani’s experience. After all, what’s to stop the next president from tearing up whatever agreement they reach?

Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told me it’s very doubtful the next president could just rejoin the JCPOA in its current form, but the Democratic campaigns’ pledges to do so aren’t merely empty rhetoric. “I think it’s a proxy for saying, ‘We’re going to go back in to seriously engage on diplomacy, which is right and correct. But realistically, it’s going to be a lot tougher. The opening position for a Democratic president should be, ‘I would like to go back into the JCPOA, and I would also like to begin negotiating on other issues of concern.’ ”

There is an admittedly optimistic but not entirely far-fetched scenario in which the arrival of a new U.S. president helps unlock the “better” Iran deal that Trump has repeatedly promised. Even before Trump’s reversal, the JCPOA wasn’t delivering the economic benefits that Iran had been hoping for, with many international firms wary of setting up shop amid an uncertain policy environment. And both the Iranian government and its foreign proxies are now feeling the pain from Trump’s sanctions.

It would be hard for the Iranian government to agree to concessions to Trump now, without it looking like surrender. But a new leader could allow for (dare I say it) a reset. Goldenberg suggests this could initially take the form of a short-term freeze in exchange for limited sanctions relief, along the lines of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action that preceded the final agreement. That could then set the stage for a new, more comprehensive deal.

A lot still has to happen before this is even a possibility—not the least of which is that a Democrat has to beat Trump. The only certainty is that the political reality of the Middle East will look far different than it does today, not to mention how it did in 2015.

While I supported the intentions of the Iran deal, I’ve argued in the past that the Obama administration’s single-minded focus on it caused Obama and his advisers to neglect other pressing priorities. The Trump administration, in its single-minded focus on undoing Obama’s legacy, made the shortsighted decision to blow up the JCPOA rather than work to strengthen it.

The next president can’t make the same mistakes. He or she should absolutely work to restart engagement with Iran and undo the damage caused by Trump, but it won’t be as easy as simply turning back the clock.