War Stories

Biden Is Running Out of Time to Save the Iran Nuclear Deal

But neither country is in a hurry to make the first move.

Blinken speaks at an Office of the President-Elect podium. Biden, wearing a mask, stands offstage to his right.
Antony Blinken onstage with Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. Mark Makela/Getty Images

President Joe Biden has long said that he wants to restore the Iran nuclear deal, which President Barack Obama and five other world leaders signed in 2015 and which President Donald Trump scuttled three years later. However, in their confirmation hearings, Antony Blinken and Avril Haines—who are now secretary of state and director of national intelligence—said this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Was their testimony a sign of disagreement within the new administration, a case of diplomatic positioning, or the result of something new and contentious in the West’s relations with Iran? And what are the prospects for a return to the deal, which, before Trump withdrew from it, was successfully shutting down Iran’s nuclear program?

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Something new has happened in recent months. The Iranians have substantially exceeded the deal’s limits on how much uranium they’re allowed to enrich, and they have started to produce faster centrifuges, the paddles that enrich nuclear fuel, which the deal had prohibited. This is the main reason for Blinken and Haines’ pessimism.

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However, it’s worth noting—and the two officials are well aware of this—that Iran violated the deal only after Trump pulled out of it. The deal was in essence an exchange: Iran dismantled its nuclear program; the U.S. lifted the economic sanctions that it had imposed on Iran for developing a nuclear program. When Trump withdrew from the deal, he reimposed the sanctions. He also levied “secondary sanctions” against all countries, including the deal’s co-signatories, that continued doing business with Iran.

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Paragraph 36 of the 159-page accord—formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—states that a signatory would have “grounds to cease performing its commitments” if some other signatories ceased performing theirs. The U.S. reimposed sanctions, violating its side of the bargain, so Iran resumed enriching uranium and building advanced centrifuges. In this sense, Iranian officials have argued that they are still in compliance with the deal. If the U.S. once again lifts sanctions, they say, Iran will once again stop enriching, get rid of the uranium, and destroy the centrifuges.

Blinken, Haines, and others state the conditions in reverse chronology: If Iran stops enriching uranium and so forth, the U.S. will lift the sanctions.

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So there’s the conundrum: Which side goes first? Most Americans, including those who want to restore the nuclear deal, don’t trust Iran’s leaders. (This has historical roots, going back to 1979, when the revolutionary regime took U.S. diplomats hostage.) Most Iranians don’t trust America’s leaders. (This goes back to 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow Iran’s democratic government.)

All the major players in the Biden administration firmly believe that the Iran nuclear deal was a monumental achievement worth preserving. Biden himself was involved, though peripherally, in its negotiation and its selling to the public. Blinken was Obama’s deputy national security adviser at the time. Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, and his special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, were the deal’s chief negotiators. Philip Gordon, who is Vice President Kamala Harris’ national security adviser, was White House coordinator for Middle Eastern affairs during the negotiation and signing of the deal. Colin Kahl, the nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy, was Vice President Biden’s national security adviser at the time.

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In short, there is no intramural dispute on this issue. However, for reasons of trust and politics, the question—who goes first?—is a stumbling block.

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Robert Malley has already spoken with British, French, and German officials about how best to revive the deal, and will reportedly consult with Middle Eastern officials as well. (A few anti-Iran critics recently wrote an open letter urging Biden to retract Malley’s appointment, attacking him as soft on Iran and too eager to make concessions. Many of Malley’s colleagues issued a statement rebutting the charge. In any case, it’s irrelevant, as a presidential envoy is just that: He doesn’t make policy; he conveys it.)

Critics have also long complained that the deal put limits only on Iran’s nuclear program, not on its ballistic missiles or its support for terrorist groups. This is true, but, as Obama and many of his aides (who are now Biden’s aides) pointed out at the time, there was no practical way to squeeze all of these issues into a single accord—and, for the moment, heading off Iran’s nuclear ambitions seemed most urgent. This is still the case—in fact, even more so, as, thanks to Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, Iran is closer than ever to developing a nuclear weapon.

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Besides, when Obama lifted sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, he retained the sanctions that had been imposed to punish Iran for precisely those other concerns—its ballistic missiles and its support of terrorist groups. This would still be the case if the accord is resumed.

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One could imagine a refurbished nuclear deal with a new prologue or annex, stating that the U.S. and the other original signatories—Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union—are reentering the accord on the understanding that new negotiations will soon follow, dealing with a wider range of topics, including Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support of terrorist groups, as well as (perhaps for balance) expanded trade and diplomatic relations.

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If it’s too delicate for U.S. diplomats to work out these terms, as well as the timing of the resumption (the who-goes-first puzzle), maybe the EU or one of the other parties could take the lead. Maybe Malley will discuss these issues in his meetings; maybe, to some extent, he already has.

Whatever the intentions of all the players, this game can’t be stretched out for very long. Iran has started enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. (It takes 90 percent to build a bomb, but once the 20 percent threshold is crossed, the rest is fairly easy. The nuclear deal restricted enrichment to 3 percent.) Iran also faces presidential elections in June. Trump’s withdrawal from the accord, as well as his resumption of sanctions, has politically strengthened Iran’s most hard-line factions, who never supported the deal to begin with. It would be in our interests if talks could be resumed well before the balloting.)

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Some formula can probably be worked out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be. In the early 1960s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were negotiating a treaty to ban the testing of nuclear weapons. The talks hit a bump over the issue of how many times a year each side could inspect the other’s test sites. The Soviets wanted no more than three tests; the Americans wanted seven. Clearly, it seemed, they would compromise on five. But they didn’t; neither side budged. In the end, it didn’t matter, as scientists proved that they could monitor underground tests with seismometers. Still, it’s a cautionary tale about the limits of compromise: No matter how logical it seems to split the difference, sometimes the splitting just doesn’t happen.

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