War Stories

The Misguided Thinking That Could Lead Biden to Blow His Chance at a Deal With Iran

A close-up of Ali Bagheri Kani wearing a white mask and a suit
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani at the nuclear talks in Vienna on Monday. Vladimir Simicek/Getty Images

The United States and Iran are meeting in Vienna on Monday for one more try—possibly one last try—to revive the Iran nuclear deal. If neither side budges from its current demands, the talks—which have been in hiatus for five months—are likely to go nowhere, in which case we will see the sharpening of tensions or worse.

The deal—which was reached in 2015 by President Barack Obama and the leaders of six other nations, including Iran—required the Iranians to dismantle their nuclear program; in exchange, the U.S would lift almost all of its economic sanctions. Things were proceeding smoothly—international inspectors attested that Iran was complying—until 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, reimposed sanctions, and pressured all the other signatories to impose sanctions as well. Iran continued to abide by the deal for a year, seeking some way to trade with the world outside the realm of the dollar. Failing to do so, Tehran invoked Paragraph 36 of the 159-page deal, stating that if some signatories “were not meeting their commitments,” the others would have “grounds to cease performing” theirs. The clause was written so that the U.S. and the European nations could swiftly reimpose sanctions if the Iranians were caught cheating; but the sequence, as we’ve seen, could go the other way too.

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In the two years since, Iran has resumed enriching uranium to the point where it could have enough to build an A-bomb in a month or so. It is, in short, much closer to being a nuclear-armed state than it was even before it signed the deal back in 2015. Trump had abrogated the deal (which he frequently derided as “the worst deal ever”), hoping to pressure Tehran into signing what he and his aides called a “better” deal, but in fact his strategy backfired.

More puzzling than Trump messing things up, though, is why President Joe Biden—who, during the campaign, said he would bring back the deal—didn’t move to do so right after entering office this past January. He could have, accurately, blamed Trump for the mess, offered to lift the sanctions gradually if the Iranians dismantled their nuclear hardware gradually. Instead, for reasons that no one has clearly explained, the two sides got into a dispute over who should take the first step first. In April, the European Union jumped in, holding six rounds of talks with Iran in Vienna. For a while it seemed like some formula for a return to negotiations with the U.S. could be worked out—but this didn’t happen. In June, Iran elected a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a longtime skeptic of the deal. The impasse deepened.

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It is a good sign that the talks are resuming, but the prospects look dim. The Iranians are insisting on two points: first, that the U.S. lift all sanctions before Tehran dismantles any piece of its nuclear program; second, that the U.S. guarantees no future president will withdraw from the deal. Both demands are nonstarters. No president would, or should, lift all sanctions unless Iran dismantled at least some of its centrifuges, the devices that enrich uranium. Nor could any president honestly promise that future presidents would adhere to the accord. (The nuclear deal is not a treaty but rather a multilateral executive arrangement. It was negotiated that way, in part because Obama knew he could not sway two-thirds of the Senate to ratify it, which would be required for a treaty. Biden would face the same issue today.)

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There may be a way out. The EU could act as a true mediator, as it tried but failed to do in April, setting a timetable where each side takes phased, simultaneous steps—the U.S. lifts a few sanctions, Iran destroys a few centrifuges. But meanwhile, several American politicians, including some members of the Biden administration, have been saying that it wouldn’t be good enough simply to go back to the terms of the 2015 deal; too much time has passed, they say (some of the deal’s measures expire in 2025), and Iran has made more progress toward building an A-bomb than it had back then.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in October, “We are getting closer to a point at which returning to compliance with the [deal] will not in and of itself recapture the benefits” seen back in 2015. Two points can be made here. First, Blinken and his colleagues should have seen that coming back in January. Second, his view is shortsighted. True, if the deal were brought back to life this week, a follow-on deal would have to be negotiated soon after, if just to push back the original expiration dates. But why not do that? Why not revive the original deal, devise a schedule for the step-by-step procedures (the lifting of sanctions, the dismantlement of centrifuges)—but add a clause stating that if a new accord isn’t signed (or maybe isn’t well along in negotiations) by, let’s say, 2024, the deal is off once again. (If Republicans regain the White House, it might be off anyway.)

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Several politicians—most Republicans and a few Democrats—would say this proposal doesn’t go far enough. They want to see a new accord that doesn’t merely push back the expiration dates for Iran’s nuclear commitments but also limits or abolishes Iran’s production of missiles and assistance to terrorist groups. Obama and his team considered broadening the deal this way during the original talks, but decided against it for two reasons: First, Iran wouldn’t agree with those other limits, and second, the most important task was to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons—and the deal wound up doing that with the most intrusive verification procedures ever negotiated in an arms control deal. The realistic options were to live in a world with an Iran that makes missiles, assists terrorists, and has nuclear weapons—or an Iran that engages in those first two activities but has no nuclear weapons.

The choice seemed a no-brainer. It still does. It’s time to snap that view back into focus, if it’s not too late.

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