On Friday, an anonymous US official told Reuters that “who goes first” is “not the issue” when it comes to the United States and Iran reviving their 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). This was a remarkable statement, because if it truly doesn’t matter who goes first, then it’s fair to ask why we’re now more than two months into the Biden administration and we still haven’t seen toward patching up the agreement.
A recap may be in order. The Obama administration, working with a group of five other nations known as the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Germany — negotiated the JCPOA to contain Iran’s nuclear program. In exchange for broad sanctions relief, the Iranian government agreed to abide by strict limits on uranium enrichment and to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to implement one of the most intrusive inspection programs ever devised.
The JCPOA worked — or, at least, from the Obama administration’s perspective. A succession of IAEA reports certified that Iran was complying with its obligations under the pact. At the same time, though, criticism that the Obama administration was not fulfilling its obligation to ensure that Iran enjoyed the full economic benefits the agreement had promised. It was not enough to simply lift sanctions — Washington had to convince nervous companies and banks that they could do business with and in Iran without fear that sanctions would suddenly be restored.
As it turned out, those businesses and banks were right to be nervous. The of Donald Trump, who declared on the campaign trail that the JCPOA was “the worst deal ever negotiated,” sounded the agreement’s death knell. And, in 2018, Trump made good on his campaign rhetoric, the United States out of the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran under what he termed his “maximum pressure campaign.” The JCPOA, for all intents and purposes, was kaput.
With sanctions reimposed, the Iranians took the only remedy they had under the 2015 pact. Built into the deal’s terms was an allowance that if one party violated its obligations, other parties were permitted to do the same. The intent was to allow the United States and other P5+1 members to reinstate sanctions should Iran resume prohibited nuclear activity or interfere with sanctions. But the principle applied in both directions, and so Iran began ramping up its uranium enrichment program beyond JCPOA limits. More recently, it has withdrawn from the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol,” the legal basis for that intrusive inspections program.
The repercussions of the JCPOA’s collapse radiated outward, affecting all aspects of the US-Iran relationship. Restored US sanctions the Iranian people, reducing their access to food and — critically, amid the COVID-19 pandemic — adequate health care. Tension between the United States and Iran rose to levels not seen since the days of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” or perhaps even since the Iran hostage crisis. On more than one occasion under Trump, the two nations came to the .
Enter Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice president and by all appearances a stalwart JCPOA supporter. In a CNN op-ed during last year’s presidential campaign, Biden Trump for his Iran policy, which Biden termed a “dangerous failure.” He promised to “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy” that included a return to the JCPOA. For anyone frustrated by the Trump administration’s efforts to forestall diplomacy with Iran, these remarks were welcome.
In hindsight, though, it seems the seeds of our current stalemate were already apparent. In that same CNN piece, Biden wrote that “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. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.” In other words, it did matter who went first, and Biden would also insist on immediate negotiations to expand the JCPOA.
The problem with Biden’s position — as laid out in the CNN piece and as thus far — is that it fails completely to understand Iran’s position. It was the United States that unilaterally violated the JCPOA in 2018. Every subsequent breach by Iran has been a response to the United States’ decision — and has even arguably been permitted under the JCPOA’s terms. To insist that the United States will only rejoin the JCPOA “if Iran returns to strict compliance” is to demand that Iran not only appease the party that destroyed the agreement in the first place, but that it trust the United States to revive the agreement when it has shown that it cannot be trusted.
Equally insulting is the notion that the United States is already looking ahead to a newer, bigger deal with Iran when it’s done nothing to make Iranian officials trust that such a pact would be honored in the long term. Why would Iran be willing to consider anything more than a simple return to the JCPOA without the United States taking the first step to fix what it broke?
Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has spun its wheels, waiting, apparently, for Iran to make the first move, even as the approaching Iranian presidential election in June means that the window for diplomacy is closing. The administration reportedly hasn’t reached an internal consensus on how to reopen that “credible path back to diplomacy,” or whether it even should. Recently, it’s offered to a mutual return to compliance, and now the insistence that Iran move first is apparently no longer an issue.
But it just might be too late. Biden’s failure to act quickly to bring the United States back into compliance, combined with an Iranian political environment that is turning toward the idea of engagement with Washington, may have put the final nail in the coffin of the Iran deal.