During his campaign for the presidency, Joe Biden vowed to restore U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal, which he said Donald Trump had “recklessly tossed away.” And after more than a year of negotiations hobbled by deadlocks and delays, there appeared on Monday to be signs of progress when Iran responded to what European Union officials described as the “final text” of an updated agreement.
But the breakthrough, such as it is, comes just a few days after the stabbing of the novelist Salman Rushdie, who has faced threats ever since Iranian leadership called for his death in 1989. Tehran has denied any involvement in the attack last week but nonetheless blamed Rushdie for it, prompting Secretary of State Antony Blinken to denounce the Iranian government’s incitement of violence against Rushdie as “despicable.” Some high-profile Republicans have gone further, calling on the White House to cut off all diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Should the Biden administration revise its posture toward Iran, and can nuclear deal negotiations still succeed? Here’s what people are saying.
The birth, death and potential revival of a deal
Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by the Obama administration in 2015, put restrictions on Iran’s production of enriched uranium — which can be used to fuel power reactors or, at higher levels of enrichment, to make a bomb — and required the country to submit to more extensive international inspections of its nuclear facilities for at least a decade. In exchange, the United States and the European Union agreed to ease sanctions on Iran’s economy. As critics noted at the time, and as the Obama administration acknowledged, the deal didn’t make any demands of the government to cut back on its sponsorship of militant groups in the Middle East.
The deal officially went into effect in January 2016, but in 2018, Trump withdrew and began a “maximum pressure” campaign to damage Iran’s economy. In 2019, after complying with the agreement for several years, Iran began compiling and enriching nuclear fuel beyond the negotiated limits and now claims the ability to build a nuclear weapon, but has not done so.
There have been several sticking points in the latest rounds of negotiations:
- Given Trump’s withdrawal, Tehran wanted a binding guarantee from Washington that no future president would renege on the deal if Iran maintained its commitments. But Iranian officials have come to accept that the Biden administration cannot make such a promise, The Times recently reported.
- Tehran also had called on the United States to remove a branch of its armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, from its list of terrorist organizations, a designation Trump issued in 2019. But the Biden administration did not yield on that demand, and Tehran has retreated from it.
- Finally, Tehran has also demanded an end to an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, into traces of nuclear material that were found at several undeclared sites. But the I.A.E.A. is not involved in negotiations, and the United States and the E.U. view the demand as outside their scope.
A deal doomed from the start?
Nuclear diplomacy with Iran operates on the premise that the country’s nuclear activity can be dealt with separately from its sponsorship of what the United States deems terrorist activity. But what if the two cannot be separated? That is the view of John Bolton, who served as national security adviser in the Trump administration. Earlier this month, the Justice Department charged a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for plotting to assassinate Bolton in retaliation for the Trump administration’s killing of a top Iranian general, Qassim Suleimani, in January 2020.
“The ayatollahs’ malevolence is comprehensive, with nuclear weapons, assassination and terrorism all elements in their full spectrum of capabilities,” Bolton argues in The Washington Post. “Iran’s nuclear program is only a symptom of the real problem: the regime itself. That is what the United States must focus on ending.”
In the wake of the attack on Rushdie, Bolton’s conception of Iran’s regime as fundamentally incorrigible may gain more purchase — and not just on the right. A deal “can’t work without building trust,” The Washington Post editorial board writes. “Instead, the Islamic republic seems intent on building tension.”
Even some who, unlike Bolton, support diplomacy with Iran say there is a limit to what it can achieve. In The Times, Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ascribes that limit to how Iran’s theocratic government defines its identity: through opposition to the United States. Too much cooperation with its existential enemy would undermine the logic of the government’s rule — and potentially its power over Iran’s people and resources.
“By and large, the United States has sought to engage a regime that clearly doesn’t want to be engaged, and isolate a ruling regime that thrives in isolation,” Sadjadpour writes. “Yet over time, the Iranian regime has shown it’s too influential to ignore, too dogmatic to reform, too brutal to overthrow, and too large to fully contain.”
In the end, both countries have good reason for keeping negotiations in limbo, Arshad Mohammed and Parisa Hafezi write in Reuters. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine strengthened Iran’s hand by causing a rise in the price of oil, one of Iran’s most important exports, and by fortifying the alliance between Moscow and Tehran against Washington. Biden, on the other hand, could be wary of striking a deal that would open him up to domestic criticism ahead of the midterm elections. “Both sides are happy to endure the status quo,” a European diplomat told Mohammed and Hafezi.
The case for continuing negotiations
What options besides diplomacy does the United States have for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions? U.S. attempts to topple Iran’s government through economic means have not borne fruit: “Despite anti-government protests in Iran regarding the poor economy and harsh repression of civil society, the Iranian system has withstood immense challenges and does not appear likely to fall in the near future,” Barbara Slavin, who directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, wrote in June.
That leaves the use of military force — the preferred option of regime-change proponents like Bolton — which Biden said he would consider only as “a last resort” to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But to avoid a military confrontation with Iran, Biden should do everything in his power to revive the deal, argues Trita Parsi, the co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, for MSNBC. A conflict with Iran would not serve U.S. security interests, he contends, and neither has the absence of a deal these past few years. Instead of rejoining the deal via executive order during his first week in office, as he did with the Paris agreement on climate change, Biden chose to keep Trump’s sanctions in place. That bred more distrust with Tehran, which responded by moving even closer to building a nuclear bomb.
“Some of the most problematic Iranian escalations, such as increasing uranium enrichment to 60 percent, came during Biden’s watch, not Trump’s,” Parsi writes. “In short, Biden’s fumbling of diplomacy in his early months poisoned the atmosphere and made a bad situation worse.”
The attack on Rushdie, as well as Iran’s alleged plots on other Americans, may continue to cast a pall over negotiations. But as the Iranian government and others have noted, the U.S. government has shown itself capable of putting aside humanitarian concerns in its dealings with allies, especially Saudi Arabia.
Even if the odds of reviving the deal are long, it’s incumbent on the Biden administration to make the attempt, argues Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Already damaged by Trump’s withdrawal, the United States’ credibility as a negotiating partner would suffer further if the administration pulled out now, and the Biden administration would have an even harder time of rallying the international community against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“We could be nearing the end of all diplomatic efforts to deal with the Iran nuclear issue,” he writes. But, he adds, “while Iran may be the roadblock now standing in the way of an agreement, the U.S. should not be the party that is directly responsible for hanging a ‘closed for the season’ sign on a diplomatic end game.”