The diplomatic tug-of-war between the United States and Iran over the Iran Nuclear Deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), seems like a perpetual struggle within American foreign policy.
Heralded as the defining diplomatic achievement of the Obama Administration by some, the JCPOA was an exhibition of multilateral action to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Brokered and ratified by the P5+1 in 2015, the agreement limited enrichment to 3.67%, eliminated uranium stockpiles, and imposed verification measures enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for sanctions relief and foreign investment. This proved sufficient motivation for Iranian nuclear concessions, which resulted in a sense of relative peace in the region while the pact was in place.
After former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the deal and reinforced “maximum pressure,” Iran’s nuclear program restarted with a newfound strength. Now, analysts are questioning if President Biden will reinstate the deal with a more potent nuclear-capable Iran, or pivot to a new framework more fitting to present circumstances.
Trumpian Unilateralism and “America First” Doctrine
Ascending to the presidency with a disdain for multilateralism, Trump rescinded U.S. commitments to the JCPOA in May 2018, claiming it was in the national interest. However, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal without consulting America’s allies or offering a new agreement harmed the country’s reputation. Disregarding advice from other JCPOA signatories urging the White House to remain committed to the deal, Trump’s actions isolated the United States as the sole spoiler of the agreement. With Iran dedicated to the JCPOA at the time of Trump’s withdrawal, his foreign policy decisions only reinforced the image of the United States as self-interested and feckless.
America under Trump was no longer a nation that led by example, honored its international commitments, and defended liberal democracy. Instead, U.S. foreign policy became about trading credibility and integrity for Trump’s personal gain. In the case of the JCPOA, undoing his predecessor’s legacy became a way for Trump to undermine multilateral cooperation and appeal to his supporter base by making good on a campaign promise.
Describing the JCPOA as “one of the worst deals ever” and “defective at its core,” Trump saw two fundamental flaws with the agreement. He first criticized the JCPOA’s narrow focus on Iran’s nuclear program. With the deal ignoring Iranian ballistic missile development, the preferred delivery for nuclear weapons, the Trump administration viewed the JCPOA as a stopgap rather than a long-term solution. Trump also criticized the JCPOA’s sunset provisions, the clause that limited constraints on Iran’s nuclear program to fifteen years. These together led critics to argue that the JCPOA offered lasting sanctions relief for temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Trump treated foreign policy as a zero-sum game. By this standard, any gain for Tehran made the JCPOA a loss for the United States. From Trump’s perspective, the pact simply delayed the rise of a nuclear Iran rather than prevent it entirely. Seeking a “better” deal for the United States, the Trump administration imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran, hoping that economic strangulation would bring Iran back to the bargaining table. Resultantly, Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” was born.
From restricting travel for Iranian diplomats to assassinating top military strategist Qassem Soleimani, the Trump Administration’s actions and Tehran’s aggressive response isolated Iran economically and politically in the region. Unfortunately, Trump’s plan for the area reaped minimum rewards. By breaking away from the JCPOA, Trump’s actions alienated European allies who remained committed to the deal. With states like Germany, France and the United Kingdom questioning Washington’s ability to commit to international agreements, Trump’s policies undermined America’s image as a loyal and stable ally. The reputation of the United States was only worsened by Iran refusing to accept more stringent terms to the JCPOA under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. With an increasingly hostile Iran and cautious allies, the Biden administration was left to pick up the pieces.
Biden’s Return to Multilateralism
Biden’s win and the promises of repairing alliances and restoring U.S. credibility represented a return to predictability in world affairs after four tumultuous years under Trump. In Amy Mackinnon’s words, “The international sigh of relief was almost audible.” Restoring the U.S.-led multilateralism approach in a world characterized by rising anti-Americanism and global democratic backsliding, however, is an ambitious task—one that is made all the more difficult by Trump’s legacy looming over the current administration.
Since April 2021, representatives from Iran, China, Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom engaged in JCPOA renegotiation talks in Vienna, with the United States absent from the bargaining table, but indirectly involved. Entering the eighth round of negotiations in February 2022, the appetite for a deal remained relatively high. If implemented, the agreement would bring the United States and Iran into compliance with the original deal, thus limiting Tehran’s nuclear development in exchange for sanctions relief. However, with the new agreement weaker than the original, the probability of successfully reinstating the JCPOA remains uncertain.
First and foremost, rising tensions between the United States and Russia over Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine has added a new complex layer to the Vienna talks. Iran’s strengthening of ties with Russia and China throughout the Trump presidency has encouraged President Ebrahim Raisi and his administration to drive a harder bargain over Iran’s nuclear program. As such, it is in President Biden’s interest to strike a deal sooner rather than later, before reaching a point where cooperation becomes impossible. However, Raisi can use the war as leverage, assuming Biden’s cabinet will seek to stabilize global oil prices and avoid the consequences of failed renegotiations, the Iranian president may push for further concessions and derail diplomatic progress.
Russia has already embraced this spoiler role. Foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, almost halted the talks by requesting that a renewed JCPOA include American guarantees that Western sanctions on Russia will not apply to trade or investment in Iran. Being the only country prepared to import Iran’s excess uranium to assist in downgrading Iranian nuclear facilities, Russia is a crucial player in restoring the JCPOA. Using the deal to further national interest, Lavrov’s request reveals how Putin’s invasion has reshaped the geopolitical interests of each state involved. Though Russia has since softened demands, it is likely that new negotiations on the JCPOA will become collateral damage to the Russia-Ukraine war.
Second, Tehran was burned by President Trump’s withdrawal and “maximum pressure” campaign. U.S. allies and adversaries now assess foreign policy costs and benefits with the knowledge that the U.S. political system can produce a president like Trump. Biden’s struggles in reinstating the JCPOA are also symptomatic of this shift.
For instance, the Iranian government has resisted returning to nuclear compliance without assurance that Washington will lift all Trump-era sanctions, compensate for the withdrawal, and guarantee that future presidents will comply with the deal and not unilaterally abandon the agreement. However, these demands pose problems for the Biden Administration. It is constitutionally-impossible for a president to commit a successor without a treaty confirmed by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. Ultimately, Iran’s refusal to renew the JCPOA based on the economic incentives alone speaks to a more pressing issue for President Biden’s foreign policy agenda: a loss of U.S. credibility in world affairs. As a result, Biden will have to work twice as hard to legitimize American-led multilateralism and ultimately restore the JCPOA.
Third, Iranian technical development has improved Tehran’s ability to produce weapons-grade uranium. Reinstating the original parameters of the JCPOA is concerning as Iran’s nuclear capabilities today are far more robust than they were in 2015. As Trump’s sanctions crippled the Iranian economy, Tehran responded with a “maximum defiance” campaign in return. From ignoring JCPOA restrictions to shooting down U.S. drones, Iran has spent the last three years advancing centrifuge work and stepping up enrichment efforts at the Natanz and Fordow nuclear facilities. Making significant progress on uranium enrichment, Iran’s “breakout time”—that is, the timeframe needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build one nuclear weapon—has fallen to approximately one month. With this development, it will be almost impossible to reinstate the one-year “breakout time” originally agreed upon through the JCPOA. As such, the Biden Administration may have to rely on IAEA monitoring provisions in a renewed JCPOA rather than a specific breakout time.
On the domestic front, Biden also faces the challenges of hyper-polarization and partisan division. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015, any significant agreements reached regarding Iran’s nuclear program must be submitted to Congress for approval. During a 30 or 60 day review period, Congress may pass a joint resolution to prevent the President from relieving sanctions against Iran without Congressional oversight. With the Democrats currently holding a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, it is unlikely that the deal’s critics will muster up the required votes. That being said, Republicans will likely complicate the JCPOA’s implementation if the party gains control of the House and the Senate in this year’s midterm elections. This could include introducing legislation to reimpose Trump-style sanctions that were lifted in a renewed JCPOA.
But, what does all this mean for President Biden’s foreign policy agenda? Explaining the Biden Doctrine, political scientist Walter Russel Mead writes that the President’s agenda is centered around an American-led world order that “tackles humanity’s common problems in an organized and even collegial way.” However, the ongoing diplomatic challenge in Vienna reveals Biden’s struggle to step out of former President Trump’s shadow and restore hope in the United States as an ally, and as a multilateral actor. Suppose the Biden Administration succeeds in renewing the JCPOA and overcoming the challenges posed by Russia. In that case, the President will be one step closer to restoring U.S. credibility and faith in the United States as a leader. However, if negotiations fail, the United States will have to contend with an Iran with few constraints on its nuclear activities, threatening the security environment in the Middle East.
While the United States continues to move out of the CENTCOM area of responsibility and look elsewhere in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, ensuring regional denuclearization in the Middle East and establishing a free flow of oil must remain in America’s national interest. President Biden cannot achieve these foreign policy objectives alone. Successfully reinstating the JCPOA signals that the White House is ready to make its return to multilateralism, re-establish the United States as a trustworthy ally, and credibly committed to nuclear nonproliferation.