Why Biden May Try to Return to Iran Nuclear Deal Before Renegotiating It

Even as a close ally suggested a more conditional return, Biden is expected to try to secure Iran’s return to nuclear deal commitments before trying to renegotiate a follow-on deal

With only five months between President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and Iranian presidential elections in June in which hardliners are likely to prevail, Biden is expected to try to secure Iran’s return to its commitments under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), before trying to renegotiate a follow-on deal, a source familiar with his thinking said.

The rationale for a “clean” U.S. return to the JCPOA in exchange for Iran’s full return to the deal’s nuclear limits before trying to negotiate a possible broader or follow-on deal is that the window for rolling back Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program during the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is so short. Iran is due to hold presidential elections in June 2021, in which “hard hardliners,” as former lead U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman calls them, are likely to prevail, and in which Iran’s current second-term, relatively pro-engagement president Hassan Rouhani cannot run again.

“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,” then-candidate Biden wrote in September. “With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”

A former Obama administration official familiar with Biden’s views, speaking not for attribution, said that remains Biden’s position, which has been consistent.

“Biden has been clear and consistent about his Iran policy,” the former Obama administration official said. “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would re-enter the deal.”

“Biden would then use America’s restored credibility to work alongside our closest allies in Europe and others to engage Iran in follow-on diplomacy aimed at extending and strengthening the provisions of the JCPOA and addressing Iran’s other destabilizing behavior in the region,” the former official said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), a close Biden ally and fellow Delaware Democrat rumored to be among the candidates under consideration to be Biden’s secretary of state, said Friday that, speaking for himself, he would prefer a more conditional return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The United States would “need a path forward for limits on their missile program and their support for proxies before I would support reentering the JCPOA,” Coons told Reuters on Friday. “These need to happen at the same time.” This position is counter to that of most of other JCPOA participants, who stuck with the deal even as the Trump administration pulled the United States out in 2018, and may be a non-starter for the more pro-engagement Iranian officials who would be on the other side of the negotiating table.

A United Nations official who has worked extensively on Iran said a clean re-entry is the most secure way to ensure that Iran returns to strict limits on its stockpile of fissile material and other restrictions before the Iranian team that negotiated the deal leaves office.

“I think a clean re-entry is not only possible,” the UN official said Thursday. “I think it is still probably the path forward, regardless of the current posturing and the complaints that will be lobbed by the opponents of the deal on all sides, and by hawks in Tehran and Washington.”

“The easiest path forward is the quick and unconditional reentry into the JCPOA,” he said.

A Short Window

Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has grown to twelve times the JCPOA’s 300 kilogram limit, which it observed until a year after President Donald Trump quit the deal in 2018 and imposed a broad array of biting sanctions, according to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report.

Trump was reportedly so alarmed at the report that he requested military options at an inter-agency meeting last week, according to the New York Times.

Iranian officials, however, have repeatedly said they would be willing to reverse the steps they have taken to protest the Trump administration’s re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions should the United States return to the deal and lift the nuclear sanctions it agreed to under the 2015 pact.

“The imperative is to get Iran to return to compliance before the Iranian team in place that negotiated the deal leaves office next year,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran initiative.

“A lot has to be done… before the Iranian elections, because now you have the same team in place that negotiated the JCPOA, and you won’t have that after the summer,” said Slavin, co-author, with Ellie Geranmayeh (at the European Council on Foreign Relations) and Sahil Shah (at the European Leadership Network), of a new report, “Renewing transatlantic strategy on Iran.”

“That is why it is imperative to do it now,” Slavin continued.

“We have just a few months between the Inauguration Day, 20 of January, and the presidential elections in Iran in the middle of June,” former European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council and European Leadership Network this week. She continued:

How do we use those few months to make sure that the United States re-enters the agreement and Iran goes back to full compliance? … I think that both Iran and the next US administration will have to feel confident and comfortable with the fact that what they’re doing is not a unilateral move, but it’s in the framework of a multilateral process.

The Iranians have indicated in recent days that they do not want to have a bilateral negotiation with the United States. Any U.S.-Iran consultations would therefore have to be conducted in a multilateral setting, possibly as part of the multi-party Joint Commission, which oversees implementation of the nuclear deal, a forum the United States withdrew from after Trump quit the deal in 2018.

“Look, the reality is that the Iranians, as they have said in the past few days, do not want a negotiated reentry,” the UN official said. “So the U.S. re-entry ticket to the P5+1” –the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, the group that, along with the EU, negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran — “table is the lifting of sanctions and returning to the deal. Now, at the same time, I think the Biden team will be uncomfortable lifting the sanctions without knowing how the Iranians will come back into compliance.”

According to the UN official, “there’s a way of bridging this gap, which is that Biden can sign an executive order revoking Trump’s executive order of 2018, and empower the Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury to start lifting nuclear-related sanctions when the IAEA verifies that Iran has come back into compliance.”

It will take the Iranians four to six weeks to come back into full compliance, should they decide to do so, the UN official assessed. “They have to dismantle a certain number of centrifuges [that go] beyond the limits in the JCPOA,” he said. “They have to dismantle some of the more advanced centrifuges [installed for] testing. They have to do no enrichment at the [fortified, underground site] at Fordo. They have to, most importantly, change the configuration of some of the [centrifuge] cascades so they don’t enrich above 3.67%. And bring the stockpile of LEU down to 300kg.”

“At the end of that 4-6 week process, the IAEA can verify if Iran is in full compliance,” the UN official continued. “That is when OFAC [the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls] could issue new guidelines” and reinstate licenses, and the Secretary of State could issue waivers of statutory sanctions, that would permit banks to facilitate financial transactions with Iran permitted under the JCPOA.

While the Europeans, together with the Russians and Chinese, and of course the Iranians, have managed to hold together the shell of the JCPOA through two years of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, there may be some European ambivalence now at the prospect of Biden’s possible reentry to the JCPOA, rather than instead try to leverage Trump’s sanctions on the front end to try to renegotiate the deal first.

The week before last, the E3 (the three European parties to the JCPOA, the British, French and German) political directors met and discussed their options.

Coons too expressed hopes for a broader agreement that set out “some clear path towards addressing the missile program and support for proxies,” he told Reuters.

But the UN official, who has worked extensively on Iran, said negotiating a “JCPOA 2.0” will not be possible before the window closes and Iranian hardliners suspicious of engaging with the West likely once again control Iran’s executive and foreign ministry.

“I think that is really lunacy,” the UN official said. “My view is that between now and the end of next year, when a new Iranian president comes into office, there can be only three things: re-entry into the JCPOA; ending the conflict in Yemen; and a prisoner swap. Anything beyond that is too ambitious.”

IMAGE: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) and Swiss President Alain Berset hold a joint press conference following various signing ceremonies in Bern on July 3, 2018. – Rouhani is visiting Switzerland and Austria as part of a campaign by Tehran to secure continued European backing for the 2015 nuclear accord which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, substantial parts of which were negotiated in Switzerland. (Photo by RUBEN SPRICH/AFP via Getty Images)

  

About the Author(s)

Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen is a member of the Just Security editorial board, and writes the Diplomatic newsletter. Follow her on Twitter (@LRozen).