Diplomacy with Iran has been stalled since President Biden came into office, largely as a result of Biden’s tough opening position. The administration has insisted that, although Trump abrogated the nuclear deal when Iran was fully compliant, Iran must make the first move in bringing its nuclear program back within the limits of the JCPOA before the United States will even consider lifting sanctions. In response, the Iranians proposed a step‐by‐step process by which each side simultaneously puts an end to their violations and restores the agreement. Biden’s hardline position, probably intended to placate hawkish critics on Capitol Hill, was so stubbornly unmoving that it seemed to dismiss the notion of formal negotiations — at least until Iran satisfied this petty insistence to move first.
Fortunately, Biden has softened his position…somewhat. It might be more precise to say that the administration is offering a few diplomatic carrots in hopes that Iran will accommodate its demand to move first. In a strong signal of their desire to deal, Biden’s State Department announced that the United States would accept an invitation from the EU to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss reviving the deal. The administration also rescinded Trump’s stated policy of re‐imposing UN sanctions (which the Security Council had rejected anyways) and loosened Trump’s travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York.
Once negotiating parties actually get together for talks, diplomacy can become a lot easier because leaders can communicate real positions and intentions with less concern about audience costs. To the extent that the parties see cooperation as mutually beneficial, direct talks can allow them to find face‐saving ways to move forward without triggering hawkish objections within their respective domestic constituencies (or even among their respective allies). With luck, this dynamic can help overcome what remains an obstinate set of opening demands on the part of the Biden administration.
From the New York Times (emphasis mine):
The first obstacle to restoring the deal may be a delicate political dance of who acts first. Mr. Blinken said this week that the Biden administration believed simply restoring the old deal was insufficient. He has other goals that include extending and deepening the agreement in an effort to rein in Iran’s growing missile ability and its continued support of terrorist groups and the Syrian government of Bashar al‐Assad, issues that Iran has said are not on table.
It’s important to remember that many of the officials who negotiated with Iran and worked on the JCPOA in the Obama administration, and vigorously defended it in subsequent years, are the very same officials now saying the JCPOA alone is insufficient. Some future arrangement that expands on the JCPOA is not an inherently bad thing, in theory. But given the immense distrust between the U.S. and Iran, reinforced by the Trump administration’s JCPOA delinquency and outright aggression towards Iran, one wonders why the Biden administration would so explicitly reject the adequacy of simply returning to the status quo ante. And why insist on objectives that are obvious non‐starters for Iran? In this case especially, leaving well‐enough alone is an important diplomatic tenet that the Biden administration may want to seriously consider.
In all likelihood, what’s driving the administration’s recalcitrant position on Iran is politics. On the one hand, Biden feels pressure from hawks in Washington and in the capitals of America’s Middle East “partners,” to be tough on Iran. On the other hand, the baseless pathology that Iran presents a significant national security threat to the United States pervades official Washington, including Biden’s executive branch. Erroneous beliefs about the supposed threat posed by Iran’s missile capabilities (intended to deter their better‐armed regional adversaries) can easily lead Biden to make more maximalist demands at the outset. As with the Obama administration, these pressures make a successful deal harder (but still possible) to achieve. A further strain may be Biden’s own ambition: isn’t it better for a president’s legacy to achieve a new and better deal than to simply revert to the achievements of a previous administration?
Disentangling America from the morass of the Middle East will be very difficult to achieve unless the enemy image of Iran loosens and Washington’s inflated security concerns are to some extent assuaged. Diplomacy is the route to satisfying those objectives. If the Biden administration wants that, it is there for the taking. But it is highly unlikely that their hardline posturing will appease the hawks they are trying to placate. With luck, the direct talks that the Biden administration has now opened the door to will enable the U.S. and Iran to overcome their respective domestic liabilities and reach an agreement they both want.