After Jan. 20, what will happen to U.S. policy on Iran? On the campaign trail, Joe Biden said he would return the United States to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran so long as Tehran does the same. Iran has made a mirror-image pledge to roll back its nuclear program and return to compliance once Washington lifts sanctions.
In theory, then, returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the 2015 Iran nuclear deal signed by China, France, Germany, Iran, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia — should be straightforward. Biden could make that decision on his first day in office.
But domestic politics in both countries — and regional considerations — will make an immediate return to the deal harder than it looks. President Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, and reviving the JCPOA probably won’t happen the moment he departs the White House. Here’s why.
Biden will face competing priorities
A clean, immediate return to the Iran nuclear deal is appealing in its simplicity — the new administration could do so unilaterally by signing an executive order, issuing waivers and removing sanctions designations, among other steps. Even though the Trump administration appears intent on trying to layer on new sanctions during its final weeks in office, none of these steps would be irreversible or permanent. Moreover, a direct return to the deal would not require congressional review.
But a push to return quickly to the JCPOA could come at a big political cost. In 2015, a domestic fight over implementing the deal was as intense as was the battle for health-care reform. The Obama administration spent a huge amount of energy and political capital to secure the JCPOA, with the president serving as “chief salesman.” The Obama administration judged that locking down its signature foreign policy priority was worth the political effort.
It’s not obvious that the Iran nuclear deal will have a similar elevated status under Biden, at least initially. He will face staggering domestic and international challenges, such as combating the coronavirus pandemic, reviving the economy and rebuilding U.S. alliances. Iran is on the agenda, but it’s probably a stretch to say it’s at the top. If Republicans continue to hold the Senate — which will be determined in two runoff elections in Georgia in January — they could further constrain Biden’s options, although this will depend on their legislative priorities.
U.S. friends will oppose any snap decisions
U.S. friends in the Middle East will also strongly oppose a direct return to the deal. The leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, in particular, believe the Iran nuclear deal did too little to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and gave Tehran a free hand in the region. They cannot stop Washington from rejoining the deal — as they could not stop the United States from concluding the JCPOA in the first place — but they can make it politically more difficult. Persistent opposition from U.S. partners in the region could endanger the sustainability of the deal.
Yet the extent of Israeli public opposition will depend greatly on domestic developments. At a strategic level, there is no daylight between senior Israeli political and security officials about the threat Iran poses. But there is significant disagreement about how aggressively Israel should make its case in Washington. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to publicly clash with President Barack Obama over the JCPOA, but Netanyahu’s other coalition partners, including Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, are less confrontational. Israel is heading toward new elections next year, which could shake up the country’s leadership and affect how vocally it would oppose the United States reentering the JCPOA.
Why Tehran may move slowly
Even if Biden decides on an immediate return to the JCPOA, Iran may not be ready to reciprocate. First, Iranian leaders are unlikely to appear overeager to negotiate. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains profoundly suspicious of dealing with Washington, and Trump’s withdrawal from the deal apparently validated his long-held views about American duplicity. The possibility that a Republican could win the 2024 U.S. election and repudiate the agreement once again will contribute to Iranian caution.
Tehran will probably also be wary about potentially emboldening the Biden administration to expand the scope for follow-on negotiations. During the campaign, Biden wrote that he wanted to use the JCPOA reentry as a “starting point” to “strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern,” which presumably include Iran’s missile program and regional activities — conversations that Iran will try to avoid. Tehran has also called on the United States to compensate it financially for the damage caused by sanctions, a demand that is probably aimed at deterring Washington from broadening the negotiations.
Second, Iran’s presidential elections in June 2021 may prove an added barrier. For President Hassan Rouhani, securing a quick reentry to the JCPOA before the elections could help rehabilitate his legacy and benefit his allies. But Khamenei and other hard-liners will probably try to block this from happening, as a return to the JCPOA could upset their advantage heading into the election. While Khamenei may well approve U.S.-Iran negotiations before the June election — as he did well before Rouhani’s 2013 election — he could keep those talks going until after Iran’s next president is sworn into office in August.
What to look for in January
After Jan. 20, we may see the White House send some positive signals to Tehran. Biden has promised to repeal Trump’s ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries (including Iran), and the administration may issue licenses or additional guidance to ease the barriers to Iran accessing medical supplies.
But the path back to the Iran nuclear deal remains complex. Biden may instead pursue a “freeze-for-freeze” policy aimed at rolling back some of Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief. As with most issues between the United States and Iran, the next steps will not be straightforward.
Henry Rome (@hrome2) is a senior analyst on Iran, Israel and global macro issues at the Eurasia Group.