Show an ad over header. AMP

How Biden might tackle the Iran deal

Four more years of President Trump would almost certainly kill the Iran nuclear deal — but the election of Joe Biden wouldn’t necessarily save it.

The big picture: Rescuing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is near the top of Biden's foreign policy priority list. He says he'd re-enter the deal once Iran returns to compliance, and use it as the basis on which to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting deal with Iran.

Breaking it down: Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018, restoring U.S. sanctions and piling on new ones under a “maximum pressure” campaign that has devastated the Iranian economy.

  • He contends that bringing Iran to its knees will eventually bring it back to the negotiating table. That has yet to happen.
  • Iran remains a party to the JCPOA but has been systematically breaching it since last May.
  • It's not a sprint for the bomb, but Iran has reduced its “breakout time” from one year to perhaps three months.

The European signatories to the deal — France, Germany and the U.K. — have been desperately trying to save it.

  • One European diplomat told Axios in September that he had one eye on the polls and another on the calendar, anticipating that support would arrive from Washington if the deal could only survive a few more months.

But the Trump administration is attempting to finish off the deal, in part by adding a thicket of sanctions that Biden might find politically painful to remove.

  • Rob Malley, a former Middle East adviser to Barack Obama and now president of the International Crisis Group, says those efforts will only intensify if Biden wins on Nov. 3.
  • "I’m sure there will be people around the president who’d say, 'You are the only thing that stands between a President Biden and undoing everything you did on Iran, and you now have two and a half months to do everything you can to make a return to the JCPOA impossible.'"

Iran's domestic politics may prove more challenging still. The "reformist" administration of President Hassan Rouhani has been badly burned, and hardliners are expected to take over following presidential elections next June.

Zarif has set a high bar for any future nuclear talks with the U.S. Photo: Iranian Presidency Handout via Getty
  • Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says Iran will return to compliance if the U.S. does — but insists Tehran won't consider any additional U.S. demands and expects "compensation" for Trump's sanctions.
  • Zarif expressed skepticism last month about the prospects for a follow-on agreement — even one designed only to push back the JCPOA's sunset clauses. “We spent more time negotiating those limitations than anything else," he told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Where things stand: “There are obstacles — demands that Iran might make, our own politics, the more complicated relationship that the U.S. now has with Russia and China — so this is not going to be smooth sailing," Malley says.

  • Nonetheless, he continues, “the gravitational pull is towards a return to the JCPOA."

How it works

It took Iran about six months to come into compliance with the JCPOA the first time says Ernest Moniz, the former energy secretary who played a key role in negotiating that deal.

  • Now that "the playbook has already been run" and Iran has less to dismantle, it could be accomplished in about four months, he says. That would require help from Russia, which was critical to the 2015 process.

That means the earliest Iran could return to compliance would be right around the time its next administration takes office.

Moniz (L) during the 2015 talks in Vienna. Photo: Carlos Barria/AFP via Getty
  • "A serious negotiation of JCPOA-plus probably has to wait for the new president," Moniz says, noting that new negotiations would require the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
  • “A new president in both places is probably what is needed, at least potentially, to get the nod from the supreme leader in Iran," he says.

Moniz says a revitalized JCPOA would provide the world with confidence that Iran is not building a nuclear weapons program — its original purpose — but would be insufficient.

  • While verification measures would remain in place indefinitely, limitations on Iran's nuclear material and facilities will lapse over the next several years.
  • A cap on Iran's supply of low-enriched uranium — "the single biggest nuclear constraint," in Moniz's view — expires in 2030.

In future negotiations, Moniz adds, "regional concerns will have to be more front and center."

Two paths forward

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the loudest and most influential critics of the 2015 deal.

  • He has declined to speculate on what a potential Biden victory would mean for U.S. policy on Iran, instead staying silent and hoping for a Trump victory, Axios' Barak Ravid reports.
  • But the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis would oppose a return to the JCPOA, Malley says. They object to the fact that the deal doesn't constrain Iran's missiles, its proxy forces or its broader regional activities.
A long way apart. Photo: Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

The Trump administration has demanded Iran negotiate on all of those fronts as part of any deal — and claims it will be forced to if Trump is re-elected.

  • “We are at the moment where the Iranians will recognize, because they can’t take four more years of this, they will have to enter into a negotiation," Elliott Abrams, Trump's Iran envoy, recently told CNN.

What to watch: Biden envisions almost precisely the opposite path to a broader deal with Iran, but acknowledges there's no guarantee Iran will even return to compliance with the JCPOA.

  • As with many other issues, his campaign emphasizes the need to restore America's credibility and its alliances.
  • "If Iran decides not to do it, well, I think the world would be able to address that together," Tony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, told the "Pod Save the World" podcast this week.
  • "And if Iran does engage in this, then at least we’d be back with the folks who helped us achieve the deal in the first place."

Go deeper: Biden's allies-first approach to China

Biden's Day 1 challenges: The immigration reset

President-elect Biden has an aggressive Day One immigration agenda that relies heavily on executive actions to undo President Trump's crackdown.

Why it matters: It's not that easy. Trump issued more than 400 executive actions on immigration. Advocates are fired up. The Supreme Court could threaten the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and experts warn there could be another surge at the border.

Keep reading... Show less

Coronavirus crisis engulfs NFL, as the Broncos and 49ers become the latest teams impacted

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the NFL season into chaos, with the Denver Broncos' quarterbacks sidelined, the San Francisco 49ers left without a home or practice ground and much of the Baltimore Ravens team unavailable, per AP.

Driving the news: The Broncos confirmed in a statement Saturday night that quarterbacks Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles had been identified as "high-risk COVID-19 close contacts" and will follow the NFL's mandatory five-day quarantine, making them ineligible for Sunday's game against New Orleans.

Keep reading... Show less

Tony Hsieh, longtime Zappos CEO, dies at 46

Tony Hsieh, the longtime ex-chief executive of Zappos, died on Friday after being injured in a house fire, his lawyer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He was 46.

The big picture: Hsieh was known for his unique approach to management, and following the 2008 recession his ongoing investment and efforts to revitalize the downtown Las Vegas area.

Keep reading... Show less

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Keep reading... Show less

Joe Biden considers retired general Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star general Lloyd Austin as his nominee for Defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Keep reading... Show less

WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release"

Top scientists at the World Health Organization on Friday called for more detailed information on a coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.

Why it matters: Oxford and AstraZeneca have said the vaccine was 90% effective in people who got a half dose followed by a full dose, and 62% effective in people who got two full doses. AstraZeneca has since acknowledged that the smaller dose received by some participants was the result of an error by a contractor, per the New York Times.

Keep reading... Show less

Court rejects Trump campaign's appeal in Pennsylvania case

A federal appeals court on Friday unanimously rejected the Trump campaign's emergency appeal seeking to file a new lawsuit against Pennsylvania's election results, writing in a blistering ruling that the campaign's "claims have no merit."

Why it matters: It's another devastating blow to President Trump's sinking efforts to overturn the results of the election. Pennsylvania, which President-elect Joe Biden won by more than 80,000 votes, certified its results last week and is expected to award 20 electoral votes to Biden on Dec. 12.

Keep reading... Show less



Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories