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Why President Biden Wants to Revive the Iran Deal

Last week, the Biden administration announced that it had agreed to engage with Iran yet again on nuclear negotiations through indirect talks in Vienna, this time mediated by the European Union. Given the past failures of these talks, and the strong opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal by the Israelis, some Gulf Arabs, and many members of the US Congress—even including some of President Biden’s fellow Democrats—an outside observer might wonder why, in the face of such intractable adversity, he and his team have not simply given up on nuclear negotiations.

Diplomacy’s Limitations

The reasons for Biden’s perseverance have to do with the president’s perceptions of his legacy, a fundamental ideological disagreement with the nuclear deal’s detractors, the need for a foreign policy win, and the hope that the resolution of the nuclear issue will lead to a decrease in tensions across the Gulf, allowing Washington to pivot its attention to the Indo-Pacific region and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

First, it is important to remember that Biden was vice president when the Obama administration successfully negotiated the JCPOA with Iran, with the help of the other “P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany). This was a landmark achievement of the Obama administration, and one that Biden wants to preserve, given that he was actively engaged with the Obama administration’s foreign policy and given his background as a foreign policy specialist within the U.S. Senate. Hence, when former President Trump called the JCPOA “the worst deal ever negotiated,” Biden most likely took personal umbrage and views the JCPOA’s restoration as part of his legacy while in office.

Second, Biden and his team earnestly believe that the Iran nuclear deal prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Some critics of the deal argue that the deal should have addressed Iran’s missile development and its malign behavior in the region, including its support for proxy forces, while others note that it included “sunset” provisions on nuclear restrictions, arguing they allowed Iran to simply wait the measures out before resuming its nuclear program.

However, Biden probably understood the limitations of attempting to pursue a broader deal. During the JCPOA negotiations, Iran demonstrated its willingness to severely restrict its nuclear program in exchange for tangible benefits from the West. At the same time, it made clear early on that it was not willing to undergo the same process for its foreign policy; if the Obama administration had insisted that Iran’s foreign policy be included in the negotiations, the end result would have been no deal at all. Some critics of the deal even suggested that Iran should not even have the right to enrich uranium to a low level for civilian nuclear energy purposes, which Iran is explicitly allowed to do in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Not allowing a civilian nuclear program would have been a clear nonstarter for Tehran.

Under the provisions of the JCPOA, Iran had to allow the United Nations to conduct intrusive inspections of its nuclear sites—a condition that Tehran disliked but agreed to as part of the JCPOA. Until Trump pulled out of the deal in May 2018, Iran was abiding by its terms, according to public testimony before Congress by U.S. intelligence chiefs. After Trump pulled out of the deal and imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran, the Iranian government then began to gradually suspend its own commitments to the JCPOA and started to produce highly enriched uranium once more. It is indisputable that Iran is now far closer to achieving a nuclear weapon because of this boost in uranium enrichment and that Biden and his team also believe that Iran’s drastic shortening of the ‘break out time’ to making a nuclear weapon has made the Middle East a much more dangerous place. As in the case of Pakistan, which only committed to developing a nuclear capability after its archrival India did so first, a nuclear Iran would likely compel regional rival Saudi Arabia to follow suit, with the potential for other regional players such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, or Turkey to do the same.

Domestic Considerations

Third, after the debacle of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Biden wants and needs a foreign policy win. Although the president’s detractors will undoubtedly pounce on him for attempting to return the United States to the JCPOA, Biden will try to sell the deal to the American people in much the same way as Obama had, pointing out that severe limitations on Iran’s nuclear program are an essential part of the deal. Although the American people still have a negative view of Iran going back to the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, they are not eager for a war with Iran over the issue, and recent polling has indicated that 78 percent of Americans support the use of diplomacy to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Fourth, the Biden administration believes that the reduction in regional tensions that would accompany Iran’s return to the JCPOA would not only make the Middle East a safer place but would enable the US to finally “pivot to Asia” to confront the growing strength of China. This rationale has also led the Biden administration to praise the efforts of the Iraqi government in hosting Saudi-Iranian talks—a development that benefits Baghdad as much as Washington, as Iraq has long been unwillingly used as a proxy battleground for other regional rivalries. During his recent trip to Jeddah, Biden tried to reassure Washington’s Gulf Arab partners that the United States would continue to support them, but to American policy makers the China issue looms larger than Gulf security in the global picture.

Finally, an under analyzed reason for the new push for negotiations may be Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which led to significant disruptions to world markets and skyrocketing oil and commodities prices. If the Vienna negotiations are successful and the JCPOA is revitalized, it would come as part of a bargain in which Trump-era oil sanctions on Iran would be lifted—a development that benefits the United States, as it would allow more oil to come onto the world market and lower gasoline prices for American consumers.

Despite all of these benefits that would accrue from a return to the JCPOA in the eyes of the Biden administration, its officials have tried to downplay the chances for a successful outcome, not wishing to raise public expectations too high while displaying to the Iranians that they can walk away from the talks if Tehran continues to be obstinate. In spite of these long odds, however, the Biden administration appears earnest to conclude a deal, given the major benefits that the Biden administration and the United States would gain from its successful negotiation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Professor Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, and a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University where he teaches courses on U.S. foreign policy. Professor Aftandilian is also an adjunct faculty member at Boston University and George Mason University, teaching courses on Middle East politics. Previously, he worked for the U.S. government for over 20 years in such capacities as Professional Staff Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Middle East Analyst at the U.S. Department of State. He holds B.A. in History from Dartmouth College, M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from University of Chicago, and M.Sc. in International Relations from London School of Economics.

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