One of Donald Trump’s greatest blunders as president was to repudiate the 2015 international agreement in which Iran accepted significant limitations on its nuclear program – restrictions designed to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Rather than pressuring Iran to accede to tougher limits, as the former president hoped, the decision to abandon the deal in 2018 and reimpose economic sanctions gave the Islamic Republic an excuse to begin openly violating the agreement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested that the United States will hold off on rejoining the Iran nuclear pact until Tehran “returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement.” But President Biden’s national security adviser seemed to signal greater urgency. Carlos Barria/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

During last year’s campaign, Joe Biden promised that the United States would rejoin the agreement – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – if Iran returned to strict compliance.

But as the Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson reported, that will be difficult for several reasons, including the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, will not be able to seek re-election in June. Hard-liners in Iran who’ve championed its nuclear ambitions have been emboldened not only by Trump’s use of economic sanctions to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran, but by the U.S. military’s targeted killing last year of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who led the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.

Iran’s move to violate some provisions of the JCPOA also complicates President Biden’s decision-making. Last year Iran announced that it would no longer observe the agreement’s restrictions on uranium enrichment, which barred the country from developing the purer forms of uranium needed for nuclear weapons. It has since used more powerful advanced centrifuges in the enrichment process, which the agreement also outlawed, and is now producing 20 percent enriched uranium for supposedly peaceful purposes – far above the 3.67 percent enrichment limit in the JCPOA.

Iran has insisted at times that it is up to Biden to make the first move. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN: “It was the United States that left the deal. It was the United States that violated the deal. It was the United States that punished any country that remained respectful and compliant with the deal. So it is for the United States to return to the deal, to implement its obligations.”

He has a point. But the Biden administration has suggested that Iran must act first. In an interview with CBS broadcast Feb. 7, the president was asked: “Will the U.S. lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table?” He answered, “No.”


Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made similar comments, telling CNN that “if Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing and then we would work with our allies and partners to try to build a longer and stronger agreement and also bring in some of these other issues like Iran’s missile programs, like its destabilizing actions in the region.”

But last month, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, seemed to signal a greater urgency, saying that “a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis as (the Iranians) move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon.”

Biden is right to insist that Iran return to full compliance, but it would be a mistake for him simply to wait for that to occur before demonstrating to Iran – and to America’s European allies who helped negotiate the JCPOA, along with China and Russia – that he is serious about salvaging the agreement.

Biden should authorize Robert Malley, the Middle East expert he has named as his special envoy for Iran, to open a channel of communication with Tehran. The U.S. should also seriously consider a suggestion by Zarif that the U.S. and Iran take synchronized steps leading to Iran’s return to full compliance and the reversal of Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA.

The JCPOA wasn’t a perfect agreement. Although some of its provisions are permanent, others will expire between 2025 and 2030. During last year’s campaign, Biden said that if he were elected and Iran returned to compliance, the U.S. would rejoin the JCPOA as a starting point for negotiations on strengthening and extending its provisions. The JCPOA can be improved on, but returning to the agreement is the necessary first step.

Any attempt by Biden to engage Iran on the nuclear issue will face opposition from those in Congress and elsewhere who have denounced the JCPOA. The administration will also need to resist likely opposition from Israel. Finally, Biden will need to try to make progress on the nuclear issue while challenging Iran on its support for militant groups, its ballistic missile program and its violations of human rights.

But preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons remains a paramount priority. A nuclear-armed Iran would destabilize the region, provide the Islamic Republic with dramatically more influence and likely inspire other nations in the region to pursue their own nuclear ambitions. Finally, if Iran possessed nuclear weapons, it might be tempted to use them in a crisis – or the fear that it could do so might lead other countries to launch a pre-emptive strike.

The JCPOA was a bulwark against these threats, and the United States under Trump recklessly undermined it. On this issue, as on so many others, Biden must move boldly to undo his predecessor’s mistakes.

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