• Sycamore Institute AU

America is Back: Rebuilding the Iran Nuclear Deal


By Connor Tull


In the realm of world politics, there are currently five established nuclear states, who have developed and possess nuclear weapons but are also responsible for monitoring future nuclear development around the world: the U.S., Russia, UK, France, and China. These countries are all great powers and have strived to balance themselves to protect humanity from the destructive power nuclear weapons possess. However, any rogue state has the potential to upend that balance. This has been the case for Iran, which has been on a path to developing nuclear weapons ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution. So it is with understandably nervous feelings, the most recent news on talks for reviving the controversial Iran nuclear deal has been mostly negative. President Biden’s plan to try and bring the rogue state back into the agreement has met a dead end as the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi has remained firm in his stance that no action can be considered until sanctions are lifted in some meaningful way. Consequently, these next few months will be crucial for President Biden if he wishes to truly show the world that America is back as a global leader.

The Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was first established in 2015 under the Obama administration and with the support of several world powers including the members of the UN Security Council (U.S., UK, France, China, Russia) as well as Germany, who are collectively known as the P5+1. The hope was that any serious nuclear activities pursued by Tehran would be forced to take at least a year to develop, allowing world powers time to respond. It was later in 2018 that things would sour though as the Trump administration, pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy towards Iran, withdrew from the agreement and resumed its harsh sanctions. Now that Biden has come into power and American foreign policy seems to be turning back to the traditional norms it has had with its European allies, there is a sense of unease as to whether the American commitment this time will be permanent.

The dilemma with Iran is both a problem and an opportunity for Biden. Biden’s foreign policy has been one of “America is Back”, involving the reestablishment of commitments to combating threats such as China and Russia, reconnecting with its allies in Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific, and in Biden’s words, earning back “our position of trusted leadership.” If Biden really wants to demonstrate this to both America’s allies and its foes, Iran will be the key testing ground. Suppose America fails to salvage the deal in a meaningful form. In that case, we have handed the initiative to Iran to continue its policy of nuclear deterrence, which will have serious consequences for close U.S. allies in the region like Israel and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, if negotiations are successful as they were in 2015, America may be able to recapture the presence it had pre-Trump in bringing uncooperative or belligerent actors to the negotiating table. The U.S. has always prided itself on being able to craft these kinds of agreements, especially since the end of the Cold War and the cementing of America’s status as the sole superpower. The Camp David Accords (1978), Dayton Accords (1995), and the Sudanese comprehensive peace agreement (2005) are just a few examples of American-led peace deals over the years.

In order to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, Biden must pursue a twofold strategy: first, demonstrate the signs of renewed commitment to working with our allies and making this deal as permanent and enforceable as possible. America’s allies want to get back to work with America, they just need to find the time and place where they can unify their objectives and demands to be a more practical front. The U.S. and its allies already present a strong force in other matters, so by showing that they are all once again hardened in their resolve and cooperation Iran may be pressured both internally and externally by Russia and China to come to the negotiating table with a more amicable attitude. An initial statement was made by Biden, outgoing German Chancellor Angel Merkel, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron during the G20 conference back in October, with the leaders agreeing that “we are convinced that it is possible to quickly reach and implement an understanding on return to full compliance and to ensure for the long term that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Biden must continue to push these multilateral meetings to make sure that all of our allies feel they are included and any concerns are addressed before they have the potential to slow or disrupt the proceedings. The non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is a tricky business and with the concerns of U.S. allies playing a strong role in the Biden administration’s decisions, there must be a concrete understanding as to what is both feasible and best for everyone. Russia and China too must be approached, even if they stand against the U.S. on a number of fronts. They are nuclear-weapon states, after all, so to blatantly disregard their input could spell disaster for any renewed sense of commitment.

To follow up on this renewed commitment Biden must expand and continue the sanctions on Iran. This may sound counterproductive at first, but it is actually the sign America’s allies need as proof that America is committed to making sure the terms of the agreement are followed. By rallying our allies with renewed pressure on Iran, Biden will not only show that America is back, but that it possesses the strength and resolve to enforce the tenets of the global order that has been upheld since 1945. It is important to stress that America must use its sanctions in concert with its allies to amplify the effects on the Iranian economy and leadership. America’s sanctions alone have had a serious effect on Iran. For example, the resumption of sanctions in 2018 caused Iran’s oil exports to plunge to below three hundred thousand barrels per day. This is a massive problem for Iran when you consider that oil and petroleum products account for 80% of Iran’s exports. In addition, the Iranian rial has fallen further against the U.S. dollar as a result of October 2020 sanctions on eighteen major Iranian banks. These effects show one of the basic facts of sanctions: they create leverage. The more countries work together, the more leverage they collectively possess. Therefore a multilateral approach of the U.S. and its allies will almost certainly bring Iran to the negotiating table and accept terms that work for everyone. By working with the tools already there, Biden will have shown hope to our allies and truly cemented America’s return to the world stage.

In conclusion, the future of the Iran nuclear deal looks uncertain, but that outlook isn’t a permanent one. The building blocks for a successful return to the Iran nuclear deal are in place, Biden must just follow them through and work within the diplomatic channels that have always been there. Nuclear non-proliferation has been achieved in countries such as South Africa, Belarus, and Ukraine before, so he can also look to those examples for inspiration on how to approach Iran. Of course, Iran is its own challenge, but the reasons behind its behavior remain the same. America does not have to concede much to earn back its primus inter pares position in this crisis. It only needs to remember its history and the diplomatic legacy it possesses, and march forward head high.