Written by: Simon Fischer
One of President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy goals for his term will certainly be to negotiate a new agreement with Iran to curtail its growing nuclear program. The previous deal between the two sides, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (often referred to as “the Iran deal”) fell apart in May 2018 after the Trump Administration unilaterally chose to withdraw from the agreement. Iran followed this move by stepping away from the terms of the deal to replenish their nuclear supply. This included an announcement late last year that they had begun running a significant number of advanced new uranium centrifuges that accelerated its capacity to produce nuclear materials, which was labeled by former JCPOA senior negotiators as “concerning” and “only a surprise” to the Trump Administration. Additionally, Trump has continued to raise tensions with Tehran by authorizing an air strike in January that killed top military general Qasem Soleimani and has pushed for a “flood” of new sanctions on Iran before Biden takes office with the intention of making it harder for the US to negotiate a new agreement.
A major reason that Trump insisted on withdrawing from the JCPOA was pressure from Israel, specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since Netanyahu has taken office, his strategy has been to present Iran as a reckless actor on the world stage with a nuclear arsenal posing an existential threat to Israel. He has tried to force the United States into making a difficult decision of ceding to Iran’s nuclear supremacy by negotiating with them or prompting preemptive war. By making containment appear insufficient and diplomatic progress impossible because of his hardline demands (insisting on zero enrichment capabilities in negotiations, for example), Netanyahu’s goal has been to compel the US into taking more extreme actions against Iran instead of pragmatic diplomacy-centered strategies.
But Biden does not have to resort to making a choice in Netanyahu’s do-or-die ultimatum. In spite of Bibi and Trump’s efforts, his administration can look beyond the parameters of a “nuclear deal” and pursue a more durable agreement that seeks to de-escalate tensions with Tehran that is insulated from interference by Middle East interests. Given the current circumstances, any move Biden makes based on precedence or traditional thinking will fail, because the US must first rebuild our diplomatic relationship with Iran. This will surely draw criticism from Netanyahu and the hawkish Republicans who joined Trump in opposing the JCPOA, but there must be enough goodwill between the two sides to create a foundation for negotiations or Iran will have little incentive to comply with a deal.
If the Biden Administration truly wants to contain Iran as a nuclear threat, it needs to tackle this conflict with a new approach and potentially re-evaluate its priorities. Instead of acquiescing to Netanyahu’s hardline demands, it should think bigger than just a nuclear agreement. The best way to earn compliance from Iran is to normalize relations to the point where both sides have reasonable enough expectations for a negotiation process. America’s deteriorating relationship with Tehran has made it necessary to act to contain their nuclear buildup, but the incoming administration must do more than just re-enter the JCPOA. We need a solution that not only protects our interests, but can actually be counted on to succeed.