With or Without the JCPOA, Iran Will Be a Challenge for Biden
With or Without the JCPOA, Iran Will Be a Challenge for Biden
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

With or Without the JCPOA, Iran Will Be a Challenge for Biden

Since last April, the U.S. has been engaged in indirect negotiations with Iran on restoring the 2015 deal limiting Tehran's nuclear program known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. If these talks succeed, or should they fail, the impact will reverberate across a range of issues beyond the nonproliferation file over which Washington and Tehran are at odds.

When the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, it laid out 12 demands addressing various aspects of Iranian policy it wanted Tehran to change. Of the concerns it identified, three directly dealt with the nuclear program, and one addressed bilateral issues—namely, the release of U.S. citizens along with those of its allies detained by the Islamic Republic. The rest addressed Iran’s regional posture, including its ballistic missile development, which Washington wanted stopped, and its network of proxies and partners from Yemen to the Levant, which the U.S. wanted rolled back. To achieve those ends, the Trump administration primarily used financial pressure, with extensive deployment of unilateral sanctions that significantly damaged the Iranian economy, but produced little return on either the nuclear front, where Iran began to ramp up its activity, or in blunting Iranian capabilities across the Middle East.

In terms of the threats from Iran as seen by Washington, the Biden administration’s list is unlikely to differ substantially from its predecessor’s: the danger of reaching nuclear weapons capability, advancements in conventional weaponry and Tehran’s ability to project influence against U.S. interests and those of its allies via what it dubs the “Axis of Resistance,” which includes the Houthis in Yemen, Shiite paramilitary units in Iraq, pro-Assad forces in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. What has changed, however, is the sequence and means by which the Biden team is approaching these issues.

The expansion since 2019 of Iranian nuclear activity beyond the JCPOA’s limits, and the agreement’s ostensible availability as a mutually agreeable baseline for negotiations, led the Biden administration to decide to pursue the deal’s revival as an opening gambit in engaging with Tehran. In the past three years, Iran has enriched uranium to unprecedented levels, built up a uranium stockpile far exceeding the deal’s limits, carried out proscribed research and development, and limited international inspections of its nuclear facilities. At the moment, however, the prospects for rolling back those advances remain decidedly mixed.

The August 2021 transition from former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the more hardline incumbent, Ebrahim Raisi, brought the Vienna talks to a five-month halt and threatened to undo progress that had been made in six rounds of deliberations coordinated by the European Union. Since then, and against the backdrop of continued growth in Iranian nuclear activity, weeks of thrashing out a framework on reversing that expansion, identifying the scope of U.S. sanctions relief and sequencing each side’s commitments now hinge on make-or-break political decisions in the respective capitals.

If the JCPOA is revived and implemented, Washington, and certainly many of its regional allies, will likely see a moment not just of promise but also of peril.

In a scenario where the JCPOA is revived and implemented, a simmering nonproliferation crisis would come off the front burner for now. But Washington, and certainly many of its regional allies, will likely see a moment not just of promise but also of peril. The agreement’s core bargain envisions that in return for limiting its nuclear activity, Iran will benefit from the economic dividends of normalized trade, including in key revenue-generating sectors like oil. The worry, perhaps most frequently voiced by Israel but shared by some Gulf Arab states, is that Tehran will use the increased funds to bolster its own military capability and that of the armed groups it backs across the region. The result, as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently warned, would be “terror on steroids.”

Based on past pronouncements and policies, the Biden administration’s strategy as talks in Vienna continue is likely to involve three key elements. The first is to underscore that a return to the JCPOA would not constitute a carte blanche for what the U.S. deems Iranian provocation in other areas, with sanctions still a potential tool for addressing non-nuclear activity. The second is to work with its allies in the Middle East on building up their capabilities to better counter an Iranian threat. Steps already undertaken to that end—such as a bilateral U.S.-Israeli working group focused on growing concerns around Iranian drone proliferation, as well as moves to bolster defensive capacities in the Gulf against aerial and maritime attacks—offer a sense of how this might be pursued. Indeed, either of these methods would be applicable regardless of whether the Vienna negotiations reach a point of breakthrough or breakdown: in the case of the former as an assurance to regional partners, and in the latter as an intended deterrent should Tehran flex its regional muscles against U.S. interests and those of its allies.

The third possible component to a U.S. approach is dependent on a diplomatic settlement, and perhaps the most challenging: to use the JCPOA as a foundation for engaging Iran on issues that go beyond the agreement’s existing terms. Up to now, the Islamic Republic has largely dismissed the possibility of entertaining conversations about a “longer and stronger” deal, either with the U.S. bilaterally or with the world powers involved in the Vienna talks: the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China, collectively known as the P4+1.

But there is a tension between maintaining that position and securing the “lasting and reliable” understanding Tehran says it seeks. The Biden administration cannot dictate policy to its successor, and if Iran’s goal is to avoid the economic shock of a second U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA by a subsequent U.S. president, narrowing gaps on other areas of disagreement—in many cases involving concerns shared by European governments—would make for a more durable arrangement. If the negotiations in Vienna collapse, the point may be moot; while there may still be a diplomatic pivot toward finding alternatives to the JCPOA, either in the form of a temporary deal or an altogether revised arrangement, that effort could well have to first navigate a period of increasing brinksmanship.

Either as a complement to or groundwork for attempts at deescalating tensions with Iran, the U.S. might also support dialogue between Iran and its neighbors, specifically the Gulf Arab states. The United Arab Emirates and more recently Saudi Arabia have both been quietly engaging Iran bilaterally, and in November the six governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council, in a joint statement with the U.S., noted that “deeper economic ties after the lifting of U.S. sanctions under the JCPOA are in the mutual interest of the region”—before adding that “these diplomatic efforts will not succeed if Iran continues to provoke a nuclear crisis.” References by U.S. officials to a “regional discussion” on security issues also suggests a potential interest in seeing issues like ballistic missile development and Iranian support for nonstate actors tabled in a locally owned but internationally backed format. But while Tehran views improving diplomatic ties with Gulf Arab states—and certainly benefitting from increased economic engagement with them—positively in principle, how far it can or would go in meeting its neighbors’ security concerns in practice is deeply uncertain.

The JCPOA was, and may once again be, a nonproliferation agreement hammered out between two longtime rivals. Though it did not resolve the longer list of disagreements between Washington and Tehran, it did show the potential for finding non-zero-sum frameworks to contain some of them. Whether that tactical understanding will be resumed and possibly improved upon or jettisoned altogether now depends on the outcome of the nuclear negotiations. Should the prospects of even a limited improvement in U.S.-Iran bilateral relations be scuppered by an impasse in Vienna, however, the fallout will spill across a region warily watching how the two countries next play their hands.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.