As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden laid out a two-part strategy designed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. First, his administration would propose a return to “mutual compliance” with the 2015 nuclear agreement, which the United States left in 2018 and Iran subsequently violated. Second, Washington would commence new negotiations with Tehran on a “stronger, longer” accord to replace the original deal.

When Biden announced this policy, it was widely assumed that the first step would be the easy part. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, despite failing to attract support from the United States’ partners, had left Iran’s economy reeling. And Tehran’s violations of the accord, however egregious, seemed designed to leave it room to return to the nuclear agreement. But subsequent events have proved such analysis to be overly optimistic: Iran has made impossible demands in the negotiations to revive the nuclear deal, reportedly seeking sanctions relief beyond that provided in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while hesitating to commit to rolling back the nuclear activities it has undertaken in violation of that agreement.

In any negotiation, each party compares the deal on offer with its best alternative option. Iran’s obstinacy in the talks to revive the JCPOA that have taken place in Vienna suggest the calculation it made in 2015—that the nuclear accord was preferable to continued economic pressure—has changed. This likely reflects the lower regard for the 2015 deal held by the hard-line government of President Ebrahim Raisi and its brighter view of Iran’s alternatives. Iran likely concluded from the last four years that sanctions relief was not all it was cracked up to be—both because foreign firms were reluctant to reenter Iran even when the JCPOA was in effect and because it was so easy for the United States to unilaterally rescind the accord in 2018. Raisi may also doubt the Biden administration’s willingness to enforce sanctions in the absence of a deal and pin a good deal of hope on Iran’s growing relationship with China as a counterweight to U.S. economic pressure. 

In other words, Iranian officials may believe that returning to compliance with the JCPOA is inferior to the alternatives. By developing a credible Plan B that sharpens the consequences for Iran should it continue to rebuff diplomatic overtures and expand its nuclear activities while simultaneously offering Iran a diplomatic proposal that has a better chance of outlasting his tenure in office, President Biden may be able to change Iranian leaders’ calculus.

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE

As the Biden administration weighs its choices, it should draw upon a long history of U.S. policy failures and successes with Iran. The central lesson from past diplomatic engagements is that the United States has been least successful when relying too heavily on a single approach or policy instrument and achieved the most when it has employed several policy tools in conjunction with one another and acted in concert with key partners. For example, Iran’s suspension of its nuclear weapons drive in 2003 is generally seen as a result of U.S. military pressure and European diplomacy working in concert. The combination of sanctions and diplomacy also produced nuclear agreements in 2013 and 2015—albeit ones subsequently deemed insufficient by both Trump and Biden.

The Biden administration should learn from these experiences as it seeks to worsen Iran’s alternatives to a deal. First and foremost, the United States must demonstrate that Iran will face consequences for the unreasonable stance it has taken at the Vienna talks, where it has insisted on sanctions relief well beyond that provided in the JCPOA and on assurances that future administrations will not again leave the deal—assurances that Biden could not provide even if he wished to do so. Should Iran’s obstinacy persist, the Biden administration should enforce and expand existing economic sanctions. Doing so would disabuse Iranian officials of any notion that Biden officials’ past criticism of Trump’s maximum pressure approach means that sanctions will simply be permitted to weaken or lapse in the absence of a deal.

In order to accomplish this, the Biden administration will need to underscore its commitment to enforcing Trump-era sanctions on Iran and filling in the gaps of the sanctions regime that have emerged in recent years. Foremost among these are Iran’s sales of oil to China, which increased dramatically starting in 2020 and are reportedly facilitated by deceptive maneuvers such as transfers at sea. China’s oil purchases from Iran reached nearly one million barrels per day in March 2021, higher than any period over the preceding two years, and Iran’s global petrochemicals exports rose as well. To their credit, U.S. officials have warned that tightened sanctions may be coming, but concerns about Iran’s reaction and competing priorities in the fraught U.S.-Chinese relationship will likely make it difficult to pull the trigger.

Iran probably concluded that sanctions relief was not all it was cracked up to be.

Such a decision would be easier to take, and the overall pressure on Iran would be magnified, if the United States acts in concert with partners. In particular, if the so-called E3 of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom were to join the United States in withdrawing from the JCPOA in light of Iran’s refusal to return to mutual compliance, it could lead to the reimposition of both EU and UN sanctions—the “snapback” that the Trump administration sought. The past several years demonstrated that such a move may have marginal economic significance for Iran, for the simple reason that unilateral U.S. sanctions accomplished so much by themselves. But it would nevertheless represent an important escalation of diplomatic pressure on Iran, as its leadership is also sensitive to the perception that it is internationally isolated.

This is why the Biden administration’s pursuit of a revival of the JCPOA may prove useful, even if its proximate objective is not achieved. If nothing else, it serves as a demonstration of diplomatic good faith and makes it more politically palatable for U.S. partners in Europe and Asia to once again act in concert with Washington.

Convincing the E3 to withdraw from the Iran deal will be no easy task. Despite the fact that the agreement is no longer honored by either the United States or Iran, the group may fear that withdrawal could prompt an even more destabilizing response from Iran or that it would be sacrificing elements of the agreement that are still operational despite the U.S.-Iranian conflict. They may also be reluctant to act without consensus in the EU, which is also a party to the agreement. While that last problem may prove the most difficult, the first two are easily countered—Iran’s actions already risk serious instability, and Tehran’s recent moves to curtail its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency on inspections and monitoring of its nuclear activities mean that other elements of the JCPOA are unlikely to be preserved in the long run. The E3’s departure, on the other hand, would signal clearly that Iran was increasingly alone in its defiant stand and that a new agreement was needed.

But the Biden administration should also prepare for the eventuality that diplomatic and economic pressure will not be enough to deter Iran’s leadership from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Officials in Tehran have already demonstrated that they are willing to permit their country to endure severe economic hardship for the sake of nuclear advancement. As a result, the United States will need to send a clear message that it is willing to go beyond sanctions and conduct a military strike as a last resort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

A restored JCPOA would likely be scuttled if Republicans win the presidency.

The Biden administration’s reluctance to do this is understandable. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are particularly interested in yet another military conflict in the Middle East, and the White House likely worries that issuing threats would prompt Iran’s new, hard-line administration to refuse diplomatic engagement out of pique. But a credible U.S. military deterrent has three advantages worth considering.

First, it would send a message to Iran that acquiring a nuclear weapon may be not simply costly but impossible. Second, it may offer assurance to U.S. partners in the region, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel, which may otherwise feel compelled to act against Iran themselves or pursue their own nuclear capabilities. Third, it is almost certainly the case that any U.S. president, regardless of party affiliation, would consider military action if confronted with urgent and credible intelligence that Iran had decided to dash for a nuclear weapon, given the threat such a development would pose to U.S. national security. It is thus far preferable that Iran understand the consequences of such a decision, rather than misperceive the risks and instigate a conflict with the United States owing to miscalculation. 

The real challenge is how to ensure that threats of military action are credible as the United States executes a long-delayed strategic shift away from the Middle East and toward Asia. The danger Iran poses to U.S. national security is real, but it cannot compare with the challenges presented by increasingly aggressive nuclear-armed states such as China and Russia. Maintaining the credibility of U.S. threats will require continuing to act when Iran and its proxies target American interests. However, rather than accompanying U.S. responses with a surge of heavy assets drawn from other regions, such as aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, the United States should work steadily to bolster its allies’ and its own ability to counter Iran’s probable responses. U.S. credibility will also be enhanced if Washington affirms its commitment to the region while articulating what American strategy in the Middle East will look like amid a greater focus on Asia.

BUILDING A BETTER NUCLEAR DEAL

Devising a Plan B for Iran should not mean abandoning diplomacy—worsening Iran’s alternatives will succeed only if a credible diplomatic proposal is also on offer. The Biden administration should focus on replacing rather than reviving the JCPOA, as the restoration of the 2015 accord is unlikely in the long run to satisfy either the United States or Iran. For its part, Tehran has already invited discussion of a completely new deal by requesting major changes to the JCPOA that would prevent the United States from once again withdrawing. Biden has also indicated that negotiating a stronger deal, not merely restoring the JCPOA, is his ultimate objective. And it seems inevitable that a restored JCPOA would be scuttled once again should Republicans retake the White House.

Ironically, the most straightforward way for the Biden administration to offer Iran a “better” deal may be to present it with a diplomatic agreement that asks more of Tehran but is also able to attract bipartisan support and is thus more sustainable. Such a deal could take the form of a “JCPOA Plus,” which would aim to expand the nuclear restrictions on Iran and add limitations on its missile activities. The Biden administration, as well as JCPOA critics, has also suggested that regional issues such as Iraq or Yemen be included in these negotiations. But Washington should think twice about negotiating these issues bilaterally with Tehran—or, for that matter, with Moscow and Beijing. Such matters are arguably better handled separately, with a different set of parties engaged. 

Alternatively, the United States could put aside the JCPOA and pursue an entirely different model. One option would be an arms control–style agreement in which the obligations on both sides expire after a set period if the deal is not superseded—an improvement over the JCPOA, in which Iran’s obligations phase out but those of the United States and its partners never do. While adopting a new diplomatic paradigm would hold the considerable disadvantage of discarding an agreement that already enjoys wide international support, it would also allow the United States and Iran to jettison the baggage that has accompanied discussion of the JCPOA in recent years.

Ultimately, reaching a diplomatic accord with Iran may not be strictly necessary. If the consequences for expanding its nuclear program are sufficiently strong and clear, it is possible that Iran could be deterred without an agreement. Nevertheless, a negotiated agreement should remain the preferred objective of U.S. policy, as a strong agreement can reduce the instability and potential for miscalculation that relying on containment and deterrence entails. 

It is becoming increasingly likely, however, that any new agreement between the United States and Iran will not be a revival of the JCPOA. Moving directly to the negotiation of a new agreement will undoubtedly be fraught with risk in the short term—but if the Biden administration takes care to build both domestic and international support for its efforts, it could deliver a more successful and sustainable result in the long run.

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  • MICHAEL SINGH is Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and Managing Director at the Washington Institute. He served as Senior Director for Middle East Affairs on the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
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