Former President Donald Trump’s Iran policy was an abject failure, applying maximum pressure to minimal benefit. The United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and ratcheted up sanctions on Tehran. But far from containing Iran, these actions aggravated the country’s leaders and emboldened them to expand their nuclear enrichment activities. The result was greater regional volatility and a heightened risk of direct conflict between Washington and Tehran.

President Joe Biden knows he must reverse this dangerous downward spiral. In the hope of returning to the agreement that his former boss, President Barack Obama, brokered in 2015, Biden has agreed to join talks with the accord’s signatories. Iran, too, has indicated that it is ready to renew its commitments under the deal, responding to Washington’s overture by delaying a threat to disrupt the work of UN nuclear watchdogs. So far, so good.

But reversing the damage done by the previous administration is easier said than done. Precious little trust remains between Iran and the United States, and fraught domestic politics in both countries makes restoring the deal a long shot. To have any hope of salvaging the agreement, the new U.S. administration will have to move fast.

WHO MOVES FIRST?

Iran’s priority is a return to the pre-Trump status quo. Tehran wants Washington to revoke all new sanctions imposed by the previous administration, including those blocking Iranian oil sales and access to the international financial system. But before giving ground, Washington wants verifiable proof that Tehran is back in compliance with the tenets of the 2015 deal, which would require it to reverse the enrichment and other prohibited nuclear activities it has undertaken since May 2019.

Some in the U.S. and European foreign policy establishment argue that Washington should press for full compliance—or even for further concessions—before rejoining the deal. It is easy to read desperation into Iran’s repeated calls for the United States to quickly lift economic sanctions, and Washington may be tempted to press its advantage. But delay will only weaken Biden’s hand, risking a total collapse of the 2015 agreement. If that happens, Iran could follow through on threats to increase its uranium enrichment and accelerate its nuclear weapons programs, precipitating a major crisis that could put the United States and Iran on a path to war.

Precious little trust remains between Iran and the United States.

Iran’s rulers know they must strengthen the economy, but they are also under tremendous political pressure to stand up to the United States. Growing U.S. economic pressure and the January 2020 killing of General Qasem Soleimani, the top commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—as well as the more recent assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, reportedly by Israeli operatives—have only strengthened hard-liners among Iran’s leadership, pushing moderate voices in favor of engagement and diplomacy to the margins. A recent wave of media mea culpas from those who previously spoke in support of the nuclear deal is telling of the country’s current mood, as is the ascendancy of those who frame the United States as an existential threat bent on Iran’s destruction.

Iran adopted “strategic patience” in response to Trump’s “maximum pressure,” but the longer Biden tarries, the more Iran’s leaders will be willing to use regional tensions and their country’s nuclear program and bomb-making capabilities to pressure the United States. For that reason, Biden must lead by example and move as quickly as possible to formally return to the nuclear deal, deferring U.S. demands for verification until U.S. and Iranian negotiators can agree on a precise sequence of steps that will bring both countries into full compliance with the accord.  

LOSING THE PEOPLE

Trump’s strategy was seen in Iran as an all-out effort to bring about regime change, to weaken or even break up Iran, and to shift the regional balance of power in favor of Iran’s rivals. It was also seen as callous and vindictive, alienating everyday Iranians, many of whom have little love for their own regime. Squeezing Iran’s leaders inflicted immense pain on the general population and, during the pandemic, denied Iranians access to medicine and pharmaceutical supplies. One of the Trump administration’s last acts was to sanction an Iranian pharmaceutical company that is developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

With popular suspicion of and anger at the United States running so high, Tehran has little to fear from what ordinarily are the United States’ most powerful weapons: the ideals, values, and products—from democracy and freedom to Hollywood and social media—that so vex Iran’s hard-line theocrats. Maximum pressure during a deadly pandemic appears to have immunized the Iranian public against American soft power. And the more Iranians perceive the United States as a threat, rather than a lure, the more likely they are to support a nuclear program as a necessary deterrent.

A quick return to the nuclear deal is not without risks.

Voices arguing that the nuclear agreement is a trap are increasingly prominent in Iran’s parliament as well as in the country’s media, think tanks, and universities. The deal, these critics say, will take more than it will give, constraining Iran’s nuclear and military programs without yielding any tangible economic benefits. It will also make Iran vulnerable to the United States’ true intention, which is the destruction of Iran. Having withstood Trump’s maximum pressure, the critics argue, Iran should confront the United States now instead of lowering its guard and allowing its hands to be tied by the nuclear deal. Absent an overture to Tehran, the Biden administration looks no different to these Iranians than its predecessor did.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has, for now, kept the option of restoring the nuclear deal on the table. In a recent televised speech, he said that Iran and the United States would have to move quickly and concurrently to resurrect the accord, with Tehran returning to compliance at the same time that Washington removes sanctions. As the ultimate decision-making authority in Iran, Khamenei essentially laid out the narrow path his government must now follow.

THE WAY FORWARD

In Iran, as in the United States, domestic politics and foreign policy are entwined. Hard-liners virulently opposed to the agreement won election to parliament in 2020, while moderates who championed negotiation with the United States sustained electoral losses. A successful resumption of the nuclear deal that unlocks economic benefits for Iran will weaken the hard-liners and even influence who becomes Iran’s next president in elections slated for June. The outcome of that contest, in turn, will decide the tenor of U.S.-Iranian relations over the next five years.

Biden must return swiftly and fully to the 2015 agreement. Then, in a less fraught climate, he can negotiate a methodical coupling of Iran’s compliance to U.S. sanctions relief, a sequence that will prevent a slide toward a larger and avoidable crisis with Iran. At the same time that he announces his recommitment to the deal, Biden should announce unilateral measures that will improve the livelihoods and welfare of Iranians, a move that would revive Iranian popular support for constructive engagement with the United States. Among the confidence-building measures Biden could take are removing visa restrictions on Iranians, offering waivers for Iranian oil sales, unfreezing some of Iran’s funds in Asian banks, and giving the International Monetary Fund a green light to approve a pending $5 billion emergency loan to Iran to fight COVID-19.

A quick return to the nuclear deal is not without risks. The Biden administration will likely face strong opposition in Congress, especially if Iran fails to reciprocate quickly. But a total collapse of the agreement would run the much greater risk of a full-blown crisis in the Middle East. And with diplomacy off the table, Iran and the United States could very well end up in a shooting war that neither wants or can afford.

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  • VALI NASR is Majid Khadduri Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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