One of President Biden’s main campaign promises was rejoining the Iran deal, a multilateral agreement negotiated between the US, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Iran in 2015. The deal limits Iran’s refinement of uranium in exchange for the other parties lifting major sanctions they placed on Iranian commerce and businesses. Although many of its clauses were set to eventually expire, and it didn’t cover other international concerns, like fighting between Iran and US-backed militant groups in Iraq and Syria, the agreement has generally been applauded internationally for averting a nuclear standoff between the US and Iran by preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
However, like many policies of the Obama Administration, the Iran deal has always been loathed by Republicans. From the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, he sought to destroy the agreement by putting additional, unreasonable demands on Iran. Finally, on May 8, 2018, the US formally left the deal, and began re-implementing the severe sanctions Iran had been under before 2015. His administration insisted that it would only re-enter negotiations once Iran conceded major ground on many issues not covered by the 2015 agreement, including ending its ballistic missile development program, and withdrawing from several proxy conflicts in the Middle East.
Several months later, when it became apparent no return to the agreement was coming soon, Iran also began breaking the terms of the deal, enriching uranium beyond the previous maximum threshold.
Now that President Biden is in the White House, many expected a quick and undramatic return to the Obama-era agreement. Returning to that status quo is particularly urgent because of the Iranian Presidential Election in June. Although not all of the expected candidates have declared yet, the current president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who championed the Iran deal, seems likely to be replaced with a more hawkish candidate that would be less open to cooperating with the US. An even nearer deadline is February 21, when Iran will end the UN inspections essential to proving they are upholding their side of the agreement. Despite these considerations, before last week, Biden was insistent that Iran must make the first move by returning to compliance with the 2015 agreement before the US will lift its sanctions.
This belligerent position ignores the fact that as the nation that first broke the agreement, the US ought to be the first trying to restore it. It also contradicts President Biden’s stated plan to prove the US can be a reliable, good faith international partner after President Trump’s erratic foreign policy. If Biden is willing to follow up on Trump’s dishonesty to gain leverage over other countries, he will demonstrate that the US cannot be trusted anymore under an avowedly responsible administration than under one as chaotic as Trump’s. This will make it all but impossible for the US to form agreements with not just Iran, but any adversarial nation, as they will have every reason to expect that any deal will be first broken by a Republican administration.
On Feb. 18, the administration signalled for the first time that it may be open to a simultaneous return to compliance by the US and Iran. To restore both the nuclear agreement and America’s diplomatic reputation, Biden must strictly adhere to that course and begin talks before the Feb. 21 deadline.