July 2015 Iran nuclear deal: agreement in Vienna. From left to right: Foreign ministers/secretaries of state Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Federica Mogherini (EU), Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran), Philip Hammond (UK), John Kerry (USA). (Photo: Dragan TaticCC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Joe Biden’s desire for the US to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – from which Donald Trump withdrew two years ago – is simply stated but fiendishly complicated in practice.

In September, the president-elect outlined his position in an article for CNN: “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”

Biden’s stance thus boils down to two interrelated goals. First, “compliance for compliance” under which the US will rejoin the accords once Iran stops its multiple breaches of them. Second, a desire to negotiate an agreement which is “stronger and longer” and addresses areas beyond Iran’s nuclear ambitions – principally, its ballistic missile programme and its support for terror groups and Shiite militias throughout the Middle East – which were missing from the JCPOA.

As he thus suggested during the campaign, Biden wishes to build a “renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy — and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy — to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behaviour in the region”. This, he argued during the primary campaign, would include “targeted sanctions against Iranian support for terrorism and Iran’s ballistic missile program; ironclad support for Israel; robust intelligence and security cooperation with regional partners; support for strengthening the capacity of countries like Iraq to resist Iranian influence; and a renewed commitment to diplomacy aimed at ending wars in Yemen and Syria that provide Iran with opportunities to expand.”

The Trump inheritance

As in so many other areas, Biden’s inheritance from the Trump administration is a thorny one. The president had long railed against the nuclear deal struck between Tehran, the US, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union in 2015 and withdrew from it in 2018. Despite appeals from the other signatories for it to stick to the agreement’s terms, Iran began to breach them the following year. Under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the US has imposed and continually ramped-up crippling sanctions on Tehran.

However, as Biden has argued, the current US approach has been “a self-inflicted disaster”. “Trump has put Israel in danger by tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, and replaced it with nothing,” he said in September. “Iran is closer to a [nuclear] weapon than when we left office in 2017. And instead of Iran being isolated, we are the ones being isolated.”

The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Commission underlines the failure of Trump’s policy. It found that Iran has stockpiled more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted by the 2015 nuclear deal. The report found that the amount of low-enriched uranium held by Iran has reached 2,442.9kg (5,385.6lb) this month. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action set a limit of 300kg. When Trump took office, Iran had roughly 102 kg or about 225lb. Moreover, Iran has continued to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5 percent – far above the threshold of 3.67 percent set out by the 2015 agreement. While low-enriched uranium is used in civilian nuclear programmes, a higher state of purification can be used in nuclear weapons.

Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy concluded of the IAEA’s most recent findings: “The report is very worrisome, especially because it came out two weeks after Iran revealed video of an elaborate tunnel network for missiles that are probably capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Such missiles are not covered by the JCPOA, nor are Iran’s numerous regional military involvements. The task facing the next administration in reaching an effectual new agreement with Tehran cannot be underestimated.”

Moreover, the IAEA last week revealed a further breach of the accord by Iran: the decision to make operational advanced uranium-enriching centrifuges at its underground plant at Natanz. Under the 2015 deal, Iran can only accumulate enriched uranium with first-generation IR-1 machines and those are the only centrifuges it can operate at Natanz. In its report, the IAEA said that Iran had installed advanced equipment underground at Natanz – which is reportedly built to withstand an airstrike – having moved them from an aboveground plant where it was already enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges in breach of the deal. Rafael Grossi, the IAEA director-general, told a press conference that while, at the time of the report, Iran “had not started operations … it is now happening”.

Biden’s challenges

When he comes to office in January, Biden will face a number of challenges with regard to his JCPOA goals.

First, Trump’s actions between now and the inauguration. During a visit to the region, the outgoing US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made clear that the maximum pressure campaign would continue until Trump’s last hours in office. “It’ll be our policy until our time is complete,” he suggested. Last week, it was reported by the New York Times that, following the IAEA report, Trump had asked his senior advisers whether he had options to take action against Natanz in the coming weeks. Pompeo and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, are believed to have cautioned against a missile strike. However, when asked about the New York Times story, a State Department official travelling with Pompeo said “all options are on the table” and the Trump administration would “continue to pursue its policies until it’s not in office anymore”.

But even if he doesn’t take such a drastic step, Trump will continue to turn the screw on Iran during his remaining two months in power. Immediately after the election, for instance, it was reported that the president planned to impose a further “flood” of sanctions on Iran with the aim of making it harder for Biden to revive the JCPOA. Crucially, those sanctions will apparently focus on areas – Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its involvement in terrorism, and gross abuses of human rights at home – other than its nuclear build-up. Such sanctions, it is thought, would be politically more difficult for Biden to lift. “The goal is to slap as many sanctions as possible on Iran until January 20,” an Israeli source told the Axios website.

Last week, for instance, the US imposed a raft of new sanctions on Iran, targeting a foundation controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, whose ministry it accuses of playing a role in serious human rights abuses against Iranians, including during last year’s protests. “The administration is clearly, and I think transparently, trying to raise the political cost for Biden to re-engage with Iran and lift the nuclear deal sanctions,” Henry Rome, an Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group, told the Reuters news agency.

Second, the narrow window between Biden taking office, Iran’s “nuclear breakout point” and the country’s presidential elections in June. The Institute for Science and International Security’s analysis of the IAEA report suggested that the Iranian stockpile would be enough to manufacture two nuclear weapons, although several more months of additional processing to enrich the uranium to bomb-grade material are needed. This problem is compounded by the fact Iran will hold presidential elections in which “hard hardliners” as the former lead US nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, describes them, are likely to replace the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani, who is unable to stand again.

“The imperative is to get Iran to return to compliance before the Iranian team in place that negotiated the deal leaves office next year,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran initiative, has argued. “A lot has to be done … before the Iranian elections, because now you have the same team in place that negotiated the JCPOA, and you won’t have that after the summer.”

This analysis is shared by Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser: “Either they do something quickly or they wait almost a year before they have someone to speak with,” he told The Times of Israel earlier this month.

However, Jason Brodsky, policy director for the US-based bipartisan United Against Nuclear Iran think tank, has suggested that the significance of the June elections can be overstated. The outcome, he argued, might have an impact on Iran’s negotiating team and rhetoric, but, ultimately, it is Khamenei, not the president, who will take the key decisions about the Islamic republic’s stance.

Nonetheless, Laura Rozen of the US Just Security website speculated this week that this imperative might lead Biden to attempt to quickly persuade Iran to return to compliance and then have the US reenter the JCPOA, leaving the complex issues around renegotiating and toughening the deal for later.

But this approach is itself not without obstacles. While welcoming the “opportunity” provided by Biden’s victory, Rouhani has made clear that Iran expects the US to “compensate for its previous mistakes”. As Tehran knows, the notion that Biden might pay it for the billions of dollars in economic losses incurred when Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions is far-fetched. The comments, Robert Einhorn, a nuclear arms-control negotiator now at the Brookings Institution, argued show Iran “may stake out a tough negotiating position, especially given the dynamics of their upcoming election”. Tehran’s wish-list, he argued, would not just be the removal of the nuclear-related sanctions, but also those imposed for human rights violations, ballistic missile development and support for terrorist groups, all of which would be difficult for the new administration to accede to, given the support of many Democrats for them.

Iran has also indicated while it would return to compliance with the JCPOA, it doesn’t want to enter into new negotiations and won’t accept new conditions from the US. The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told a government newspaper last week: “If the U.S. meets its commitments under resolution 2231, we will fulfill ours under the [nuclear deal]. This doesn’t need negotiations or conditions.” Only once the US has unconditionally returned to the Iran deal, Tehran insists, will it contemplate resuming talks. If they occur, those talks are themselves likely to be tricky: Iran has signalled a willingness to discuss regional issues – such as Syria, where it has provided military and political support to the Assad regime, and Yemen – but not its ballistic missile programme.

Biden, though, is likely to be wary of lifting US sanctions on Iran until it’s clear that Tehran has indeed returned to compliance. But, as a UN official told Rozen: “There’s a way of bridging this gap, which is that Biden can sign an executive order revoking Trump’s executive order of 2018, and empower the Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury to start lifting nuclear-related sanctions when the IAEA verifies that Iran has come back into compliance.”

Such an approach could meet resistance even from within Biden’s Democratic party. Senator Chris Coons, a close ally of the president-elect, for instance, said last week that the US would “need a path forward for limits on their [Iran’s] missile program and their support for proxies before I would support reentering the JCPOA …These need to happen at the same time.”

Coons’ comments point to the final challenge Biden will face: domestic pressure and from America’s allies in the region. On the former, most Republicans are likely to oppose the US rejoining the JCPOA, while, as Coons’ statement indicates, some Democrats will want to see the “stronger and longer” deal Biden has previously spoken about. Moreover, it will not be clear until early January, when the state of Georgia holds run-off elections in which two Republican-held seats are up for election, whether Biden’s domestic political opponents will retain control of the US Senate.

In the Middle East itself, the Israeli government – which has long opposed the JCPOA and backed Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign – has already signalled its unease at Biden’s intentions. On Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly stated: “We will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.”

But Netanyahu’s uncompromising position on the JCPOA is not universally shared in Israel. As the Times of Israel reported, “other senior Israeli officials saw the benefits of taking the nuclear issue off the table, even temporarily, and recognising that a more comprehensive agreement to halt not only Iran’s nuclear efforts, but also its missile programs and other destabilising activities in the region was not feasible at the time”.

Indeed, Benny Gantz – Israel’s defence minister who, under his coalition deal with Netanyahu, is due to become prime minister next autumn – is believed to take a less hardline approach. Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, is reportedly open to the possibility of the US reconfiguring the agreement in a way which addresses the Jewish state’s concerns around Iran’s ballistic missiles – including its rocket workshops in Lebanon – and its regional expansionism.

Other states in the Middle East – such as Saudi Arabia, whose king has called for a “decisive stance from the international community against Iran – also oppose the JCPOA. As the BBC noted, the fact that some of those opponents – including the UAE and Bahrain – this summer struck normalisation agreements with Israel, will make their voices harder to ignore.

“If we’re going to negotiate the security of our part of the world, we should be there,” the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, told the audience at a recent seminar organised by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. The institute’s director, Amos Yadlin, echoed his stance: “Israel also wants to be at the table with our allies in the Middle East,” he pointedly suggested.

The once-remarkable notion that Israel might have allies in the Middle East shows how much the threat of Iran – one that Joe Biden will now have to confront – has reshaped the dynamics of the region.