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Biden’s Narrow Window of Opportunity on Iran

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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.

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........

© Foreign Affairs

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