The Obama-era accord formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) lifted multilateral sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on the country’s nuclear program. President Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 and reimposed punitive sanctions on Iran, crippling its economy.
In response, Iran sharply accelerated its nuclear activities, enriching uranium to 60 percent—its highest level ever but still short of the 90 percent required to make a bomb—and restricting monitoring access to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, experts maintain that its actions are more consistent with weapons development and warn Iran could now produce enough material for a bomb within days.
Recognizing the failure of Trump’s approach to contain Iran’s nuclear advances, President Biden came into office pledging to rejoin the JCPOA. Iran’s weakening economy amid the pandemic, meanwhile, gave Tehran a clear incentive to negotiate the removal of sanctions. Talks between the U.S. and Iran mediated by the European Union began in early 2021, but successive rounds of negotiation failed to yield a breakthrough, as significant differences remained between the two sides.
After the conclusion of the latest round of indirect talks in Vienna on August 8, the E.U. submitted a so-called “final” agreement for both parties to sign off on, reportedly with Washington’s blessing. Iran formally responded to the proposal on August 15 with revisions that the E.U.’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell called “reasonable.”
While Tehran continues to insist on mechanisms to ensure Iran would continue to benefit economically should a future U.S. president pull out like Trump did in 2018—something Biden can’t legally guarantee—it dropped a “non-negotiable” demand that the U.S. remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. This had been a red line for Biden.
The Iranian proposal also didn’t address the three-year-old IAEA investigation into undeclared nuclear materials and activities it wants shut down—a decision that is up to the IAEA, an independent body, rather than the U.S.—although it’s still likely to be a precondition for full implementation.
Even if these concessions are neither unequivocal nor irrevocable, they resolve some of the key sticking points that had prevented a deal in the past. Encouragingly, they have also been accompanied by stepped-up government efforts to sell a potential agreement domestically—both to a public that’s grown skeptical after years of false starts and to conservative lawmakers who are ideologically predisposed against compromise.
The White House delivered a response to the Iranian proposal on Wednesday, after deliberating internally and consulting with foreign allies. Its contents are yet to be disclosed. President Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom on Sunday, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan hosted his Israeli counterpart on Tuesday to discuss the negotiations.
A revived agreement would temporarily limit Tehran’s nuclear capabilities and extend its “breakout time” to at least 6 months in exchange for sanctions relief, which would release billions of dollars of frozen Iranian assets as well as oil and gas revenues. Shortly after full implementation, Iran could add about 1 million barrels per day of oil to the market, which would at least partially replace the imminent loss of seaborne Russian flows to Europe and push global energy prices down.
The deal would include a strict monitoring regime to verify Iran was meeting its commitments, but the physical nuclear constraints would expire after a finite number of years. Moreover, the deal would not encompass any non-nuclear Iranian military activities such as support for terror proxies.
Critics within the U.S. (almost all Republicans and some leading Democrats) and in Israel argue that Iran’s behavior shows it can’t be trusted to comply with its obligations. They also claim that the so-called “sunset provisions” mean the deal would delay but not prevent Iran’s nuclear development, while sanctions relief would bolster the regime’s resolve and ability to conduct malign activities against the United States and its allies.
As a matter of policy, the Biden administration is inclined to reach a compromise despite the shortcomings, believing the alternatives—either allow Iran to become a nuclear state or go to war to stop that from happening—are far more dangerous than even an imperfect deal. The key question is whether the Biden administration believes the non-proliferation benefits of restoring the JCPOA would outweigh the domestic political costs of making concessions to Iran just as the midterm elections near.
While foreign policy won’t be a deciding factor for voters in November, Democrats will be wary not to puncture their recent momentum with a deal Republicans will paint as a blunder—something the electorate does punish, as evidenced by the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal. Especially after the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie and the indictment of an Iranian operative who plotted to kill former national security adviser John Bolton—the latter clearly on the orders of the Tehran regime—and with gas prices falling for the eleventh straight week, the White House may well conclude that the juice is not worth the squeeze at the moment.
Likewise, Iran knows that any Republican president would immediately pull the U.S. out of a deal and reimpose sanctions. While Iran would certainly benefit from the influx of cash in the meantime, the Supreme Leader might not find it politically worthwhile to support a deal with such a plausibly short runway—at least not until after the 2024 U.S. election. He may well decide that with inflation easing, relations with China and Russia expanding, and energy revenues improving, Iran can afford to punt on making a final decision while it tries to extract additional concessions from the U.S.
The problem is that the longer that talks drag on without a breakthrough, the more Iran’s nuclear program advances and the closer the U.S. gets to presidential elections, making an agreement less useful for both sides.
At the same time, both Washington and Tehran have an interest in keeping the prospect of a deal alive even if they have no intention of striking one. For Biden, publicly giving up on negotiations would be admitting defeat on an important foreign policy priority and put pressure on him to implement the Trump-era sanctions. For Iran, it would invite greater international sanctions, weaken the economy, and increase the risk that continued nuclear advancements will trigger a military conflict.
And so while neither side is about to end the talks, the fate of the deal remains highly uncertain.