The Devil is in the Details: Biden’s Difficult Path to the JCPOA

If the New President Holds Firm to Key Commitments, it is Easy to Envision a Protracted Continuation of the Status Quo

U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Getty)
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Getty)

The Devil is in the Details: Biden’s Difficult Path to the JCPOA

Since the early days of his candidacy for President, Joe Biden has been notionally committed to re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. However, a close examination of his and his subordinates’ public statements shows a surprising degree of ambiguity. If the new President and his team hold firm to certain key commitments — particularly, Iran resuming compliance before the U.S. does, and expanding the agreement to include a ballistic missile embargo — it is easy to envision a protracted continuation of the status quo.


Since well before his victory in the election, Biden campaigned on returning to the JCPOA on the condition that Tehran first abandon its policy of calculated noncompliance. In an op-ed published in September of last year, Biden offered a seemingly straightforward proposition: “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.” For its part, Tehran has always demanded the opposite sequence. As President Rouhani recently put it, “The ball is in the U.S. court now. If Washington returns to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, we will also fully respect our commitments under the pact,”

Early signs indicate the Biden administration is sticking to its guns. Incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan doubled down on Biden’s original commitment in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, saying, “Well, first, just to set the groundwork here, President-Elect Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal, that is to say it reduces its stockpile, it takes down some of its centrifuges and other measures so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in. But that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation.” It remains to be seen whether Washington and Tehran can see eye to eye on sequencing at all, or if this challenge alone stalls the U.S.'s re-entry into the JCPOA.


When the JCPOA was originally negotiated, critics noted that it failed to address the crucial matter of Iran’s ballistic missile program. The Obama administration responded, in essence, by claiming that attempting to do so would have led the Iranians to abandon the agreement en toto. As Sullivan put it to Zakaria, “It was never fundamentally part of the Iran nuclear deal that we had the expectation that it would” address the missile program.

Now that Biden has expressed interest in broadening the JCPOA to cover missiles, however, Sullivan notes, “If you had the Iranian nuclear program in a box, you could then begin to chip away at some of these other issues,” including ballistic missile program and Iranian regional expansionism.

During her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee this week, Biden’s Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines, confirmed as much. She noted that “the president-elect has also indicated” that, while intending to rejoin the JCPOA, he also intends to “have to look at the ballistic missiles you’ve identified and destabilizing activities Iran engages in.”


Indeed, the complications sure to arise from an attempt to proceed along these lines have already led to several of Biden’s close allies expressing reservations about the near term prospects for a grand bargain. “In an ideal world, it would be great to have a comprehensive agreement” at the outset, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But that’s not how these negotiations work.” Biden's nominee for Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, who largely led the American negotiating team during the original drive to achieve an agreement in 2015, recently said, “We’re going to work hard at this because we have lost credibility, we are seen as weaker.”

As Haines put it in her confirmation hearing, the U.S. is “a long ways” from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. While responding to a question from Senator Susan Collins about President-elect Joe Biden’s commitment to rejoin the 2015 agreement if the Islamic Republic returns to compliance with its nuclear limitations, Haines said, “The president-elect has indicated if Iran comes back into compliance,” he would rejoin the deal, but that things are “a long ways from that.” 

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