The Biden administration has expressed a desire to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) following Trump’s withdrawal in 2018.  The agreement, which was signed by Iran, the US, and several world powers, was intended to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The program lasted three years and elongated Iran’s “nuclear breakout period,” the time it would take to build a nuclear weapon from a few months to a year. Following Trump’s removal, the US engaged in a policy of “maximum pressure,” placing severe economic restrictions on Iran. During this time, Iran increased nuclear capacity and uranium enrichment, surpassing agreed upon levels. Both US and Iran have expressed a willingness to return to the deal, although along very different terms. While the US wishes to engage in negotiations to form a new and more comprehensive deal, Iran refuses to participate unless Washington eases sanctions before any talks. Biden, though, refuses to lift sanctions until Iran engages in negotiations and reduces nuclear capacity down to levels outlined by the prior JCPOA agreement. 

Present Situation and Recent Developments: 

Donald J. Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May2018. Following this removal, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran and began to exercise a new policy of “maximum pressure,” aimed at applying severe economic pressure to motivate Iran to change its “malign” behavior and deny the Iranian regime the resources to exercise nuclear development. For the past three years, US policy has been successful in implementing severe sanctions, prohibiting almost all commercial activity between the US and Iran, including transactions in Iran’s energy, shipping, shipbuilding, auto sectors, and transactions with over seven hundred Iranian entities and individuals placed on the Specially Designated Blocked Persons list (SDN). The US sanctions against Iran is the most extensive sanctions regime in the world and the effect of this has been destructive to the Iranian economy, with GDP dropping 11.2% in two years, and currency losing 50% of its value against the US dollar.

The Trump administration’s maximum pressure tactic has not been successful in deterring Iran’s malign behavior or nuclear capacity. Tehran engaged in various violent attacks in 2019 and 2020, including an attack at a major Saudi Arabian oil processing facility, and a ballistic missile attack at two Iraqi air bases housing US forces. Besides this,  Iran’s nuclear capacity has once again increased to levels that were prohibited under the JCPOA. As the US continued to tighten sanctions on Iranian markets in 2019, Iran declared that it was no longer bound by the deal and would exceed the agreed upon limits of low-enriched uranium. It began developing new centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment, recommencing heavy water production at its Arak facility, and enriching uranium at Fordow.  Following the targeted assasination of Iranian top general, Qasem Soleimani, Iran reasserted their commitment to advancing nuclear technology, eventually cutting the time it will take them to develop enough weapons-grade fuel allowed under the JCPOA by half

Iran continues to break apart from JCPOA agreements. In February 2021, it threatened that if Western nations did not remove sanctions it would pull out of a deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which allows administered inspections of its facilities. The restrictions will not take effect for another three months and European leaders have taken this time as an opportunity for renewed negotiations and talks between powers. Western powers planned to table a motion at the IAEA, hoping to encourage Iran to reverse these breaches and cooperate with previous agreements. EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said there was a “diplomatic space, a diplomatic window of opportunity” to bring the JCPOA back on track. US and European leaders have asserted their desire to participate in negotiations with Iran. On February 28th the Iranian foreign ministry announced, though, that it was unwilling to participate in EU brokered talks with the US unless Washington lifted sanctions against Tehran first. It is still unknown as to whether this position will remain fixed or if powers can compel Iran to join negotiations.  

US vs Iran Policy Aims and Positions

Since Joe Biden’s inauguration, top US foreign policy and national security figures stated that the United States is looking to resume full compliance with JCPOA, if Iran is also willing. US officials asserted,  “we need to work on an agreement that’s longer and stronger than the original one” and “to engage other issues that were not part of the original negotiation,” including Iran’s “destabilizing actions” in the region and its ballistic missile program.  Still, the Biden administration recognizes that in order to reach a resolution with Iran, any agreement will tend to isolate the nuclear issue rather than address the full scope of Iranian actions. Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said, “In an ideal world, we would have negotiated every misbehavior that Iran conducts both at home and around the world. But we live in the real world, not an ideal world. The only issue that our partners were prepared to negotiate, including the Europeans, including China, Russia, not to mention Iran, was the nuclear program”. Iranian political and public opinion agrees with this “nuclear first” approach to the Iran conflict.   

The US has expressed commitment to uphold their part of the original deal if Iran upholds theirs. Biden asserted throughout his campaign and inauguration that US strategy aimed at rejoining a deal with Iran would avoid the isolationist tendencies of the Trump administration, and rather, encourage the establishment of multilateral diplomacy and negotiations. Getting Iran to the negotiating table and establishing renewed diplomatic ties is the main goal of the administration at the moment. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a message to Iran, opening way to renewed diplomatic efforts, “the path to diplomacy is open right now”. State Department spokesperson Ned Price is one of many who released further statements encouraging negotiation, “The United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program” . 

 Iran is openly resisting this effort to re-engage in negotiations. Representatives refuse to engage in talks or to reduce its nuclear programme until the US lifts sanctions. Iranian Foreign ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said on Sunday that the implementation of the nuclear deal signed in 2015 “is not a matter of negotiation and trade-offs, since all trade-offs were made five years ago. The road ahead is very clear: the United States must end its illegal and unilateral sanctions and return to its commitments. This does not require negotiation or a resolution in the board of governors of the IAEA”.  President Biden though remains firm and refuses to offer sanctions relief as a way to attract Iran back to the negotiating table, holding that Iran must return to full compliance of the deal before it receives any economic relief .  The Biden administration is willing to discuss what it would take for the US to lift sanctions at the negotiating table, but not before, claiming that it needs to know what measures Iran would accept in order to comply with the deal once again


Both the US and Iran have substantial interests in returning to a nuclear deal. Despite this, both sides have expressed conditions for reentry that directly contradict each other and the situation has arrived at a stalemate. The US is unwilling to ease sanctions until negotiations and nuclear reduction occurs, and Iran refuses to reduce their nuclear programme or enter negotiations until sanctions are lifted. It would seem that in order to move forward one party or the other must alter their terms for engagement and reintegration.

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