Biden reiterates plan to return to Iran nuclear deal before negotiating follow-on pact

With only five months between his inauguration and Iranian presidential elections in June, Biden expected to try to secure Iran’s full return to JCPOA commitments before negotiating follow-on deal

U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden confirmed in an interview Wednesday that he intends to first try to secure the United States’ and Iranian return to full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal before moving to try to negotiate a follow-on pact.

“It’s going to be hard, but yeah,” Biden told New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman in an interview published on Dec. 2., referring to whether he stands by his September CNN piece on what would be his Iran policy.

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Biden wrote at CNN on Sept. 13. “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.”

“Look, there’s a lot of talk about precision missiles and all range of other things that are destabilizing the region,” Biden told Friedman this week about why he stands by the approach. But the fact is, “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program.”

Then, “in consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program,” Biden said.

With only five months between his inauguration and Iranian presidential elections in June in which hardliners are likely to prevail, Biden is expected to try to secure Iran’s return to its commitments under the 2015 pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), before trying to negotiate a follow-on deal, a source familiar with his thinking said, I reported at Just Security late last month:

The rationale for a “clean” U.S. return to the JCPOA in exchange for Iran’s full return to the deal’s nuclear limits before trying to negotiate a possible broader or follow-on deal is that the window for rolling back Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program during the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is so short. Iran is due to hold presidential elections in June 2021, in which “hard hardliners,” as former lead U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman calls them, are likely to prevail, and in which Iran’s current second-term, relatively pro-engagement president Hassan Rouhani cannot run again. […]

A former Obama administration official familiar with Biden’s views, speaking not for attribution, said that remains Biden’s position, which has been consistent.

“Biden has been clear and consistent about his Iran policy,” the former Obama administration official said. “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would re-enter the deal.”

“Biden would then use America’s restored credibility to work alongside our closest allies in Europe and others to engage Iran in follow-on diplomacy aimed at extending and strengthening the provisions of the JCPOA and addressing Iran’s other destabilizing behavior in the region,” the former official said. […]

A United Nations official who has worked extensively on Iran said a clean re-entry is the most secure way to ensure that Iran returns to strict limits on its stockpile of fissile material and other restrictions before the Iranian team that negotiated the deal leaves office.

“I think a clean re-entry is not only possible,” the UN official said Thursday. “I think it is still probably the path forward, regardless of the current posturing and the complaints that will be lobbed by the opponents of the deal on all sides, and by hawks in Tehran and Washington.”

“The easiest path forward is the quick and unconditional reentry into the JCPOA,” he said. […]

While the Europeans, together with the Russians and Chinese, and of course the Iranians, have managed to hold together the shell of the JCPOA through two years of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, there may be some European ambivalence now at the prospect of Biden’s possible reentry to the JCPOA, rather than instead try to leverage Trump’s sanctions on the front end to try to renegotiate the deal first.

Europe has been cautious and perhaps given somewhat mixed, if unofficial, preliminary signals about what it wishes to see from the Biden administration on Iran during this early post-US elections/presidential transition period, which has been somewhat constrained by Trump’s false and extended contestation of the results, as well as the Biden team’s strict adherence to essentially a no-foreigners contact policy beyond congratulatory phone calls.

The Joint Commission, comprised of the seven remaining parties to the JCPOA and which oversees its implementation, are due to meet on December 16 to discuss the matter.

Meantime, several prominent former European leaders have come out this week urging the three European parties to the deal, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, to “coordinate a joint public statement calling on the incoming Biden administration, once inaugurated, to formally announce its intent to re-join the JCPOA, urging the United States and Iran to agree on steps for mutual re-compliance and then to build on the agreement,” former UK state minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, former French ambassador to the United States Jean-David Levitte, former German ambassador to the US and chairman of the Munich  Security Conference Walter Ischinger, former European Union High Rep Javier Solana, and former Polish Foreign Minister Andrzej Olechowski said in a joint statement issued under the auspices of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Relative European reticence to date on the matter may be partly the result of a desire to not box the Biden team in and what the Europeans may have perceived as mixed signals from Washington about his intentions amid the lack of formal consultations during the U.S. presidential campaign and interregnum, suggested Sahil Shah, of the European Leadership Network.

“Basically, my understanding is that, they [the Europeans] obviously now can’t have any formal contact with the Biden team,” Shah, ELN Policy Fellow, told me last week. “They feel as they don’t really know what Biden wants…and they hate to box him in.”

With Biden’s consistent messaging about his position on how he would like to move forward in concert with European allies and other partners on Iran, “things might be nudging to a better position,” another European expert who works on Iran told me today. “I think we will have a much better sense of things come the 16 December Joint Commission” meeting.

(Photo credit: Getty Images.)