As a result, “Iran’s nuclear program was no longer in a box, no longer had the most robust inspection regime ever negotiated, no longer had the tight restrictions on nuclear activity,” Psaki said during a press briefing.
Psaki’s comments come as critics of the original nuclear deal, which was reached in 2015 but abandoned by Trump in 2018, have ramped up their efforts to convince Biden to stop trying to revive the agreement. Some of the deal’s detractors are calling on Biden to prepare to launch military strikes on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Many are criticizing his administration for not enforcing the existing sanctions on the regime in Tehran.
The Iran deal lifted many U.S. and international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for severe curbs on the country’s nuclear program. After Trump left the agreement, saying it wasn’t strong or broad enough, he reimposed the U.S. sanctions and heaped on new ones, hoping to force Iran back to the table for what Trump promised would be a better deal. Iran at first abided by the terms of the deal as European countries, furious with Trump, sought ways to help its economy, but as that help failed to materialize, Iran began breaching parts of the agreement.
Biden took office pledging to revive the nuclear deal, but since then, Iran has had a change in its government. It now has a new, more hardline leadership than the one that struck the nuclear agreement, and it has pressed ahead with nuclear advances. Whereas under the deal Iran would need more than a year to build a bomb, now that time frame is down to roughly a month. (Iran, nonetheless, insists its nuclear program is meant for peaceful purposes, not a bomb.)
International talks in Vienna about returning to the Iran nuclear deal have dragged on, with a five-month break thanks to Iran’s leadership change, since last spring. The discussions, which have European officials mediating between Iranian delegates and Biden envoys, have yet to bridge some major differences, such as the sequencing of steps back toward a deal, analysts say.
Tehran wants the United States to lift sanctions first, allowing it to access billions of dollars in frozen funds. Washington is reluctant to lift any sanctions until Iran reverses the advances it has made on its nuclear program. Biden also wants to start talks on a more robust deal going forward.
So far, the discussions “are making progress, but it’s unacceptably slow in the view of the U.S.,” said Ali Vaez, a well-connected top Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. He added that, at this rate, it could take six months before the deal is revived, but that Iran’s nuclear advances in the meantime could make the deal’s terms irrelevant.
Vaez predicted that if there isn’t significant progress by the end of January that the United States would switch to a more coercive posture. That could include tightening or adding more sanctions, as well as increasing discussions with U.S. partners in the Middle East about ways to contain Iran.
Critics of the Iran deal in particular have slammed the Biden administration for not doing more to stop China from buying Iranian oil; China is a party to the Iran nuclear deal but it does not always move in lockstep with the United States on the issue.
If there’s enough frustration with the Iranian position, European officials may also decide to allow for snapback of U.N. sanctions, Vaez said. That process is designed to sidestep a potential Russian or Chinese veto, and while its economic effect on Iran may not be enough to change the clerical regime’s mind about its path given how bad Iran’s economy already is, it could be a psychological blow for the regime.
It would also, technically speaking, mean the end of the Iran nuclear deal, which is officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. That being said, even if the U.S. and its partners do pursue more pressure on Iran, they’re still likely to push for ongoing diplomatic discussions at the same time, Vaez said.
U.S. officials have not issued a formal deadline, but they have warned Iran for months that they won’t tolerate what they view as its recalcitrance forever. In December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken slammed Trump for leaving the nuclear deal and failing to keep his promise to come up with a better one, calling Trump’s decision “one of the worst decisions made in American foreign policy in the last decade.”
But Blinken also warned Tehran that time to restore the deal is getting “very, very, very short.” “What will not endure is Iran playing for time at the negotiating table by not engaging in good faith and with speed, while, at the same time, continuing to build up its program,” Blinken said. “That is not a sustainable proposition.”
Psaki touched on Blinken’s point while also highlighting U.S. efforts under Biden to rebuild the relationships with Europe and other countries that were damaged by Trump’s pullout from the nuclear deal.
“We’re eager to see the diplomatic path move forward,” she added.
Some arms control experts agree that the original sin that led to the tense situation today was Trump’s withdrawal from a deal that international inspectors said Iran was upholding. But there’s also a sense that the Biden moved too slowly last year to reach out to Iran, and its then more-moderate regime, to jump-start talks about restoring the nuclear agreement.
In any case, it’s still worth talking, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
“While President Biden and his team should have moved earlier and faster last year to re-engage with Iran on the steps necessary to restore mutual compliance with the JCPOA, it is still possible — and necessary — for the Iranian and U.S. negotiators to reach a win-win arrangement that heads off a major nuclear crisis,” Kimball said.