How to revive the Iran nuclear deal

How to revive the Iran nuclear deal
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The Iran nuclear deal was envisioned to tackle one of the most pressing global security threats to prevent a nuclear armed Iran, and in turn end crippling sanctions and isolation under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was also seen as the start of the constructive engagement between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, and a foundation for diplomacy and negotiations on critical issues of regional and global security.

The Trump administration withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 and the maximum pressure policy has undermined this objective. The situation led to an escalation of the Iran nuclear program, emboldened the hardliners, decimated the domestic political opposition, increased regional tensions, and created suffering for Iranian citizens. The Biden administration faces a critical issue on how to reverse the escalation and stabilize the fragile and key region. A return to the Iran nuclear deal is the necessary first step.

Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have reiterated a willingness for a full return to the Iran nuclear deal. President Biden has also made clear a wish to return in full. The other countries that have negotiated the Iran nuclear deal remain committed to it. But there are conflicts internally and between the parties on how to move forward.


The American “get more now” camp argues the world has changed, so a simple return to the Iran nuclear deal is not viable. Its proponents think that the United States should leverage maximum pressure to extract more concessions from Iran on missiles, regional behavior, and sunset clauses. This argument is flawed because Iran, after tasting “victory” in resisting Trump, will not succumb to more maximum pressure. Negotiations for a new agreement will take trust and time. The biggest hurdle for the United States is that any new agreement will need approval from Congress.

Further, any rule for negotiations or to establish conditionality hits the same stumbling blocks, especially in the absence of talks between the United States and Iran. One feasible action remains in the immediate term, which is a full return of the United States to the Iran nuclear deal and unilateral commitment of both sides to full compliance followed by full implementation. Preconditions must be avoided on both sides.

Under this scenario, both the United States and Iran would simultaneously announce a recommitment to obligations under the Iran nuclear deal and a rollback of actions that have undermined the agreement since 2018. For the United States, it means the lifting of all the new or reinstated nuclear sanctions and unraveling the set of psychological and legal constraints on banks and companies. This can be done through executive branch action, and the challenging process of rebuilding private sector confidence can commence with official reassurances from the Treasury Department.

For Iran, it means returning to the agreement limitations on all its nuclear material and other treaty limitations. All other countries involved in the negotiations must remain engaged with the Iran nuclear deal and provide the supportive environment for full implementation and next steps. Iran has asked for compensation for the impacts of the American withdrawal and for assurances that the United States will be in full compliance in the future. However, neither of these demands are preconditions and can be dealt with in the faithful and reciprocal return to the Iran nuclear deal.

Time is of the essence if the Iran nuclear deal is to stabilize the region. This balanced approach provides the greatest chance for success. It will enable both parties to avoid thorny issues. For Tehran, it is to not engage in unpalatable talks until there is a full return by the United States. For Washington, it is to avoid triggering the legal provision for approval from Congress, though legislative support will be important. It also avoids a hiatus for more dangerous nuclear activity by Iran. It will also circumvent delays associated with the Iranian elections this summer and tackle the restrictive aspects of legislation enacted by the Iranian parliament.


Further negotiations could and should be pursued after this first step on whether they address Iranian regional behavior, nuclear sunset clauses, the Iranian ballistic missile program, the American ability to reimpose snapback sanctions, or legitimate Iranian security concerns about United States or other arms deals in the region. Quiet preparations can run in parallel to enable the parties to engage in such talks rather swiftly.

But we cannot and should not put the cart before the horse. A return to the Iran nuclear deal now that Biden is in office will stabilize a dangerous situation and make the region and world more secure. It will also lay the necessary foundation for further negotiations on these other issues.

The real work must start to reverse the Iran nuclear program expansion and relevant United States sanctions, and then to rebuild an environment of diplomacy and establish mutually beneficial security arrangements. These next months will demand from all leaders a clear view of the perils and actions necessary for sustainable security in the Middle East.

Catherine Ashton served as the first high representative for foreign affairs and security policy of the European Union and led negotiations on the Iran nuclear program. She is the global European chair at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Chuck Hagel served as the secretary for defense and as a chair of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board with the Obama administration. He is a former Republican senator from Nebraska.