When U.S. President Joe Biden assumed office, he was determined to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which his predecessor, Donald Trump, had unilaterally withdrawn the United States in 2018. Biden quickly appointed a special envoy to begin negotiations with Tehran and the five great powers that remain party to the agreement: China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom, Suzanne Maloney writes for the Foreign Affairs magazine.
In his first speech before the United Nations, he declared that his administration was “prepared to return to full compliance” and was engaged in diplomacy to persuade Iran to do the same. Reaching a new agreement would be difficult. Senior Biden administration officials and many outside experts hoped for a “longer and stronger” deal. But Tehran had advanced its nuclear program since the Trump administration’s withdrawal and demanded a stiff price to roll that progress back. Biden nonetheless hoped his team could create a new understanding that would lower the risk of nuclear proliferation.
Despite the challenges, trying to salvage the deal made tremendous sense for Biden. The president was eager to shake off the United States’ post-9/11 entanglements in the Middle East, and he wanted to show the world that after the tumultuous Trump era, Washington was again committed to diplomacy. Resurrecting the deal was central to Biden’s plan for restoring U.S. leadership in the world—a tangible step toward undoing the reputational damage incurred by Trump’s abandonment of the agreement.
But as the boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” And Biden’s Iran aspirations have suffered from multiple blows. The first came in February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and irrevocably shattered the great-power coordination that had enabled the nuclear deal to take place. A second punch landed in August, when Iran began shipping drones to Russia, making Tehran an even more prominent and harmful nemesis. And a third blow arrived in September, when protests erupted across Iran against the government’s brutality, captivating the world, undermining the regime’s control, and making any agreement that would send Tehran massive new resources both dangerous and unsavory. By itself, each of these jolts was enough to keep JCPOA on the ropes. Together, they constituted a knockout.