When campaigning in 2020, Joe Biden promised that he would make every effort to re-join the Iran nuclear deal. But some 50 days into his presidency, progress is stalled, and the deal is reportedly on the verge of collapse.
Now that he is president, Biden should grant Iran broad sanctions relief immediately, both as a show of good faith and for the sake of humanitarian relief, as part of negotiations to rejoin the deal. The U.S. has inflicted terrific damage on the Iranian government and the Iranian people, which badly exacerbated the carnage of the coronavirus pandemic there. America owes it to them.
The diplomatic sticking point here is that Biden is insisting on Iran fully recommitting to the deal before any sanctions are lifted, while Iran is asking for the opposite. As Biden wrote in a CNN op-ed in September last year, "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." By contrast, Iranian President Rouhani said Wednesday: "America was first in breaking with the agreement and it should be the first to return to it."
Any case for which of these two positions is correct must depend on one's view of diplomatic history and the broader strategic context. On the first point, it is absolutely inarguable that the United States has been badly in the wrong. Iran joined the nuclear deal in good faith, and was living up to its end of the bargain when President Trump abruptly betrayed that trust in 2018 (apparently because of a vindictive hatred of everything President Obama did and the encouragement of various deranged warmongers). Trump proceeded to assassinate Iranian leader Qassem Soleimani — who was roughly akin to being both secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs — on Iraqi soil, no less. That infuriated both Iranian and Iraqi leaders and sparked a cycle of tit-for-tat violence that continues to this day.
When Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran, that basically wrecked its economy. Inflation spiked, and severe shortages of numerous goods quickly developed — especially medical supplies. This terribly worsened the coronavirus pandemic there, as hospitals struggled to treat COVID-19 patients without proper protective gear or vital equipment. Certainly thousands have died as direct result of American acts.
Moreover, Iran has a lot of historical reasons to distrust America. In 1988 U.S. forces shot down an Iranian airliner and killed 290 people. The U.S. supported Iraq with money, training, and diplomatic cover when it invaded Iran in 1980, leading to eight years of gruesome trench warfare that eventually killed somewhere between 300,000 and a million Iranians. And, of course, the CIA backed a coup in 1953 against the democratic government of Iran, after which its people endured 20 years of brutal dictatorship.
Finally, on the question of the strategic context, the plain fact is that Iran barely matters to serious U.S. interests, no matter how you define them. It's a medium-sized, medium-income country halfway around the planet. It produces roughly a quarter as much oil as America itself. It has shown no inclination to strike at U.S. forces except those that are right on its doorstep (for no good reason), shooting at its top officials (also for no good reason). Imagine how Americans might feel if Iran had massive military outposts in Canada and Mexico all across the length of those two borders, was strangling our economy with sanctions, and occasionally blew up members of Biden's cabinet.
In short, there is every reason on Earth to cut Iran some slack. America broke its promise — as Biden himself wrote, Trump "recklessly tossed away a policy that was working to keep America safe," — and so America should demonstrate some good faith. It's literally the least we could do. And contrary to arguments from bloodthirsty imperialist warmongers, doing so would actually help the U.S. by reducing the likelihood of getting bogged down in another unwinnable war 7,000 miles away.
It's not hard to see why the Biden administration is hesitating here. The reason is the imperialist D.C. Blob that has been hell-bent on war with Iran for years, and the lobbying efforts of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Those forces are very influential in Congress, which is why senators grilled Wendy Sherman, Biden's nominee for deputy secretary for state, about her role as chief negotiator for the nuclear deal during her recent confirmation hearing. Biden himself has long been implicated in this dynamic.
Biden's recent decision to let Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman skate on assassinating Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi illustrates this perfectly. His op-ed on Iran is full of stern language about the "challenges the regime in Iran poses to America's security interests[.]" But with Saudi Arabia we have an "ally" that is objectively harmful to U.S. interests (even their oil is a massive net negative because of climate change), up to and including ordering the brutal murder of a prominent legal U.S. resident for criticizing bin Salman's repressive dictatorship. Yet because bin Salman has spread hundreds of millions of dollars in legal bribes around D.C., and because a great many American elites are preposterously credulous and/or corrupt, he gets away with it.
All this is a test case for Biden's declared intention to chart a new course in foreign policy. For that to happen he will sooner or later have stand up to the imperial war machine, and the corrupt hired guns of foreign countries that want to treat the U.S. military as their own personal plaything. If he won't do that, his record on foreign policy will look basically similar to Donald Trump's.