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 strict restrictions on nuclear activities,” Psaki said at a press conference.
Psaki’s comments come as critics of the original nuclear deal, signed in 2015 but abandoned by Trump in 2018, stepped up efforts to convince Biden to stop trying to revive the deal. Some of the critics of the deal are calling on Biden to prepare for military strikes on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Many criticize his government for failing to enforce the existing sanctions against the regime in Tehran.
The Iran deal lifted many US and international sanctions against Tehran in exchange for tough restrictions on the country’s nuclear program. After Trump left the deal, saying it wasn’t strong or wide enough, he re-imposed and piling new U.S. sanctions in hopes of getting Iran a better deal on what Trump promised to do Force table. Iran initially stuck to the terms of the deal as European countries, angry at Trump, looked for ways to help its economy, but when that help failed to materialize, Iran began to break parts of the deal.
Biden took office and promised to revive the nuclear deal, but Iran has since changed its government. It now has new, tougher leadership than the one who signed the nuclear deal, and it has driven nuclear advances. While it would take Iran more than a year to build a bomb after the deal, that timeframe is now around a month. (However, Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, not a bomb.)
The international talks in Vienna about a return to the Iran nuclear deal have been dragging on since last spring, with a five-month break thanks to the change in leadership in Iran. The discussions, in which European officials mediate between Iranian delegates and Biden envoys, have yet to bridge some major differences, such as the order of steps back to an agreement, analysts say.
Tehran wants the United States to lift sanctions first so it can access billions of dollars in frozen funds. Washington is reluctant to lift sanctions until Iran reverses progress on its nuclear program. Biden also plans to start talks on a more robust deal.
So far, the discussions are “making progress, but they are unacceptably slow from the US perspective,” 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 to revive the deal, but that Iran’s nuclear advances in the meantime could render the terms of the deal irrelevant.
Vaez predicted that if significant progress was not made by the end of January, the United States would move to more coercive posture. This could include tightening or expanding sanctions and intensifying talks with US partners in the Middle East about ways to contain Iran.
Critics of the Iran deal have particularly criticized the Biden government for no longer preventing China from buying Iranian oil; China is a party to the nuclear deal with Iran, but is not always in step with the United States on this issue.
If there was enough frustration with the Iranian position, European officials could also decide to lift the UN sanctions, Vaez said. This process is designed to bypass a potential Russian or Chinese veto, and while its economic impact on Iran, given the already poor Iranian economy, may not be enough to change the clerical regime’s opinion of its path, it could be a psychological blow to the regime being .
It would also technically mark the end of the Iranian nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Even if the US and its partners put more pressure on Iran, they will likely push for ongoing diplomatic talks at the same time, Vaez said.
US officials have not set a formal deadline, but they have warned Iran for months that they will not forever tolerate what they consider unruly. In December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Trump for abandoning the nuclear deal and failing to keep his promise to come up with a better deal, calling Trump’s decision “one of the worst decisions in American foreign policy in the past decade.”
Blinken also warned Tehran, however, that the time for restoring the agreement would be “very, very, very short”. “What will not last is that Iran is playing for time at the negotiating table by not acting in good faith and not acting quickly, while at the same time expanding its program,” said Blinken. “This is not a sustainable offer.”
Psaki touched on Blinken’s point while highlighting efforts by the US under Biden to rebuild relations with Europe and other countries damaged by Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal.
“We are excited to see how the diplomatic path progresses,” she added.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks at a press conference at the White House Jan. 5. | Andrew Harnik / AP Photo
Some arms control experts agree that the original sin that led to today’s tense situation was Trump’s withdrawal from an agreement that Iran has been honoring, according to international inspectors. But there is also a feeling that last year the Biden moved too slowly to reach Iran and its then more moderate regime to kickstart talks on restoring the nuclear deal.
It’s definitely worth talking to, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
“Although President Biden and his team should have acted earlier and faster last year to restore the necessary steps with Iran to restore mutual compliance with the JCPOA, it is still possible – and necessary – for Iranian and US negotiators to do one Win-win arrangement that avoids a major nuclear crisis, ”said Kimball.