Biden and his allies say they want to undo the diplomatic harm caused by former president Donald Trump’s unilateral reimposition of sanctions on Iran, which happened over the objections of European partners. Along with rejoining the Paris climate accords, salvaging the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump abrogated would demonstrate the Biden administration’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy with long-standing allies. The Biden camp also believes that Trump’s hardline tactics failed to achieve their stated goal of curbing Iran’s malign activities abroad, driving it closer to amassing a sufficient stockpile of enriched uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapon than it was before Trump took office.
“We are a long way from there,” said Blinken. “We would then have to evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they are coming back into compliance with their obligations, and then we would take it from there.”
The Iranians want to see the Americans take the first major step. “The administration should begin by unconditionally removing, with full effect, all sanctions imposed, reimposed, or relabeled since Trump took office,” wrote Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif in a Foreign Affairs op-ed last week. “In turn, Iran would reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.”
“It is clear that we don’t have many months ahead of us,” Rafael Gross, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, told Reuters earlier this month, warning that time was running out for diplomacy to get back on course. “We have weeks.”
This standoff between Biden and Zarif’s boss, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, is made more fraught by domestic pressures within both countries. Republicans and supporters of the Trump administration’s approach appear to be waiting to make political hay of any perceived concession to Iran and have already started smearing Biden appointees as soft on the regime. They are joined by officials from Iran’s regional adversaries — Israel and the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who say that Biden should build off the perceived leverage achieved by Trump.