On July 14, 2015, the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the European Union, and Iran reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. In exchange for sanctions relief, the JCPOA required Iran to accept restrictions on its nuclear program and a new corresponding inspections regime.
When fully implemented, the terms of the deal lengthened Iran’s breakout time – the amount of time it would take to create enough uranium to build a bomb – from two or three months to twelve months or more. It also blocked Iran’s ability to produce weapons-usable plutonium for at least 15 years. Specifically, Iran is not allowed to stockpile low-enriched uranium at 3.67% above 300 kilograms, well under the 1,050 kilograms of the low-enriched uranium allowed under the deal needed to turn low-enriched uranium into enough weapons-grade uranium, the type used in nuclear weapons, needed for a bomb (25 kilograms of high-enriched uranium). And, it ensures scrutiny to block Iran from covertly engaging in any such activities. Failure to comply with any of the deal’s requirements would lead to punitive steps, including but not necessarily limited to the resumption of sanctions. The deal received strong support from key European allies and more than 80 of the world’s leading nuclear nonproliferation experts. It was also unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.
of Americans say the U.S. should rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, according to a Eurasia Group poll.
On May 8th, 2018, President Trump announced his decision to violate the agreement, turning his back on its other signatories by vowing to reinstate nuclear-related sanctions on Iran despite Iranian compliance with the terms of the agreement up to that point.
Exactly one year later, on May 8, 2019, the Trump Administration announced it would no longer issue waivers for countries importing Iranian oil. Iran issued an ultimatum that if sanctions relief guaranteed by the JCPOA was not realized in 60 days, Iran would begin to break its nuclear-related commitments under the deal.
On July 1, 2019, Iran stated that it had breached its stockpile of low-enriched uranium above the 300 kilograms agreed to in the JCPOA and began enriching uranium above the 3.67% purity level that was agreed to. As the Trump administration continued to press forward with its “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran steadily breached its commitments under the terms of the deal.
By the time Trump left office, Iran had increased its uranium stockpile well above the 300 kilograms allowed in the deal, enriched uranium up to 20% purity level, and has since installed more advanced centrifuges. While Iran took these steps, the Trump administration not only tried to squeeze the Iranians with additional sanctions and diplomatic gimmicks but also brought us to the brink of war multiple times. After the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Congress passed multiple bipartisan measures to prevent an unauthorized war with Iran, signaling that there was no appetite for additional escalation with Iran.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign ultimately failed to produce any progress on any of the 12 objectives laid out by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Not only did the Iranian government advance its nuclear program beyond the limits of the JCPOA, but they continued to support proxies in the region. Instead of uniting our partners and allies against Iran, the Trump administration caused our European allies to seek ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Taken together, the Trump administration left President Biden with an impending nuclear crisis.
President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA, so long as Iran does, too. He repeatedly made that promise during the campaign and his top advisors continued to reassert that promise in the early days of his administration.
In April 2021, the U.S. and Iran began talks on returning to mutual compliance to the JCPOA. However, the election of Iranian hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in June 2021 severely complicated negotiations.
On June 18th, 2021, Iran elected conservative hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to be the country’s next president. Although Raisi had previously opposed the nuclear deal in 2015, he did voice his support for restoring it during the campaign. On June 21, Raisi reiterated Iran’s position on restoring the deal and that U.S. sanctions must be lifted.
Prior to the election, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and lead nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, stated that there would be no disruption in talks to restore the nuclear deal in a Raisi presidency and that Iran’s policies are “unchanging, irrespective of different administrations.” Araghchi has expressed that Iran seeks a guarantee that the Trump administration’s actions will not be repeated. He stated, “As the U.S. exited the deal, we need to make sure it won’t happen again…We never left the deal, therefore, it is Washington that should give us assurances that it will not happen again when the administration changes.”
“It should go without saying that there is no viable military path to divorcing Iran from a nuclear weapon. Only a diplomatic path.”— Sen. Chris Murphy On Diplomacy with Iran
Opponents of the JCPOA continue object to President Biden’s stated intent to re-enter the agreement. Some members of Congress want President Biden to withhold sanctions relief until an agreement can be reached that not only addresses Iran’s nuclear program, but also their ballistic missile program and support for militias in the region. While this is a noble aspiration, negotiations on missiles and regional security are unrealistic unless the JCPOA is first restored. Any of the challenges that Iran poses would be exponentially more challenging should they obtain a nuclear weapon.
The ongoing diplomacy between the United States and Iran on returning to the JCPOA will be an important bellwether for whether or not President Biden can rescue U.S. diplomatic credibility from the ruins left by Donald Trump. It is more important than ever that Congress allow President Biden the negotiating space to execute the strategy of returning to the JCPOA. To this end, 150 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden in December 2020 supporting his campaign promise of returning to the JCPOA, should Iran do the same.
President Biden has a chance to restore U.S. credibility and reverse the Trump administration’s Iran policy, which was a complete failure. We need Congress to reinforce that there is still support for the nuclear agreement and do everything it can to give President Biden the political space necessary to return to the JCPOA. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) has re-introduced the Iran Diplomacy Act (S. 434), which would make it U.S. policy to address Iran’s nuclear program through diplomatic means and seeks to cool tensions between the two countries. Call your Senators and Representatives at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to support President Biden’s diplomatic efforts with Iran.
Here are some things you can say: