How Can Iran 'Re-Enter' an Agreement That It Never Left?

There isn’t going to be a subsequent agreement, and insisting that there has to be one is a good way to make sure that we lose the agreement that already exists.

This New York Times report about the Vienna nuclear deal negotiations starts off with some very misleading framing:

President Biden and Iran’s leaders say they share a common goal: They both want to re-enter the nuclear deal [bold mine-DL] that President Donald J. Trump scrapped three years ago, restoring the bargain that Iran would keep sharp limits on its production of nuclear fuel in return for a lifting of sanctions that have choked its economy.

There is an obvious error in this description that the authors call attention to in their own opening lines: the U.S. left the agreement, and Iran did not. Only one of the two governments mentioned here needs to re-enter the agreement. The other never left. There would be nothing to discuss, no re-entry to negotiate, had the U.S. not randomly decided to renege on all of its commitments in 2018. Iran did not do the same thing, and for more than a year after the U.S. pulled out of the agreement they remained in full compliance. Even now, Iran is still a party to the agreement and has reduced its compliance only because of the U.S. breach. This is a matter of basic accuracy. If the paper of record can’t get something this elementary right at the start of its report on the negotiations, what hope is there for understanding more complicated questions?

This error is unfortunately not limited to this article or this paper. It is commonplace for U.S. journalists and government officials to talk about reentry into the agreement as if it is something that both governments have to do in equal measure. A senior U.S. official was talking to the press just last week about whether Iran was willing to make the decision to “return” to the JCPOA! It is possible the official misspoke, but what an extraordinary thing to get wrong when our government has still not committed to rejoining the agreement after almost four months since Biden took office. Reporters and officials talk about the government that is 100% out of compliance as if it were in the same position as the government that is still 50%+ in compliance, but it simply isn’t true.

The article does point to the real stumbling-block in the talks. Namely, the Biden administration is so wedded to its misguided talking points that it is screwing up what ought to be a fairly straightforward process of rejoining and lifting the relevant sanctions:

The Biden administration, for its part, says that restoring the old deal is just a steppingstone. It must be followed immediately by an agreement on limiting missiles and support of terrorism — and making it impossible for Iran to produce enough fuel for a bomb for decades. 

As I explained last week, a follow-on agreement that requires Iran to make concessions on other, non-nuclear issues is a fantasy that our government needs to abandon. There isn’t going to be a subsequent agreement, and insisting that there has to be one is a good way to make sure that we lose the agreement that already exists. If it is true that the “Americans see the restoration of the old deal as a first step to something far bigger,” that is strong evidence that the Biden administration doesn’t know what it is doing. Salvaging the nuclear deal was supposed to be one of the easy wins for Biden in the first few months of his presidency. He and his officials have taken that easy win and turned it into what looks increasingly like an avoidable loss. This is deeply regrettable, and it bodes ill for the rest of Biden’s foreign policy for the next four years.

The infuriating thing about all of this is that a “follow-on agreement” is both unachievable and unnecessary. Iran would never agree to restrictions on these other issues of missiles and proxies, and the U.S. doesn’t need them to agree. Resolving the nuclear issue and securing the future of the JCPOA are the best things for regional stability and reducing tensions. Chasing after a will o’ the wisp in the form of a “follow-on agreement” is foolish, and if the Biden administration lets this get in the way of keeping the nuclear deal alive they will be responsible for wrecking an agreement that even Trump was not able to destroy.