The nuclear deal with Iran is not dead yet, but the prospects for its revival and longer-term survival are bleak. While there are reports of some progress in the latest round of talks in Vienna, the U.S. and its European allies keep insisting that time is running out for the negotiations. The Biden administration has already begun laying the groundwork for its damage control campaign in the event that the talks fail, suggesting that they have already all but given up on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It is possible that the talks might still yield something of value, but it is more likely that the most successful nonproliferation agreement in recent history will be consigned to the ash heap because the US cannot make durable, credible diplomatic commitments.
The Iranian government has demanded that the US make a binding "legal pledge" to ensure that a future administration can’t do what the Trump administration did when it reneged on the JCPOA in 2018. The demand is understandable given that the US violated all its commitments when Iran was fully complying with theirs, but the Biden administration isn’t in a position to make such a guarantee. Even if the administration could provide such a formal pledge right now, there would be nothing to stop the next president from tearing up that pledge just as Trump tore up more than one ratified treaty during his term. Biden’s Republican critics have already said that the next administration would throw out any revived agreement. Formal pledges mean nothing to ideologues that despise all diplomatic engagement.
A basic problem with US diplomacy is that there are major political obstacles to concluding almost any agreement with a hostile or pariah state and virtually no political incentives to honor those agreements when they are made. When a president negotiates with these states, he has to burn a tremendous amount of political capital to get an agreement, and his successor can undo all of that effort with the stroke of a pen. Trump’s decision to renege on the nuclear deal is now widely condemned as one of his worst foreign policy moves, but the reality is that he paid no political price for doing it and he encountered remarkably little resistance from Congress or the foreign policy establishment. Even when tensions with Iran brought the US very close to a new unnecessary war, Trump faced almost no backlash against the policy that had taken the US to the brink.
Diplomacy with Iran is further complicated by the fact that the US does not view Iran as an equal or even as a sovereign state, but instead treats it as if it were a disobedient vassal that has to be forced back into submission. Iran is expected to adhere to the restrictions contained in the nuclear deal without exception, but the US and the other major powers are effectively free to flout their obligations without suffering any penalties. The US now disingenuously cites Iran’s reduced compliance since 2019 as justification for keeping in place all the sanctions that spurred Iran to take those actions, and that means that the upfront sanctions relief that could break the current impasse won’t even be considered.
Sanctions advocates like to claim that the economic wars they support facilitate negotiated agreements by using sanctions as "leverage" against targeted states, but in practice their pressure tactics provoke the target governments to engage in more of the unwanted behavior to build up their own "leverage." Because it is taken for granted that the US never grants sanctions relief first, the US just keeps applying more pressure with predictable counterproductive results. When the additional pressure also fails to deliver the desired outcome, the US begins casting around for any other "option" except the obvious one of lifting sanctions. According to the conventional view in Washington, lifting sanctions amounts to "rewarding" the targeted government, and sanctions advocates believe it is preferable to keep useless sanctions in place rather than make any concession that might resolve the outstanding issue.
Another reason why the US so rarely delivers sanctions relief is that it is much easier politically to demand more sanctions on a targeted government than it is to remove them. That makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for US negotiators to make promises that the other side can believe. If the main thing that the US has to offer is the removal of the sanctions that it imposed, and if it cannot credibly commit to that removal because it is too politically risky at home, that guarantees that US diplomacy won’t succeed. In the rare event when the US does provide sanctions relief, however halting and partial, the targeted government cannot trust that the relief won’t be reversed in a few years when American hardliners come back into power.
US diplomacy is compromised by its heavy reliance on using an economic weapon that achieves nothing except inflicting misery on ordinary people. Because American policymakers are so attached to the idea that the economic weapon gives them leverage, they never want to put the weapon down and instead they keep holding out for the other side to capitulate. Even though a gesture of goodwill and some early sanctions relief would likely lead to a mutually beneficial agreement in most cases, US policymakers would rather watch a good agreement go up in flames than show the slightest flexibility that their domestic critics could denounce as "weakness." If the talks in Vienna are going to be successful, the Biden administration will have to break with that pattern.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.