Ghosting Tehran:

The administration of President Joe Biden has lost interest in reviving the Iranian nuclear agreement—from which the Donald Trump administration withdrew in May of 2018—amid Iranian intransigence during the indirect talks in Vienna and Tehran’s rejection of US conditions that it recommit to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Washington and its European allies have also been preoccupied with Russian military action against Ukraine, which has entered its fourth month, and the powerful international and domestic challenges it has imposed on the Biden agenda. In response, these challenges have prompted the administration to work on maintaining international and regional alliances in order to confront Iran’s nuclear aspirations, Tehran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East, and its support for armed militias that threaten American interests and the security of US strategic allies in the region.

Interrelated Drivers

Several factors have discouraged the US administration from proceeding to negotiations with Iran to revive the nuclear deal reached in 2015 in exchange for lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran. They include the following:

1. Iran’s insistence on its terms for returning to the nuclear agreement: Legislators in the US Congress suspect that Tehran is not intent on moving forward with a new agreement with the US on its nuclear tests and its behavior in the Middle East. During hearings they attended with Biden administration officials, the legislators concluded that there is a division within the Iranian ruling establishment and it will be difficult to persuade Tehran to resume work on the JCPOA—which restricted Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting the economic sanctions on the country—particularly with Tehran’s insistence on having the Revolutionary Guards removed from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. President Biden and members of Congress reject these demands.

2. Iran’s escalation vis-à-vis the West: Tehran has made clear that it does not want to cooperate with the West over its nuclear program. Earlier in June of 2022, Iran removed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s surveillance cameras used to monitor one of its nuclear facilities, prompting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to warn the Iranian regime that such steps would create a "deepening nuclear crisis and more economic and political isolation for Iran." Some assessments attribute these escalatory steps, and Tehran’s unwillingness to make any concessions to Western nations, to its success in achieving high returns for its oil exports, especially with the rise in prices following Russia’s military action against Ukraine. Last May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi announced that Iran’s petroleum exports had doubled since August of 2021, giving Iran the economic resources to withstand Western sanctions.

3. Biden administration officials’ determination that talks with Iran have failed: During a hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last May, Robert Malley, the Special Envoy for Iran, acknowledged the dwindling opportunities for reviving the 2015 JCPOA, noting that the US is prepared to escalate against Tehran and respond to any hostile step against US allies in the Middle East. Malley added that further sanctions would be imposed on Tehran if it does not accept negotiations to reach a final agreement.

Alternative Steps

Given declining American interest in reaching an agreement with Iran, there are several alternative steps the US administration could take, or could pressure Tehran to take, especially since, whether or not a new agreement with Tehran is reached, Iran will remain a major "threat" to Washington and its allies inside and outside the Middle East. The following are the most significant steps:

1. New air alliance in the Middle East: Ahead of President Joe Biden’s scheduled visit to the region in mid-July, Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz recently announced an air alliance in the Middle East under US auspices. Israel is seeking cooperation with Arab countries that share its fears over Iran’s moves in the region, to "mobilize a regional force under US leadership to strengthen the power of all concerned parties." This step reflects the US’s desire to push the countries of the Middle East, especially the Arab Gulf states, to cooperate more fully with Israel. Israel agrees with the US that Tehran is an enemy and a threat, which reflects the clarity of the US view that reaching a new nuclear agreement with Iran is unimportant and there is no possibility of reaching a truce with it.

2. Tougher economic sanctions on Iran: Many Republican and Democratic senators consider the Biden administration’s attempt to reach an agreement with Iran misplaced. They emphasize the need to tighten sanctions on Iranian oil exports and cooperate with US allies, as well as to find a formula to punish China for circumventing those sanctions and buying Iranian oil, thus opening various channels for Iran that put it in a strong position in its negotiations with Western powers.

3. US and Israeli military escalation against Tehran: Israel (the US’s top ally in the Middle East) supports the idea of military escalation against Tehran and has, in fact, already done so in past years. It conducts deliberate military strikes on areas under Tehran’s influence in Syria and has assassinated Iranian scholars working in the nuclear field. However, President Biden does not support this approach, especially as he has stated more than once since entering the Oval Office that he will work to promote diplomacy and try as much as possible to avoid the use of military force. Despite these statements, it cannot be ruled out that Washington will direct strikes on Iran if its behavior continues to threaten American interests in the Middle East, similar to what is happening in Iraq. This would be at great cost to Washington.

4. Support for nuclear programs in other Middle Eastern powers: The US may lean toward supporting nuclear programs in other Middle Eastern countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Failure to reach an agreement will result in Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, upsetting the balances in the region and making Tehran the most powerful player in the regional equation, which would affect the interests of Washington and its allies. There will then be a need to balance matters by supporting other powers that can confront Iran.

In conclusion, it can be said that, despite the absence of any indicators of success for Western powers in reviving the Iranian nuclear agreement, US officials continue to express Washington’s hopes of reaching an agreement with Tehran, provided that Tehran drop its unrelated demands, including removing the Revolutionary Guards from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. That said, Washington will likely work in the coming period on strengthening relationships with Middle Eastern countries that have a shared interest in confronting Tehran, particularly Israel and the Arab Gulf states, in order to help them repel potential Iranian attacks in the event Iran fails to be persuaded to abide by the terms of the JCPOA.