The Iran nuclear deal.

What should Biden do?
Isaac Saul Feb 23, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

We’re diving into the Iran nuclear deal — with views from the left, right, and Iran (I’m trying something new with foreign policy pieces). It’s a deep dive, so we’re also skipping the reader question today. But we’ve got a brand new podcast for your ears, a very important story on policing and some fascinating numbers about coronavirus in the U.S.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: Mohammad Sadegh Heydari / Wikicommons

Quick hits.

  1. The House Budget Committee approved the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, setting it up for a full vote in the House later this week. The bill would provide $400-a-week federal unemployment benefits through August 29th, send $1,400 per-person payments to households and provide billions in funding for vaccine distribution and child tax credits, while gradually increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  2. Top security officials are testifying before the Senate today about how the Capitol riots took place. (The New York Times, subscription)
  3. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill to legalize cannabis for adults that also decriminalizes the possession of up to six ounces and reforms how police interact with underage offenders. (Politico)
  4. David Perdue (R-GA) announced he will not run for Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s Georgia Senate seat in 2022. Perdue lost in a tight race to Sen. Jos Ossoff (D-GA), while his Republican counterpart Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) lost to Sen. Warnock. (Axios)
  5. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testified before Congress that the economic recovery is uneven and far from complete. He emphasized that controlling COVID-19 is key to bringing the economy back, and his testimony comes as Congress debates the $1.9 trillion relief package. (The Washington Post, subscription)

New podcast.

Of all the topics readers have written in and asked me about, money in politics is probably one of the top three. Last week, I sat down with Anna Massoglia from OpenSecrets, a non-partisan non-profit that tracks “dark money” in campaign spending. We talked about what dark money really is, how that money is influencing the politics you see, how it flows through politicians’ coffers and why it’s so hard to track.

You can listen by clicking here. If you enjoy it, please don’t forget to give us a five-star rating! It’s really important for getting the word out.

What D.C. is talking about.

The Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). Let me start by saying there are many layers to the Iran deal, so we won’t be able to cover everything here.

The deal was signed in 2015, and the rough outlines of it were designed to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability. Iran had to cut its stockpile of enriched uranium, a key ingredient in making nuclear weapons, and also allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to have regular access to and conduct inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. In exchange, the U.S. and other European nations lifted economic sanctions on Iran and freed up Iranian money that had been frozen in overseas accounts.

Former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018, citing its shortcomings: that it didn’t allow the inspection of military sites, that the so-called “sunset provisions” allowed the deal to expire, that it didn’t address Iran’s ballistic missile program and that it did nothing to limit Iran’s influence in the Middle East (The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, funds military groups, proxy groups and terrorism across the region). He also accused Iran of cheating on the deal.

Trump replaced the deal with a maximum pressure campaign of crippling sanctions on Iran and leveled strikes against Iranian leaders, including the assassination of General Qassim Suleimani and the United States’ alleged approval of the assassination of a nuclear scientist named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Now, Joe Biden is deciding whether to re-enter the JCPOA. On Thursday, his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, told European foreign ministers that the United States planned to join them in seeking to reinstate the 2015 accord. But Blinken has also said that simply restoring the old deal would not be enough. He wants to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile capability and its support of terrorist groups and governments in the region, stipulations Iran has already said are not on the table.

Meanwhile, in Iran, scientists have begun producing uranium metal banned under the 2015 deal, citing America’s withdrawal. It’s a clear effort to use the nuclear threat to pressure the new Biden administration into lifting sanctions. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani have said they were open to a synchronized approach, similar to 2015 — which would mean both countries acting in unison, rather than tit for tat. But Iran also has a presidential election in four months, meaning Rouhani will soon be out of power.

Rouhani is considered a moderate by many in the West, and since he is finishing his second term, cannot run for re-election. In Iran, the president is the most powerful elected leader, but is second in command to the country’s Supreme Leader — in this case, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei appears more skeptical of negotiations and has said that Iran abided by the deal only to be hurt by Trump’s withdrawal. Right now, a Khamenei-aligned party in Iran is favored to win the presidential elections, which could substantially change Iran’s posture in the coming months.

All of these negotiations are further complicated by a rocket attack on a U.S.-led military base in Kurdish northern Iraq last week. The attack, executed by an Iran-backed militia, killed a civilian contractor and wounded five other people, making it the most deadly attack on U.S.-led forces in nearly a year.

Today, we’ll look at perspectives from the left, right, Iran, and then my take.

What the left is saying.

The left mostly wants to see Biden rejoin the JCPOA, believing it’s the best way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But some say Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” approach has pigeon-holed the Biden administration.

“That will be a tough sell in Tehran — and understandably so,” Bonnie Kristian wrote in Business Insider. “For all its many flaws, the Iranian government was in full, independently-verified compliance with the JCPOA when former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States and re-imposed punitive sanctions three years ago. Trump thought he could strongarm Iran into a better deal, but the message Tehran received — as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made eminently clear recently — was that Washington is untrustworthy and will punish Iran regardless of compliance. That is the bad faith Biden must overcome.”

Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama, suggested Biden not rush back into the deal. Instead, Ross wrote Biden should try a “less for less” deal, providing limited relief from sanctions in exchange for halting uranium enrichment and reducing (but not eliminating) the current stockpile Iran has built out.

“It would scale back the Iran nuclear program in a way that would extend its breakout time and make it less threatening; it would maintain our overall sanctions regime, thus preserving our leverage; it would buy time to try to achieve the longer-term agreements that the president-elect seeks, which he hopes on the one hand will extend the sunset provisions in the nuclear deal and on the other produce parallel understandings on ballistic missiles and Iran’s regional behavior; it would make it far easier to gain some Republican buy-in given their almost uniform opposition to the JCPOA, even as it would reduce the Iranian nuclear threat Trump is leaving.

“Finally, it would be more likely to reassure the Israelis, Emiratis and Saudis who fear an early return to the deal, and the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions will give the Iranians little reason to change their threatening regional behavior,” Ross wrote.

What the right is saying.

Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst, wrote that “Iran has never been in compliance with the JCPOA,” citing Iranian violations that were allegedly revealed when Israeli spies stole documents from an old Iranian warehouse. Fleitz called for five preconditions to rejoin the deal: a permanent ban on Iran enriching uranium; the elimination of sunset provisions that expired in 2020, or will in 2023 and 2025; a deal that “must neutralize” Iran’s ballistic-missile program for meddling in Middle East disputes; a deal that creates buy-in from Middle East partners like Saudi Arabia, and a deal that gets submitted to the Senate to be ratified as a treaty.

“The Biden administration must recognize that there are no shortcuts to a good agreement with Iran and be willing to walk away if Tehran will not agree to the above preconditions,” he wrote. “The U.S. can always keep the Trump administration’s successful Maximum Pressure strategy, with its strong sanctions, in place until Iranian leaders are prepared to negotiate in good faith.”

Eli Lake said that Iran’s proxies have “been busy” since Joe Biden took office.

“This month alone, Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed credit for a drone attack against Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport; one of the most prominent critics of Hezbollah, the journalist Lokman Slim, was found murdered in his car in Lebanon; and in Iraqi Kurdistan, a front group for one of the country’s most deadly Shiite militias claimed credit for a series of rocket attacks in and around Erbil,” he wrote.

“At the very least, Biden should halt any efforts to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal so long as Iran’s proxies are running wild,” he said. “While it’s true that Biden and his top advisers see the 2015 deal as a way to forward U.S. interests by temporarily limiting Iran’s enrichment of uranium, Iran also has an interest in ending the secondary sanctions that the U.S. re-imposed in 2018. Biden has more leverage, at the moment, than Iran. An even better option for Biden would be to adopt a version of his predecessor’s policy toward Iranian proxies. Former President Donald Trump’s administration did not bother with distinctions among the offshoots, factions and militias that Iran supported. If a militia attacked U.S. forces in Iraq, the U.S. attacked the militia in response.”

What Iran is saying.

In The New York Times, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., said that “even during the last months of the Obama administration, the United States was not as faithful a partner as we hoped.

“As if the withdrawal wasn’t enough, the Trump administration repeatedly pushed the region to the brink of a catastrophic war,” he wrote. “The assassination of Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian military commander, in January 2020 was the most important of these provocations, to which was added the brazen assassination of our eminent scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November. Yet despite these provocations and the fantasies of some Trump administration officials of regime change in Iran, the Middle East has not exploded into a major conflagration. For our part, we have been prudent and patient.

“The accord was specifically designed to deal with the nuclear issue, and nothing else,” he added. “Other elements of Iran-United States relations have nothing to do with the agreement and cannot be intertwined with it. Still, if fully implemented, it can be a basis for mutual respect that would be to the benefit of all parties. But Mr. Biden and his administration should know that any delay in the lifting of sanctions will be construed as a sign of continued animosity toward the Iranian people. Iranians are suffering from this unjust blockade on our economy, and the responsibility for this suffering lies squarely with the United States.”

Seyed Mohammad Marandi echoed these arguments in Middle East Eye, saying Biden’s only path toward solving the crisis was implementing the nuclear deal in full — which means lifting sanctions.

“The US, which has surrounded Iran with military bases and long threatened Iranians with death and destruction, cannot seriously believe that Iran will negotiate away its military advantages, nor withdraw its support from allies who have severely curbed western imperial ambitions,” Marandi wrote. “How can Iran negotiate with the incoming Biden regime when four Iranian nuclear scientists, including one of my colleagues at the University of Tehran, were murdered during his vice presidency?… No matter how much western analysts claim otherwise, there will be no negotiations over Iran’s defense capabilities, its regional alliances, or changes to the nuclear deal. Iran didn’t resist years of Trump’s inhumane brutality in order to appease Biden.”

My take.

Let’s assume for a moment the expert consensus that Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami cite in The Washington Post is accurate. 75% of scholars say rejoining the JCPOA reduces the chance of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. The next question is: what is the likelihood of them developing one without a deal? And what is the cost of doing the deal in the first place?

Say, for argument’s sake, there is a 1 in 10 chance of Iran getting a nuke without the JCPOA and a 1 in 50 chance of them getting a nuclear bomb with a deal. In a vacuum, that’s a perfectly good reason to do everything possible to make the Iran nuclear deal happen. But what if having a deal (which lifts sanctions and gives the Iranian regime more cash flow) means, say, an 8 in 10 chance the Iranian government is funding terrorism and proxies across the region, while not having a deal means a 1 in 10 chance Iran is funding terrorism across the region?

To me, the best argument for staying out of a deal is that I might rather have a 1 in 10 chance of a nuke and a 1 in 10 chance of funding terrorism — via a maximum pressure campaign — than a 1 in 50 chance of a nuke and an 8 in 10 chance of funding terrorism.

Of course, the math isn’t as simple or crude in the real world, and the equation is complicated by all sorts of things. Number one is that the Iranian people are suffering greatly under U.S.-imposed sanctions, and while that may turn them against the leadership in Iran it’s also going to turn them harder against the West. They know who to blame.

Two is that there is no plausible scenario where Iran stops funding proxies, terrorism, or whatever you want to call their influence across the Middle East. Exerting power in the region is how they keep their sovereignty, and no matter how much we limit their resources through sanctions, the Iranian regime is going to squeeze out as much influence across Iraq, Syria and other parts of the region as they can. From the Iranian perspective, why should we get to decide where they can spend their money?

The way Eli Lake describes Iran’s proxies as “running wild” is a bit misleading. On the contrary, it’s very deliberate and calculated. It’s also totally rational: if Iran is on its best behavior, then they have nothing to cede in negotiations. By responding with aggression, Iran can say “okay, we’ll knock that off so long as you do x, y and z.” The framing of this as irrational behavior is a very Western and, frankly, patronizing view of the Iranian regime’s position.

The choice we face seems to be this: Would we rather have Iran with a well-funded network of proxy groups and influence in the Middle East, or have them be a few steps away from a nuclear bomb? By having a deal, we are legitimately stopping the latter. There’s been a lot of fear-mongering about Iran’s alleged violations, and there’s no doubt the regime (like any nation’s leadership) has been deceitful about its military capabilities. But we had complete access, and by the terms of the deal and the IAEA’s reports, it appeared to be working.

I also struggle to see how Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” has benefited our position. Some argue we are in a better negotiating position now, but crushing Iran with sanctions hasn’t actually eliminated its influence in the Middle East, nor has it stopped them from flexing their ability to get a nuke (on the contrary, they seem emboldened and justified in their violations of a deal we’re no longer a part of). It’s been two years since the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and they are closer now than they were then to a bomb. They’re also making it clear they can still cause mayhem in the region. The major difference between now and then is the Iranian people are suffering under a broken economy.

I’m resisting the urge here to make a claim about what the best path forward is — I’m not entirely sure, and I don’t feel any need to stake out a position. I’m hoping there are people smarter than I am who can navigate these choppy waters, but there’s no doubt the waters are choppy.

A story that matters.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court judge ruled against police unions and allowed New York officials to release discipline records on officers that have been kept secret for decades. In the wake of the George Floyd protests this summer, New York repealed a law that shielded the records from being released. Unions sued to prevent their release, but ProPublica published the records while the release was temporarily halted by a federal court. The unions argued that releasing the records, which contain some allegations that are unproven, would harm future job prospects and put officers in danger. The fight to unveil the records of police conduct is happening not just in New York, but in cities across the United States. (ProPublica)


  • 35%. The number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. that have happened at long-term care facilities, according to an Axios report.
  • Less than 1%. The percentage of the U.S. population who live in long-term care facilities, according to an Axios report.
  • 170,642.The total number of coronavirus deaths that have occurred in long-term care facilities in the United States.
  • 4.5 million. The number of long-term care facility residents and staff who have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • 44.1 million. The number of Americans who have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
  • 19.4 million. The number of Americans who are fully vaccinated.

Don’t forget.

We’ve got some treats for you…

Have a nice day.

For all the horror happening in Texas, there have also been a number of feel-good stories. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) raised $4.7 million in relief for the state through a fundraising effort (CNN). La Riv, a local restaurant in Temple, Texas, is giving out no-questions-asked free meals to anyone who requests one (KTWX). A delivery driver who got stuck in a family’s driveway ended up being taken in for six days when the storm worsened and power outages persisted (Today). When the power went out in one Texas grocery store, the managers simply allowed everyone to take their groceries and leave without paying (WPXI).


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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