President Joe Biden entered office promising to return the U.S. to the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. But doing so has proven tricky for Biden’s administration, in part because of the complex politics surrounding the deal in both Washington and Tehran, but also because of the tense relations between the two countries, which soured significantly under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
In May 2018, when Trump followed through on a campaign promise to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 multilateral deal limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Tehran initially reacted by adopting a posture of strategic patience. But after European attempts to keep the deal afloat failed to deliver any respite from the U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure,” and amid increasingly bellicose rhetoric out of Washington, Iran shifted gears.
Beginning in early 2019, Iran gradually announced a series of what it called reversible breaches of its obligations under the nuclear deal, exceeding limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium and the level to which it is enriched. Iran subsequently suspended its Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a side-agreement that provided the nuclear watchdog’s inspectors with even more robust mechanisms to monitor every stage of Iran’s nuclear program than the agency’s standard oversight agreement.
Parallel to these moves to pressure the Trump administration over the nuclear deal, Iran began to dramatically ratchet up military tensions with the U.S. beginning in mid-2019. Following a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that Washington blamed on Tehran, Iranian forces shot down a pilotless U.S. drone they claimed was operating in Iran’s airspace. Later that year, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being responsible for a drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities.
Against that backdrop of heightened tensions, things came to a head in early January 2020. After a series of violent incidents in Iraq pitting Iranian-backed Shiite militias against U.S. forces, Trump authorized a drone strike that killed Iran’s top military leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as he arrived in Baghdad. Both sides subsequently backed away from escalation, but without fundamentally addressing their differences.
The U.S. sanctions that Trump reimposed on trade with Iran forced governments and companies from Europe to Asia to end their economic engagement with Tehran, with a particularly severe impact on Iran’s oil exports. The resulting domestic economic tailspin has heightened social and political tensions within Iran. But rather than moderating the regime’s behavior, the heightened pressure from Washington seems to have strengthened the hand of hardliners in Tehran, who emerged as the big winners from parliamentary elections in February 2020.
Supporters of the Iran nuclear deal in Washington and Europe hoped that the Biden administration would quickly return the U.S. to compliance with the agreement by removing unilateral sanctions, while also pursuing follow-on talks to address Iran’s missile program and regional behavior. But negotiations in Vienna to resuscitate the JCPOA have proven to be more difficult than anticipated, even as opponents of the deal in the U.S. and Iran—but also Israel, which has been engaged in what amounts to a low-level covert war with Iran over the past year—consider their options. And the outcome of Iran’s presidential election in June 2021, won by conservative hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, presented further obstacles to progress.
The deterioration in U.S.-Iran relations takes place against the backdrop of a battle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as strategic competition in Lebanon and more recently Iraq. Both countries have recently engaged in exploratory talks to ratchet down tensions. In the meantime, the Iranian population is increasingly caught between the pressure of U.S. sanctions and the repression of an authoritarian regime in Tehran that remains intent on projecting its power and influence across the region, no matter the cost at home.
WPR has covered Iran in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will the U.S. and Iran manage to resuscitate the nuclear deal, and how would failure to do so affect bilateral and regional relations? Will Iran strengthen its ties with Russia and China to counter American actions, and what role will Europe play? Will outside pressure, combined with the impact of the pandemic, undermine the regime’s domestic control? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
Our Most Recent Coverage
U.S. President Joe Biden’s “summer of diplomacy” continued last week, with stops in the Middle East, where he visited two U.S. regional partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But unlike recent stops in Europe, Biden’s meetings in Riyadh, in particular, generated a great deal of criticism. But a lot of it was misplaced.
Iran projected unity in the face of the Trump administration’s saber-rattling, but that is far from the reality on the ground. U.S. provocation may be strengthening hard-liners within the regime, but parts of the Iranian population are frustrated by ongoing domestic repression and the economic privation caused by the reimposed U.S. sanctions. And the government’s botched handling of the COVID-19 outbreak did nothing to restore its credibility in the eyes of the Iranian population.
- What’s driving Iran’s latest round of widespread popular protests, in Iranian Protesters Are Angry About More Than Just Food Prices
- How climate change is driving popular discontent in Iran, in Protests in Iran Point to the Middle East’s ‘Water Bankrupt’ Future
- Why Iranian reformists were bound to come out the big losers from the June 2021 presidential election, in Iran’s Engineered Election Leaves Reformists With No Good Options
- What Iran’s crackdown on dissidents means for the human rights lawyers defending them, in For Iran’s Lawyers, Defending Dissidents Is Getting Dangerous
Biden has been clear about his objectives in engaging with Tehran: to return to compliance with the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, as well as to seek limits on Iran’s missile program and changes in its regional behavior. But so far progress on reviving the JCPOA has been slow, and even if it is resuscitated, Iran has given no indication it is willing to engage on the other files.
- Why Washington might be exaggerating the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, in Fears of a Nuclear-Armed Iran Might Be Overblown
- Why the nuclear deal, even if it is revived, won’t be a panacea for U.S.-Iran relations, in With or Without the JCPOA, Iran Will Be a Challenge for Biden
- How to break the impasse on negotiations to revive the JCPOA, in The U.S. Should Rethink Its Approach to Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal
- Why every side in the debate over reviving the nuclear deal feels vindicated by Raisi’s election, in Raisi’s Election Is Galvanizing Both Sides of the Iran Nuclear Deal Debate
The Regional Picture
Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia has actually been more devastating in recent years than the mounting tensions with Washington. The competition between the two Middle East rivals has fueled proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, leading to humanitarian crises in both countries. Both sides have now opted for diplomatic engagement in the hopes of averting further confrontations. But that still leaves the covert conflict between Iran and Israel, with the associated risks of miscalculation and unintended fallout leading to escalation and open hostilities.
- What’s driving closer relations between Iran and Russia, in Putin’s Iran Visit Shows He Still Has Friends—and Options
- What Iran was trying to accomplish with a March missile strike in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Tehran’s ‘Rocket Diplomacy’ Could Snowball Into a Regional Conflict
- How recent Houthi drone and missile attacks on the UAE could force Abu Dhabi to reconsider diplomatic outreach to Iran, in Houthi Attacks Could Derail UAE-Iran Diplomacy
- What the recent visit of the UAE’s national security adviser to Iran means for regional efforts to deescalate conflicts, in Diplomacy Is the Middle East’s Best Bet, but It’s Still a Long Shot
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.