Joe Biden Faces JCPOA Battle at Home While Allies, Rivals Abroad Urge Him to Re-Sign

President Joe Biden knew he would face a battle over his plan to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.

His predecessor's 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal was lauded by American conservatives and anti-Iran allies including Israel as a victory for common sense and U.S. security. The deal, they argued, was inherently flawed and represented a capitulation to an authoritarian and duplicitous regime in Tehran.

Those same voices are now mobilizing against the president's plan to return to the JCPOA. This week, 120 House Republicans signed an open letter urging Biden not to pursue a detente with Tehran.

"It is critically important that you do not allow history to repeat itself with a fatally flawed Iran nuclear deal," the Republican lawmakers wrote.

They and other critics have warned that the 2015 deal includes so-called sunset clauses, which mean nuclear restrictions on Iran will be lifted in 2025, and that the accord does not cover Tehran's ballistic missile research program or limit its use of regional proxy forces to attack its enemies.

Rejoining "would be a strategic U.S. foreign policy blunder, exponentially more dangerous than the consequences of the original misguided approach," the Republican letter said.

Biden has sought to allay fears about the JCPOA's shortcomings, framing the deal as a foundation for a "longer and stronger" agreement that would place further curbs on Tehran's nuclear program and limit its regional activities and missile research.

White House officials have warned that the U.S. will not imminently return to compliance with the deal, demanding that Iran first scale back its nuclear activities in line with the JCPOA.

Iran began violating the accord after President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, then broke with the agreement entirely after the U.S. assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

Tehran has since expanded its program, in response to Trump sanctions and the assassination—reportedly by Israeli operatives—of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November. The regime says it also wants to revive the JCPOA, but is demanding that Biden ease sanctions first.

The 120 House Republicans said engaging with Tehran would be a mistake. "Iran does not respect weakness. It only respects strength," they wrote.

"Use of force and military action should always be the last possible option, but we must keep it on the table, not because we want war, but because we want to prevent it," they added.

"Our other instruments of national power, such as diplomatic and economic pressure, can become greater tools in this effort when Iran understands that the military option is on the table and real."

Iranian officials have celebrated what they consider a victory over Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign. The former president's sanctions, military action, diplomatic pressure and covert actions all failed to push Iran back to the negotiating table to agree a more restrictive agreement.

The aggressive strategy pursued by Trump and his hawkish officials also opened new cracks in America's relationship with its European allies, and allowed rivals such as Russia and China to undermine U.S. leadership and cast Washington, D.C. as an untrustworthy partner.

The other signatories of the nuclear deal—Russia, China, Germany, France and the U.K—have all maintained support for the JCPOA, urging Biden to rejoin the accord and framing the pact as the only way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Russia and China have both called for America's "unconditional" return, having spent Trump's term condemning his administration's disregard for the deal and for diplomacy.

The Europeans, too, have been clear on their backing for the deal, although they have supported calls for further negotiations regarding Iran's missile program and its use of regional militias.

Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif said last month the European Union could serve as a referee to oversee parallel U.S. and Iranian steps to return to the agreement, though this was rebuffed by the Biden administration.

Last week, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Trump's approach "had a negative impact," adding: "We need to move from 'maximum pressure' to 'maximum diplomacy' through the JCPOA Joint Commission, to try and build a new positive momentum and to ensure once again full implementation of the agreement, including by Iran."

The signals from Iran, meanwhile, have been mixed. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, and his government have demanded sanctions relief before they return to compliance.

Rouhani's term ends this summer. He will likely be replaced by a conservative candidate, perhaps one from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The president and his allies have come under fire in Iran for signing the JCPOA, given its failure to translate to real economic relief for many Iranians and its collapse in 2018. Trump's actions emboldened Iranian conservatives, helping them sweep last year's parliamentary elections.

These conservatives, buoyed by continued belligerence from the Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard, have pressed Rouhani, Zarif and others to take a harder line in JCPOA negotiations. For Biden to revive the deal, the Iranian government will also have to overcome its own domestic opposition.

Joe BIden pictured in Oval Office
President Joe Biden holds a meeting with business leaders about his COVID-19 relief bill in the Oval Office of the White House on February 9. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty