Analysis: Joe Biden and his administration face considerable challenges in resurrecting the deal with Iran

Ireland has played a key role as facilitator in the efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal, an issue the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, described as arguably the most politically contentious issue on the UN Security Council agenda. As negotiations for a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal drag on, US president Joe Biden faces considerable challenges.

A foreign policy success is imperative for Biden right now in the aftermath of the Afghanistan debacle and the row with France over the Australian submarine deal. The Obama administration brokered the original deal with Iran's Rouhani administration and five other signatories, namely China, France, Russia, the UK, and Germany. Under the terms of the agreement, the US granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs to the country's nuclear programme. Among other restrictions, Iran pledged not to produce enriched uranium or plutonium, materials used in nuclear weapons.

In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal and launched a campaign of "maximum pressure" against Iran, which crippled the Iranian economy. At that time, Iran was considered to be in compliance with the terms of the deal. However, after the US withdrawal, Iran resumed its nuclear programme and has since made significant progress.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week in 2019, academic and Iranian expert Azadeh Moaveni on Iran's nuclear programme

In fact, Iran's progress reflects the utter failure of Trump and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies. Netanyahu hoped that imposing heavy sanctions on Iran after Trump's withdrawal from the agreement would eventually lead to the toppling of the Iranian regime from within or a serious clash with the US, possibly leading to American bombing of Iran’s nuclear sites. The opposite occurred and Iran continued to develop its nuclear capabilities. Now, Iran is returning to talks from a position of strength.

The Biden administration and EU allies have spent months in negotiations with Iran, attempting to forge a return to the deal. Six previous rounds of indirect talks have been unsuccessful. Biden faces a range of challenges at home, in Iran and with key allies. Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon requires urgent action, and Biden risks losing political capital if he delays or appears conciliatory. Last month, Iran inaugurated a new hardline president in Ebrahim Raisi. Finally, Biden must navigate relationships with US allies who are divided on their approach to the deal. The EU favours a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal, while Israel believes it provided Iran with too much leeway.

Time is running out for a successful return to the nuclear deal. Iran is currently producing near weapons-grade enriched uranium, in addition to other materials used in weapons. It maintains that this production is for peaceful purposes. The advances that Iran has made cannot be erased and given its progress in nuclear research, any deal must be concluded quickly to be effective.

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From RTÉ News in April 2021, US and Iran describe first day of talks on nuclear deal as 'constructive'

Iranian demands aside, Biden must make sure his agreement is palatable to the American public. He faces two main challenges and may need to accomplish more than what the original deal achieved to appear successful politically. He will also struggle with the political perception of extending sanctions relief to Iran's new president, who is accused of crimes against humanity and under personal US sanctions for human rights violations.

Presidential elections in Iran do not usually result in significant change to policy. However, they can shift Iran's tone toward other states. President Raisi has said he will not negotiate over Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its support for regional militias, both of which are key US concerns. This creates a more hostile tone for further negotiations.

Despite hopes from the Iranian public, the lifting of sanctions under the deal did not translate into sustained economic benefits. Economic hardship has moved support away from political moderates to hard-liners. Along with the Iranian media, these hardliners oppose the nuclear deal and its revival.

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From DW News, can Joe Biden renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran?

The Biden administration also must grapple with Iran’s perception of the US as an unreliable partner. Iranian leaders fear that partisan gridlock may prevent the US from honouring its commitments. They also point to agreements that the US has revoked. This skepticism has resulted in demands that the Biden administration cannot meet, legally or politically.

Israel is opposed to any agreement that allows for Iranian nuclear progress and sees Iran as a nuclear threshold state. Israel's attacks on Iran’s nuclear programme and scientists threaten to further destabilise the region. If the Biden administration does not reach a deal with Iran, Iran will likely continue its programme unabated, provoking a further military response from Israel.

Iran needs the removal of sanctions. Domestic unrest may push Iran toward the JCPOA nuclear deal out of a desire for immediate sanctions relief. Before assuming the presidency, Raisi had been outspoken in his view that the government was failing low-income Iranians. Without sanctions removal, Iran will lack the means to address these issues.

From Al Jazeera English, will the Iran nuclear deal remain on the table after the election of Ebrahim Raisi?

The Iranian political climate has changed since the initial deal was reached, and Iran’s nuclear advancements will not be undone. The Biden administration will need to consider a variety of new factors that were not relevant to the Obama administration if it hopes to be successful.

However, sanctions removal remains vitally important to the Iranian economy. As the country deals with domestic instability, Raisi may need to look for opportunities to ease tensions at home. The new Iranian administration’s desire for economic success may force it to compromise on its hardline values. If the Biden administration can successfully leverage Iran’s internal needs, and appeal to regional partners, there may still be a glimmer of hope for a renewed nuclear deal.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ