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How the Biden Administration Could Restart Diplomacy With Iran

Following news that the U.S. is willing to resume nuclear talks with Iran in coming weeks, WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains one tactic that could jumpstart diplomacy between the two countries. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

Video Transcript

GERALD F. SEIB: One of the trickiest problems President Biden faces is making good on his campaign promise to get the US back into that nuclear deal with Iran that President Obama negotiated but President Trump threw out.

DONALD TRUMP: I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal.

GERALD F. SEIB: The problem, of course, is that once the US withdrew from that agreement, Iran resumed some of the nuclear activities that the deal had stopped, including enrichment of uranium, producing material that could one day be used in a nuclear weapon.

And now there's a kind of a standoff between the new Biden administration and the Iranian regime over how to proceed from here. Iran's position is that all those economic sanctions have to be lifted first before it will move back into compliance with the agreement.

HASSAN ROUHANI: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

GERALD F. SEIB: And President Biden's view is essentially the opposite. First, Iran has to stop its nuclear activities. And then the US will lift sanctions and move back into compliance with the deal.

JEN PSAKI: It's really up to Iran to come back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA. And at that point, we could move the discussion forward.

GERALD F. SEIB: Now, there are the first steps being taken to get past this impasse. The US has said that alongside the European partners that helped negotiate the deal in the first place, it's prepared, in coming days, to sit down with Iran and start conversations. There's certainly some urgency to this task.

The Iranians have said they may stop giving access to United Nations nuclear inspectors until the sanctions are lifted. So the question is how do the US and Iran get past this game of chicken, this who-goes-first question? Well, one idea on the table is called freeze for freeze. The idea is that each side would take some temporary, limited steps first to build confidence and get diplomacy going.

Iran would temporarily freeze its nuclear activities. And the US would temporarily freeze or suspend some of the economic sanctions, giving Iran a bit of the economic relief that it seeks. One of the problems is that Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei is on the record saying that the US needs to lift all economic sanctions before Iran moves back into the agreement. So that's a public position he would have to change.

And from his point of view, President Biden has to be worried that if he gives some economic relief, lifts some sanctions on Iran now, without full end to its nuclear activity, maybe the Iranians will never get back into full compliance. He would be criticized at home from people who don't think the US ought to be getting back into the agreement in the first place.

And to make things more complicated, the US actually would like to expand the agreement to include limits on Iran's production of ballistic missiles that one day could deliver nuclear weapons and to end some of its support for extremist groups in the Middle East. Further complications still, some regional players, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, actually think they ought to be at the table for any renegotiation of the deal because they are so affected by its outcome.

So it's a complicated situation. And time is running short the Journal reported in recent days, for example, that one of the things that Iran has started to do is produce uranium metal, a material that could be used in the core of a nuclear weapon.