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Biden's Iran nuclear diplomacy needs to fix Trump's mistakes

The U.S. started the nuclear standoff with Iran. America should move first to end it.
Image: Illustration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Joe Biden.
There are a lot of ways these talks could go south.MSNBC

The hotels of Vienna are likely to be prepping for a bit of déjà vu. The Austrian city is where, after months of negotiations, the United States and five other world powers signed a pact with Iran to limit its nuclear capabilities in 2015. On Tuesday, representatives of all seven countries will be back to figure out whether the deal can be salvaged.

Of course, it needs to be salvaged only because the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, back in 2018, thinking that leaving the deal and reimposing sanctions would lead to Iran's acceding to an even stricter accord. That, clearly, is not what happened.

Instead, President Joe Biden's national security team has had to deal with an emboldened Iran, which has spent most of the last few years expanding its nuclear capabilities in defiance of former President Donald Trump's hostility. On the simple basis of asking whether Iran's nuclear program is larger or smaller now, it's clear that the Trump-era "maximum pressure" campaign failed. This left foreign policy hands who favored the initial deal, as well as me, confused and concerned that it seemed like the Biden administration might miss the window for the U.S. to rejoin the deal and get things moving again.

Thankfully, the gears are finally being set in motion. The U.S. and Iran will be attending the Vienna meeting, though they won't take part in direct talks with each other. Instead, the other members of the talks — China, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the European Union — will be working on separate deals with Iran and the U.S. designed to lay out a series of steps to return to compliance.

With that in mind, there are three things that U.S. negotiators should be mindful of if the talks are to succeed in the long run:

1. The U.S. needs to be the bigger country if it wants the moral high ground back

The JCPOA came together only after the U.S. persuaded the world to essentially agree that, yes, Iran's nuclear program is a problem and that we need to work together to fix it. But the international buy-in, which took almost a decade to craft, including numerous American overtures that Iran rejected, was blown to bits in 2018.

American diplomats can't avoid that, yes, the situation is the U.S.'s fault. The International Atomic Energy Agency had continually certified that Iran was complying with the deal's terms through 2018. There was never any justification for withdrawal aside from "we want more," which goes against the basis of good-faith negotiations.

The Biden team has said it wants the U.S. and Iran back to where things were in 2018 — at least. "We want to get Iran back into compliance. The United States knows that, in order to get back into compliance, it's going to have to lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal," Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, told "PBS NewsHour" on Friday.

But since the presidential election, what we've seen from Washington and Tehran is a bit of a dance, in which each side insists that the other go first before returning to the deal's limits.

That's ridiculous on America's part. We left first. We should return first, with Biden immediately rolling back sanctions issued in the last 18 months. That revocation should come with the message that the clock is ticking for Iran to do the same, through decommissioning centrifuges it has spun up or reducing the stockpile of enriched uranium it has produced since 2018 or both.

2. Keep focused on the problem at hand

As written, the JCPOA's scope is limited to Iran's nuclear program, offering global sanctions relief for Iran's rolling back its atomic development. That annoyed American hawks by inconveniently allowing the U.S. to lessen its economic war on Tehran while the Iranian theocracy remained intact.

Since before the deal was signed, critics of diplomacy with Iran have advocated against any U.S. relief without a total change in the regime's behavior. That would include severing ties with militias in the region, ending its ballistic missile program and wrapping up its proxy wars against Arab Gulf states. Which is exactly the sort of one-sided ask that allows hawks to continue arguing that diplomacy can't work.

At no point in the past three years have I heard where the tipping point is, exactly how crushed the Iranian people must be under American sanctions, for a hypothetical "better deal" to arise. And yet, like clockwork, the naysayers who were against the deal in the first place are cropping back up to offer nothing but the same failed strategy. That's a tactic that has proved, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a poison pill for any talks.

3. This is no time for revenge

The most frustrating part of the discord between the U.S. and Iran is how much of it remains based on events that happened two generations ago. We remain trapped in the same cycle of vengeance that kicked off with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the subsequent hostage situation. Everything else, from Iranian support for militias to U.S. support for Israel, is background to this lingering trauma.

The result is a series of foreign policy decisions that are based almost entirely in domestic politics. Given bipartisan support for the campaign against Iran, congressional leaders would be hard-pressed to find the votes to roll back sanctions, let alone ratify a treaty between the U.S. and Tehran. And Iran's legislature passed a law last year requiring the country to ramp up its nuclear work so long as American sanctions are in place.

Neither side wants to be seen as weaker than its great adversary. The U.S. has its wounded pride and its far-flung interests to consider; the Iranians need the U.S. as a menace to rally the masses to keep the revolution alive. And so wading into a one-on-one battle for supremacy is the fight that Iran wants, ironically enough, as it lets Iran frame itself as the bullied and aggrieved state fighting back against American imperialism.

The only way Biden's negotiators can counter that is to bring along other countries as backup, which the Trump administration tried and failed to do again and again with its pressure campaign.

The JCPOA isn't perfect. But it's clear that the alternative is a more dangerous Iran without any support from the rest of the world to counter it and less support for the Iranian people. Biden's getting the U.S. back in the game — let's see to it that we don't lose to ourselves thanks to an own goal.