The election of Joe Biden presents an opening to strengthen transatlantic relations on critical security issues, including on Iran. Having worked so hard to preserve the Iran nuclear deal over the last four years, European governments and the EU must now unequivocally call on the incoming Biden administration and Iran to swiftly come back into full compliance with the deal. European actors should pro-actively, and in a coordinated fashion lay out a viable roadmap to support this effort.
The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran has failed, with the unprecedented sanctions negatively impacting ordinary Iranians. In response to reimposed US sanction since 2018, Iran has increased its nuclear activities and continues to step away from its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Tehran has also flexed its military muscle across the Middle East. The Trump administration’s remaining term in office is likely to be turbulent with new measures being invoked specifically to complicate Biden’s return to the JCPOA. Recent reports also suggest there is a risk of further military tensions between the United Stated and Iran. An incoming Biden administration could come into office facing renewed escalation.
It is critical for the stability of the Middle East that the United States and Iran urgently cool tensions and restore diplomatic engagement on a range of issues. This should start with rehabilitating the nuclear deal, which is a critical global non-proliferation agreement, and move towards the wider set of issues fuelling regional instability that is so detrimental to European interests.
With European support, a Biden administration can take advantage of the positive signalling from the Rouhani government – in its final eight months left in office – welcoming Biden’s stated aim of returning to the JCPOA and readiness to ‘walk the path of diplomacy’ with Iran.
Towards this end, European governments and the EU should now prioritise the following steps:
In the coming weeks, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, (E3) should coordinate a joint public statement calling on the incoming Biden administration, once inaugurated, to formally announce its intent to re-join the JCPOA, urging the United States and Iran to agree on steps for mutual re-compliance and then to build on the agreement. European governments and the EU should simultaneously intensify Congressional outreach in Washington in support for Biden’s return to the agreement.
The E3 countries should press for a Joint Commission meeting of the JCPOA parties to be held prior to 20 January. The European Union’s High Representative Josep Borrell, should, as chair of the Joint Commission, encourage the current members of the agreement to call for the return of the United States to the JCPOA and for the US to reaffirm support for UN Security Council resolution 2231. The Joint Commission should also call on the United States to reissue waivers for civil nuclear cooperation (revoked under Trump) as soon as possible to facilitate Iran’s roll-back of nuclear activities and the modernisation of Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor.
Between now and 20 January, the E3 and the EU should convene a political director level meeting with Iran, to scope out a clear pathway for Iran to reverse its nuclear activities. Europeans should stress to Iran that such steps will be a necessary component for the United States to fully return to the JCPOA under a Biden administration. This process should involve an extensive discussion with Iran on technical steps to roll back its nuclear programme, the realistic contours of sanctions relief under a Biden administration, and European measures to support Iran’s economy. The E3 and the EU should also use existing diplomatic channels with Iran to caution against escalation with the United States, particularly in Iraq where there is a high risk of tensions. Any escalation in advance of Biden’s inauguration would greatly complicate diplomatic efforts.
In parallel to the nuclear track, European countries and the EU should articulate a diplomatic roadmap for transatlantic cooperation on regional de-escalation to the incoming Biden administration and wider American policy community. Ahead of Biden’s inauguration, European governments should also intensify communication with other regional actors, notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, aimed at both preventing dangerous escalation and laying the groundwork for a wider subsequent process in line with the efforts of the United Nation Secretary-General to advance regional security. This will be needed to reassure and offset opposition to renewed engagement with Iran from some of Europe’s regional partners. As part of this approach, Europeans should now start to intensify efforts in support of inclusive stabilisation efforts in Iraq and Yemen.
European countries must move fast to contain Iran’s expanding nuclear programme, and to urge the incoming Biden administration to take advantage of the political momentum following his inauguration to actively engage Iran and reverse the current dangerous escalatory trajectory.
Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, and chair of the ECFR board
Alistair Burt, former UK minister of state for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and an MP
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, former German ambassador to the US, and former deputy foreign minister
Jean-David Levitte, former ambassador of France to the United States, the United Nations, and diplomatic adviser to presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy
Andrzej Olechowski, former Polish minister of foreign affairs
Javier Solana, former EU high representative for the common foreign and security policy, former secretary-general of NATO, member of the ECFR board, and a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution