Biden Stalemate With Iran: Neither Side Wants to Make First Step for Deal

Biden rules out sanctions relief before talks

The 2020 elections raised a lot of hope around the world that the Iran nuclear deal could be saved, and that Joe Biden would approach the process with the same openness the Obama Administration did, and would reverse the Trump-era abandonment of the deal.

Biden was short on comments after the inauguration, however, and that left many wondering where he actually stood. Details are starting to emerge and again are pointing to the US and Iran finding themselves in a stalemate even when a straightforward deal is to be had.

Iran has been very clear from the start that they want sanctions relief from the US, which the Obama deal promised them and which they never got. Trump not only left the deal rather than honor it, but then spent years undermining sanctions relief from anyone else.

The US is a little more coy about what they’d take, but they definitely want Iran to reverse all of its measures beyond the nuclear limits. Iran has said they’re willing to do so, but some Congressional Democrats have also said they expect Biden to pursue an even tougher deal.

Adding to the sense that the US wants “more” is French President Macron’s suggestion that Israel and Saudi Arabia should both be included in the talks. Iran is resisting that, and either way those nations would kill any meaningful diplomacy, as both opposed the deal in the first place, and putting them at the table gives them countless opportunities to sabotage the talks.

Biden may be trying to show his interest in doing all things for all people, but if Israel doesn’t want a deal, and they don’t, this is the most straightforward way to ensure that they’ll be able to block it.

Even if the deal is just to dial everything back to day 1 of the Obama deal, which seems like a potential settlement, the obstacles are emerging, as both the US and Iran agree that the other side has to go first.

There’ve got to be talks to reach the deal, and that’s where the conditions are coming in, with the US insisting Iran has to reverse all its nuclear measures back to limits as a condition for talks. Asked by CBS about the possibility of lifting the sanctions in order to convince Tehran to return to the negotiating table, Biden replied: “No.” Indeed Biden says they must “stop enriching uranium first,” and Iran saying that they need the sanctions relief before they reverse anything, making that a de facto condition of talks.

The problem, though, is both sides are rejecting the idea of going first. Iran’s not going to reverse its nuclear measures without the relief, and the US isn’t going to offer relief without the reversal coming first. So as it stands, neither side is getting what they want.

It isn’t that this marks the end of the process, of course. Both sides could come forward and agree to do both at the same time as part of the preconditions to talks. Indeed, if that happened they might find the talks to be unnecessary, as everyone already got roughly what they wanted.

Mistrust looms large on both sides, and that’s a potential killer. If neither side will go first, or go at the same time as one another, this may be the start of a long war of words in which nothing gets accomplished.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.