The Iran nuclear deal is close to collapsing despite Biden's efforts, and experts warn 'there is no Plan B'

The Iran nuclear deal is close to collapsing despite Biden's efforts, and experts warn 'there is no Plan B'
President Joe Biden and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
  • The Iran nuclear deal appears to be on the verge of collapsing.
  • Experts warn that if talks aimed at reviving the deal fail, there's no "Plan B" for Biden.

Reviving the Iran nuclear deal was a top foreign policy goal for President Joe Biden when he entered office. But the landmark agreement appears to be on the verge of irrevocable collapse, as Western leaders grow increasingly impatient with Tehran over the stalled Vienna talks to restore the pact.

If negotiators aren't able to pump life back into the deal, experts warn there's no feasible "Plan B" for Biden and the prospect of conflict in the Middle East could increase. Iran is violating the deal's limits on uranium enrichment, and hawks warn the breakout time to an Iranian nuclear weapon in getting shorter.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Insider that she hasn't given up all hope that the deal can be salvaged, emphasizing that the Iranian economy is in "a fragile enough state" that the government could see virtue in a return to the deal.

"A couple of factors will be key: how much pressure China exerts to convince Iran it will benefit from even short-lived sanctions relief and whether the Biden administration can craft language ... that will provide confidence that the US will stick to the agreement for the duration of Biden's presidency," Slavin added.

Biden recently pledged that the US would only break from a revived deal if there's clear evidence Iran violated its terms.


"There is no 'Plan B,' there is only a continuation of 'Plan A': diplomacy plus the incentive of easing sanctions," Slavin said. "There is no military solution to the Iranian nuclear program and past Israeli efforts to slow things down through sabotage and assassinations have only incentivized Iran to speed up."

"Iran is already a threshold state, with all the necessary expertise and material to build bombs if it decides to do so," Slavin added. "Iran has not done so because it has always calculated that it could protect its territorial integrity without nukes and that going that route would only spark a dangerous new nuclear arms race in the Mideast."

Joseph Cirincione, distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in a tweet on Monday underscored that diplomacy is the best and "only way" to "contain Iran's nuclear program and prevent a new Middle East war."

Israeli officials have signaled a military response against Iran would be necessary if the talks fail. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday did not rule out military options against Iran if the negotiations fail.

"If the Vienna talks were to fail, prospects of a military escalation between Iran and Israel increase," Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Insider.


With tensions still high, the US over the weekend flew a B1-B bomber over the Middle East alongside fighter jets from Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

The uncertain future of the Iran nuclear deal

The Iran nuclear deal is close to collapsing despite Biden's efforts, and experts warn 'there is no Plan B'
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi meets the governors and deputies of the East and West Azerbaijan provinces in Tehran, Iran on October 21, 2021. Getty Images

The 2015 nuclear deal, orchestrated under the Obama administration and formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, setting off a series of events that raised tensions between Washington and Tehran to historic heights - prompting a number of skirmishes in the Persian Gulf and sparking fears of war. Amid all of this, Trump engaged in a "maximum pressure" strategy against Iran, employing crippling economic sanctions with the goal of squeezing it into negotiating a more stringent version of the pact - a goal it failed to achieve.

Though Iran initially remained in compliance with the JCPOA, it gradually took steps away from the deal and effectively abandoned it altogether after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed the country's top general, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. This has included enriching uranium up to 60% (the deal caps enrichment at 3.67%, though weapons-grade levels are closer to 90%), and reducing access to international inspectors.

Iran's nuclear program has developed to a point where the Biden administration has warned that reviving the JCPOA could soon be pointless.


Back in April, indirect negotiations between the US and Iran began in Vienna with the aim of bringing both back into compliance. The US has refused to provide sanctions relief to Iran until it shows that it's once again adhering to JCPOA's restrictions, while Iran has demanded that the Biden administration ease sanctions for it to return to compliance.

Initially, the negotiations showed positive signs. But Iran suspended the talks in June after the election of its new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, and has dragged its feet on starting the negotiations back up. Iran last week announced it was ready to return to the negotiations by the end of November, but a date has not been set yet. The Biden administration tentatively welcomed this development.

Raisi - a protégé of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - is a staunch critic of the US and the West, which has increased concerns that the Vienna talks will fail to revive the agreement.

A series of attacks by Iran-backed militias on US troops in Iraq and Syria have not helped matters. After a recent drone attack on US forces in Syria, the Biden administration last week issued new sanctions against Iran related to its drone program.

Along these lines, Biden at the G20 in Rome on Sunday told reporters that the US is "continuing to suffer from the very bad decisions President Trump made to pull out of the JCPOA." The president warned Iran that the US would continue to respond to any aggressive actions taken against US troops in the region.


Biden and the leaders of the UK, France, and Germany (all parties to the JCPOA) on Saturday released a joint statement decrying the "provocative nuclear steps" Iran has taken.

The statement urged Iran to "change course," imploring Raisi to "seize this opportunity and return to a good faith effort to conclude our negotiations."

Iran has long maintained that it has no desire to develop a nuclear weapon, but Western powers remain deeply skeptical.

But the US is also not without its critics as the negotiations remain at an impasse, and a number of advocacy groups have called for Biden to offer Iran humanitarian relief to bolster the nuclear talks. In an op-ed for Insider, MIANN Group director Mani Mostofi called for Biden to ease sanctions on Iran - particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in the country.

"The Iranian people's wellbeing should not be held hostage to the toxic politics between Tehran and Washington," Mostofi wrote. "The Biden administration has a chance to step in and take action beyond the same old rhetoric."