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After the Apocalypse: Iran

After the Apocalypse is a series of policy recommendations for the incoming Biden administration.

Words: Trita Parsi, Kelsey Davenport, Ali Vaez
Pictures: Iman Soleimany Zadeh

The Biden administration has taken office at a low point in the US – Iran relationship. How can this relationship improve? Inkstick asked Trita Parsi, Kelsey Davenport, and Ali Vaez for recommendations on how the Biden administration should approach Iran. They all agreed that restarting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was the first step to bettering the relationship and ensuring that Iran does not pursue nuclear weapons. They also agreed on the negative impact of current US sanctions on the Iranian people and called for providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Iran.

Their other recommendations are as follows:

Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

  1. Resurrect the JCPOA: In his first week in office, President Joe Biden should clearly signal that he will bring the United States swiftly (i.e., before June 2021) into comprehensive compliance with the JCPOA, both in letter and spirit, provided Tehran does the same. This could be done by withdrawing the 2018  presidential memorandum that announced Trump’s cessation of US participation in the JCPOA. The Biden administration, however, should not seek to renegotiate the JCPOA using President Donald Trump’s sanctions as some illusionary leverage. Any hint that the Biden administration effectively seeks to continue its predecessor’s maximum pressure strategy will prompt the Iranians to aggressively expand their nuclear program to develop their own leverage, which will promptly close the window for a JCPOA revival —  much to the detriment of US national security.
  2. Provide Humanitarian Assistance: As part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, the United States even intensified sanctions in the midst of the COVID–19 pandemic, including sanctioning the last remaining Iranian banks that conducted trade in food and medicine. President Biden should immediately reverse these inhumane decisions by making a humanitarian gesture toward the people of Iran.
  3. Pursue an end to US – Iran enmity: The experience of the past few years has shown that the JCPOA cannot endure if the broader relationship between the United States and Iran continues to be characterized by belligerent enmity. The Biden administration should take the opportunity to think bigger. Instead of asking himself what degree of sanctions relief he is willing to fight for in Congress to revive the nuclear agreement, Biden should ask himself what kind of relationship the United States should have with Iran in this century. If being trapped in unending enmity no longer serves US interests and instead makes the country less safe at a time when the public wants an end to wars and a withdrawal of forces from the Middle East, then Biden must think beyond the nuclear deal.


Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association 

  1. Resurrect the JCPOA: Return the United States, alongside Iran, to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal as soon as possible. To build confidence while those details are being worked out, the Biden administration should facilitate transactions on humanitarian goods, express support for UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that endorsed the nuclear deal, and waive sanctions allowing critical cooperative nuclear projects detailed in the 2015 deal to move forward.
  2. Address Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions: Embed negotiations that build on the deal to address Iran’s nuclear program in the long term within a broader, regional nonproliferation strategy aimed at increasing transparency into nuclear programs and restricting nuclear fuel production. 
  3. Support a Regional Security Dialogue: Support efforts to convene a Middle East security dialogue, that includes discussions on limiting ballistic missiles, to reduce the security asymmetries and regional tensions.


Ali Vaez, Director of Iran Project and Senior Advisor, International Crisis Group 

  1. Resurrect the JCPOA: Iran and the United States have a strategic imperative to restore the 2015 nuclear deal as a fully functional agreement that could serve as a foundation for discussing issues outside the nuclear file. The two sides should move in tandem, quickly and in a coordinated and carefully plotted series of steps, consistent with the accord’s original terms. The first step would be for the Biden administration to make a strong and unmistakable statement of positive intent. Upon taking office, Biden should issue an executive order revoking Trump’s May 8, 2018 executive order, which pulled the United States out of the agreement, and initiate a process of fully reversing Trump administration-era sanctions.  In order to deter the Iranian government from any additional nuclear breaches it might be considering, the Biden administration needs to develop a feasible timetable for returning all stakeholders to full compliance of the JCPOA. One approach would be to devise a two- to three-month timetable according to which the United States would respond to each Iranian step in rolling back its nuclear breaches with tangible sanctions relief upon the UN nuclear watchdog’s verification.
  2. Build Trust: One way to do this is for the Biden administration to encourage Iran to quickly resolve the issue of US and European citizens they have imprisoned. In order to ensure transparency and assist with trust-building, both Iran and the United States can employ the help of the Swiss government and involve prisoner swaps.  Iran should also move quickly to resolve the issue of US and European citizens they have imprisoned. This could be done through the Swiss government and involve prisoner swaps.
  3. Provide Humanitarian Assistance: The United States. and its European allies should support Iran’s request for an IMF loan, which could be routed through the extant Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement as credit for Iranian purchases of COVID-19 vaccines and other humanitarian goods.


Also check out After the Apocalypse: Cybersecurity. 

Correction issues 01/21: A previous version of this article had an error in Kelsey Davenport’s second recommendation, implying that the regional strategy should be embedded into negotiations to restore the JCPOA. The recommendation has been corrected. 

Trita Parsi, Kelsey Davenport, Ali Vaez

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