The most puzzling case is Iran. President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, even though Iran was in compliance; he re-imposed sanctions, which had been lifted in exchange for the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program; a year later, after seeking a way around the obstruction with the Europeans, Iran resumed enriching uranium, citing Paragraph 36 of the deal, noting that if one side breaks its commitments, the other can respond in kind. During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to return to the deal. (He had been vice president when President Obama and five other world leaders negotiated it.) Yet, upon entering the office, he said that the Iranians would have to make the first move—they would have to throw out their enriched uranium before he would lift the sanctions. The Iranians, not unreasonably, refused. They hadn’t been the ones to tear up the deal; why should they unilaterally mend it, why should they trust the U.S. to follow suit?
It is a mystery why Biden, in his first days as president, didn’t work out an arrangement where the U.S. and Iran could make their moves simultaneously, perhaps under the European Union’s auspices. In mid-February, the French foreign minister announced that he would hold host talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Europe’s top diplomats to discuss saving the Iran nuclear deal. It looked like this would be the forum where such a formula would be arranged. But Iran’s officials refused to attend—and the talks were canceled.