A Conversation With Jake Sullivan

December 17, 2021


Jake Sullivan, Richard Haas


Council on Foreign Relations

Jake Sullivan discusses the Biden administration’s work over the first year in office to address the current and future challenges facing the United States.


HAASS: You mentioned Iran in your comments. It was obviously you and your colleagues’ preference—I assume it still is—that we get back—we the United States and Iran—get back into the 2015 JCPOA. Two questions: One, how is it going? (Laughter.) And on the off chance not so well, what is the limits to our—as you acknowledge: Iran is well on its way, it’s already in the zip code of becoming what you might call a threshold nuclear weapons state, and the amount of lead time we would have if they decided to make a sprint towards nuclear weapons has been dramatically reduced because we’ve seen the unraveling of the JCPOA—for the record, initiated by us with the unilateral exit by the previous administration in 2018. What are the limits to our tolerance? And does Iran understand that? Do they understand there are limits to American tolerance about their nuclear activities?

SULLIVAN: We have communicated, both through the Europeans and directly to Iran, our view on their continued forward progress on the program, our alarm about it. And I’m not going to say more publicly about what those precise messages are, because I believe that Iran understands them, but don’t want to negotiate in public on them.

To your broader question on how’s it going, it’s not going well in the sense that we do not yet have a pathway back into the JCPOA. The last few days, I think, have brought some progress at the bargaining table. But in the meantime, since we walked away from a deal that had fundamentally put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program, they have raced that program forward. And getting that program back into the box through a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA has proven more difficult over the course of this year than we would have liked to see. And we are paying the wages of the disastrous decision to leave the deal back in 2018.

That being said, what is going well is unity with our European partners, greater alignment with China and Russia, and I think an increasing recognition by Iran that it needs to come to the table in a seriously constructive way and that our patience is by no means unlimited. I’m not going to circle a date on the calendar, next week or next month, but I will say that as they continue to move their program forward, it does imperil the fundamental viability of the JCPOA over time.


Read the full interview at the Council on Foreign Relations.