Before he was appointed National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan repeatedly said that the Biden administration would return to the 2015 nuclear deal—if Iran came back into compliance first. Any new diplomacy with Iran would seek to extend the deal’s restrictions, including the timelines that limit Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, he said. The Biden administration would also use diplomacy to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for armed proxies, both of which could be done within a new and broader regional dialogue. “Our view is that ballistic missiles and Iran's ballistic missile program has to be on the table as part of that follow-on negotiation,” Sullivan told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on January 3. “We also believe that there can be conversations that go beyond just the permanent five members of the Security Council, the P5+1, and then involve regional players as well.” He made his first statement as National Security Advisor at the "Passing the Baton" event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace. The following is rundown of what Sullivan has said on Iran while in office and before becoming National Security Advisor.
Remarks while in office:
On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy
Remarks on ABC News on June 20, 2021: “I think what we need to do in the United States is keep our eye on the ball. And that is our paramount priority right now is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve that, rather than military conflict. And so, we're going to negotiate in a clear-eyed, firm way with the Iranians to see if we can arrive at an outcome that puts their nuclear program in the box. And in that regard, whether the president is person A or person B is less relevant than whether their entire system is prepared to make verifiable commitments to constrain their nuclear program.”
Question: “Do you think Raisi's election actually increases the chances of reaching a deal?”
Sullivan: “It's hard to speculate about the internal dynamics in Iran on a question like that. What I would say is that the ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran's supreme leader. And he was the same person before this election as he is after the election.
“Ultimately, it lies with him and his decision as to whether he wants to go down the path of diplomacy here or face mounting pressure not just from the United States, but the rest of the international community.”
Question: “Raisi himself is facing personal sanctions from the U.S. for his complicity with human rights abuses. Is the U.S. willing to lift those personal sanctions if that’s what it takes to get a deal?”
Sullivan: “The whole question of which sanctions will be lifted is currently being negotiated in Vienna, and I’m not going to conduct those negotiations in public. What I will say is that the United States retains the right even under the JCPOA, even under the Iran nuclear deal, to impose sanctions for reasons other than the nuclear file, for terrorism, for human rights, for missile development.”
Remarks to press on June 9: "Russia is a member of the P5+1. The American negotiating team is working with the Russian negotiating team in Vienna. They have worked together in a productive and constructive way, to a large extent. And so this will be an opportunity for the two presidents to be able to consult on where we think we are in those talks and what needs to be done to get them across the line... We don’t underestimate the difficulty of any nuclear negotiation with the Iranians, since we’ve been through them. But we do believe that there is scope for follow-on negotiations to build on the JCPOA once we are back in it. And we believe the Iranians will ultimately be prepared to engage in those negotiations. There are things for them to gain, because there are many aspects of our sanctions that are not necessarily part of the original JCPOA. And, of course, we retain all of the right and capacity to take additional steps if they’re not prepared to negotiate in good faith."
Remarks on ABC on May 2, 2021: "We have not yet reached agreement in Vienna which is where the talks between the world powers and Iran are taking place right now. There's still fair distance to travel to close the remaining gaps and those gaps are over what sanctions the United States and other countries will roll back. They are over what nuclear restrictions Iran will accept on its program to ensure that they can never get a nuclear weapon. And our diplomats will keep working at that over the coming weeks to try to arrive at a mutual return to the JCPOA, which is the Iran nuclear deal on a compliance-for-compliance basis. So the short answer, Martha, is there is no deal now. We're hoping to continue to make progress and we’re hoping ultimately to achieve the objective that President Biden has laid out."
Interview with CNN on April 21, 2021: “Now, these negotiations are taking place indirectly, which means the United States and Iran are not currently sitting across the table from one another. What's happening is, our partners, the world powers, are sitting with the Iranians to talk to them about both the nuclear restrictions that they will have to accept and the sanctions relief that would flow from that.
“And then they're coming into the other room and talking to the American negotiator and going back and forth. We now have a moment to be able to take stock of where we are in that process. We have made some progress. There's still distance to travel.
“But, ultimately, the United States is committed to returning to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, on a compliance-for-compliance basis, as we have said now from the start of this administration.”
“The United States is not going to make any moves on this issue until we have clarity and confidence that Iran is prepared to put its nuclear program back in the box it was in during the Iran nuclear deal.”
Remarks on CBS on Feb. 21, 2021: "We intend to very directly communicate with the Iranians about the complete and utter outrage, the humanitarian catastrophe that is the unjust, unlawful detention of American citizens in Iran."
Question: "Have you done that yet?"
Sullivan: "We intend to demand... we have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue, yes. And we will continue to do so as we go forward. And our strong message to the Iranians will be that we will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner. It will be a significant priority of this administration to get those Americans safely back home."
Question: "Has Tehran responded yet to the offer made this past week to begin nuclear talks? And does the offer still stand, given what Iran said overnight about perhaps unplugging or, you know, dismantling some of the video surveillance of its nuclear facilities?"
Sullivan: "Well, in order to answer that question, let me offer just a couple of basic propositions. First, Joe Biden is intent, determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Second, he believes that hardheaded, clear-eyed diplomacy is the best way to do that. And so he's prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program. That offer still stands because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it. Iran has not yet responded. But what's happened as a result is that the script has been flipped. It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States. And the ball is in their court."
Remarks at the United States Institute of Peace on Jan. 29, 2021: "There are real differences between the approach the Trump administration took and the approach the Biden administration will take. It starts from a sober analysis of the state of affairs, which is that Iran's nuclear program has advanced dramatically over the course of the past couple of years. They are significantly closer to a nuclear weapon than they were when the previous administration withdrew from the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].
"Their ballistic missile capability has also advanced dramatically. To be fair, it advanced under the Obama administration, but it has accelerated over the course the past four years. Their recklessness and sponsorship of terrorism in the region has not abated and, in some areas, has accelerated as well. Their direct attacks on partners in the region, their support for proxies who are getting more audacious both in attacks on U.S. forces and our partners in the region—all of this is the inheritance that we take. Our view is that if we can get back to diplomacy and put Iran’s nuclear program in a box, that will create a platform upon which to build a global effort, including partners and allies in the region and in Europe and elsewhere, to take on the other significant threats Iran poses, including on the ballistic missile issue.
"I've said before publicly, and will reiterate, that we are going to have to address this considerable threat, we're going to have to address Iran’s other bad behavior, malign behavior across the region. But from our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is a escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon. We would like to make sure that we reestablish some of the parameters and constraints around the program that have fallen away over the course of the past few years."
Remarks from before taking office:
On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy
In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Jan. 3, 2021: “President- Elect Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal, that is to say it reduces its stockpile, it takes down some of its centrifuges and other measures so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in. But that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation.
“To your question directly about ballistic missiles, our view is that ballistic missiles and Iran's ballistic missile program has to be on the table as part of that follow-on negotiation. We also believe that there can be conversations that go beyond just the permanent five members of the Security Council, the P5+1.
“And then involve regional players as well. And that in that broader negotiation, we can ultimately secure limits on Iran's ballistic missile technology and that is what we intend to try to pursue through diplomacy that involves both the direct nuclear file and a broader set of regional issues.”
Question: “Was there a larger hope that the Iranians would be more cooperative and conciliatory on some regional issues and such and is it not fair to say that that hope was not in any way fulfilled after the Iran nuclear deal, even during the Obama years?”
Sullivan: “We [the Obama administration] did believe that if you had the Iranian nuclear program in a box, you could then begin to chip away at some of these other issues. If you had the kind of clear-eyed diplomacy backed by deterrence, that it was the hallmark of what produced the Iran nuclear deal in the first place.
“Now, obviously, that did not come to pass, but it was never fundamentally part of the Iran nuclear deal that we had the expectation that it would. And as we go forward, we will continue to look at each of the significant issues we face with Iran, each of the threats and challenges that Iran poses in its own distinct way without presuming that by doing a deal on one aspect we are necessarily going to make progress on another.”
In remarks to The Wall Street Journal CEO Summit on Dec. 7, 2020: “Since the United States left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapon. They have enriched more uranium. They have built a greater stockpile. They have moved their program forward in dangerous ways.
“What we are hoping to do after January 20th is to get Iran to come back into compliance with its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal, which would put its program back in a box and put time back on the clock. If Iran is prepared to do that, then we're prepared to come back into compliance with our terms under the Iran nuclear deal. We think that is feasible and achievable, and that would set the stage for a follow-on negotiation that would allow us to work through issues related to duration and other aspects of Iran's activities and behavior and in the region, so that we would be on a long-term trajectory to deal with the challenge.”
Question: “But are they really incentivized to do that? When you hear the Iranians talk about the United States, they feel from their perspective that we changed the rules on them. They've got an election coming up next year where hardliners are saying that the current government there was taken advantage of by the U.S. Is that a realistic scenario that they would come back?”
Sullivan: “In the current circumstance where we just walked away, we're alone. We can't get the rest of the world powers to work with us to deal with the challenge Iran poses.
“To come to your question, this is really up to Iran. If Iran decides they're not going to come back into compliance in return for the U.S. coming back into compliance, then we have an opportunity to go to the rest of the world and say: you've got to join us now in showing the Iranians that there is no other choice but to deal with the [nuclear] program through this diplomatic option.
“We believe this is a viable strategy, a far more viable strategy than the one that has been undertaken, that has led to the point where Iran is much further down the track towards a nuclear weapon.”
In remarks during an event hosted by the University of Minnesota on Nov. 25, 2020: "If Iran is prepared to return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, what's called the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, then the United States is prepared to return to compliance with its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal and then would work intensively on follow-on agreements to address a range of different issues related to Iran's nuclear program, including timelines and including other questions that were not within the remit of the original JCPOA."
Question: “In terms of Iran's intense concern about the relaxation of economic sanctions that really hit the Iranian people very hard, is that something that would be part of the negotiations?”
Sullivan: “So that's really up to Iran. What President-elect Biden has said is that he's prepared to return to compliance -- and sanctions are a piece of that -- if Iran returns to compliance for its obligations that it's been violating and is prepared to advance good faith negotiations on these follow-on agreements.”
Question: "One of the criticisms is that Iran, outside the nuclear framework, was engaged in hostile acts, whether it was sponsoring terrorism or other acts. Do you see bringing those other kinds of non-nuclear but aggressive tactics by Iran, bringing that into the negotiations?"
Sullivan: "First, those regional issues impact a range of regional partners and countries that are not at the table in the nuclear negotiations, which is really the set of world powers, plus Iran.
"So the United States will stand behind and support diplomacy and diplomatic efforts and play our own role in them to deal with a number of these regional questions and to push back on Iran's destabilizing and aggressive behavior across the region -- its sponsorship of terrorism, its support for proxy militias and the like -- and do all of that in the context of a coherent Iran strategy that has a nuclear dimension, a regional dimension, a human rights dimension and covers the waterfront.
"But on the precise question of dealing with some of these regional issues, it is going to be incumbent upon us to make sure that all of the countries who are impacted by those regional questions have a voice and a capacity to participate in the policy and diplomacy that that would go into trying to resolve."
Op-ed with William J. Burns in The New York Times on Oct. 14, 2019: “To start, both sides need to reset their expectations, and begin a step-by-step de-escalation that could create the basis for a longer-term resolution. The United States won’t get Iran to the table without some economic relief — either directly or through the European Union, as President Emmanuel Macron of France has suggested. The United States will also need to abandon as a precondition for progress the 12 demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out publicly last year. This hard-bitten and resourceful Iranian regime is not going to issue that kind of declaration of surrender.
“The Iranians will have to get more realistic, too. It is simply impractical to think that the United States will provide significant sanctions relief without assurances that Iran will immediately begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement that at least extends the timelines of the deal and addresses issues of verification and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently signaled some openness to negotiation of additional terms. While we should have no illusions about how difficult that would be, we should certainly test the proposition. The Iranians have known since the secret talks that we saw this as an iterative process, like other arms control processes, in which one agreement became a foundation stone for further negotiations. The nuclear deal agreed to in 2015 was meant to be the beginning, not the end, of diplomacy with Iran.
“Both sides should also seek to reduce tensions more broadly. It is long past time to secure the release of Americans detained, deeply unfairly, in Iran. It is time to stop threats to vital shipping lanes and stop making Iraq a battleground for American-Iranian competition. We should make an opportunity of the crisis in the gulf and push hard to end the war in Yemen. That conflict is not only a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportion but also a strategic calamity for our gulf partners and a stain on American foreign policy. Afghanistan is another issue to discuss directly, given Iran’s stake in stability there, and Tehran’s ability to disrupt it.”
Remarks at the Hudson Institute on May 11, 2020: “We’ve learned that actually, both sides of this debate were wrong about a critical thing. So, advocates and defenders of the JCPOA, myself included, thought when the Trump Administration pulled out and imposed unilateral sanctions, that those sanctions were not likely to be as effective, because the Trump Administration wasn’t bringing the rest of the world along with them.
“That didn’t turn out to be true. Actually, those sanctions have been very effective in the narrow sense of causing deep economic pain in Iran. Now, they have not been effective in actually producing the magical outcome that the Trump Administration is looking for. But they weren’t able to muster an enormous amount of economic pressure, more than I and those of us who were defenders of the JCPOA, would have anticipated.
“Opponents of the JCPOA were also wrong about a very important thing, which is they said when we did the deal, ‘Now that you’ve given all the sanctions relief, Iran is going to grow economically powerful and resilient, and you won’t be able to snap back. This notion of snapping back if Iran violates the agreement is a fallacy. And once you give them all the relief, you shower them with money, they’ll be so rich that when they start cheating in a couple of years, there’s nothing you’ll be able to do to stop them.’
“Well, they were proven wrong about that, because snapback turned out to be a fairly straightforward thing, the power of the U.S. dollar. And the U.S. financial system was sufficient to take Iran from 2.5 million barrels a day of oil down to 500,000 or wherever we are at this point. So, what does that tell us? It tells us that actually the basic logic of a nuclear deal that says, ‘You’ll get sanctions relief if you continue to comply with strict limitations on your program. But if you violate those limitations, we will snap sanctions back.’
“So, I actually think it has vindicated the basic principle behind the JCPOA. Now, my view would be that a Democratic Administration should immediately reengage nuclear diplomacy with Iran and look to establish something along the lines of the JCPOA, but immediately begin the process of negotiating a follow-on agreement. And I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent with negotiating a follow-on agreement and believing the JCPOA was good on its own terms.
“SALT I was followed by SALT II. The START treaty was followed by New START. And any arms control agreement is going to have to be a series of steps. And that follow-on agreement, in my view, should deal with the timelines for the restrictions and extend them, and should also try to address other elements that we have learned subsequently could be strengthened. And I think that that is a perfectly plausible available strategy and a far, wiser course than basically demand Iran to come out with its hands up.
“And when it doesn’t, just keep ratcheting up pressure until you get to the brink of war, which has been the current strategy. It has left us in a position where Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today than they were when Trump pulled out. And we are closer to war with Iran today than we were when Trump pulled out. So, for me, that would be a sensible hard-headed approach to take place.”
Question: “The whole question of Iranian regional activity was not part of the JCPOA. And that from the standpoint of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and some other countries, that was such a major issue that we ended up… I think we were making the Middle East more volatile rather than less.”
Sullivan: “I acknowledge that the Iran deal did not cover Iran’s regional behavior and that Iran’s regional behavior continued to be bad after the JCPOA was struck in the summer of 2015. I noticed that. The Iran deal didn’t say one thing one way or the other. It neither constrained Iranian behavior nor constrained America’s capacity to push back against Iranian bad behavior.
“And the notion that somehow the JCPOA was the cause of Iran acting badly in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen, in Bahrain, and other places, to me, is belied by the fact that the very people lobbying this critique were talking about Iranian malign activities in all of those countries before there was a JCPOA. You see, to me, the real issue with Iran, the real limitation on Iran in the region, has not been the availability of cash. It’s been the availability of opportunity.
“And where opportunities have arisen, they’ve taken them. And that was true in the ’80s. It was true in the ’90s. It was true in the 2000s. It was during the 2010s. It remains true today. And even under massive sanction, the Iranians have gotten more aggressive in the Gulf, have remained just as aggressive in Syria and Lebanon, have increased their activities in respect to the Houthis in Yemen, and all of that while under massive economic sanction from the United States.
“So, the idea that somehow it was the JCPOA that unleashed upon the region, to me, is deeply ahistorical. That’s one important part. The second important part is that I actually can’t conceive of how the US and Iran arrived at a regional bargain through the P5+1 process, which does not involve, by the way, any of the regional actors.
“So, would it be the U.S. and Iran sitting across the table, and the U.S. saying, ‘Iran, here’s an appropriate level of influence for you in Iraq or in Syria. We’ll come to some understanding?’ No, that doesn’t make sense. Or alternatively, is it the Pompeo theory of, ‘We’ll do a nuclear deal with you as soon as you completely withdraw all of your support for Hezbollah, all of your support from Syria, all of your support from everywhere else in the region. Then, we’ll do a nuclear deal with you,’ which ain’t going to happen.
“So, my view is, if you can take one of the big threats off the board, the Iranian nuclear program, take it off the board, and then use the tools available at your disposal, none of which were stripped from us by the JCPOA, to go after Iran in the region. And to the extent you want to make diplomacy, the central feature of stopping Iran’s malign activities, get the regional actors at the table with the Iranians and stand behind them with some pressure to try to produce a de-escalation, say between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“And I believe that the next administration should be thinking very seriously about how to run these two tracks in parallel, a nuclear track and a regional track. But the regional track is not going to be the P5+1 sitting with the Iranians and carving up the Middle East.”
On a security dialogue between Iran and its neighbors
Remarks at the Center for a New American Security on Aug. 5, 2020: “I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent with finding a path forward on nuclear diplomacy early next year” which “then sets the stage for a negotiation over a follow-on agreement.”
“We should not hold hostage nuclear diplomacy for the sake of regional diplomacy, but we should think about ways in which there are linkages that can push both of them forward.”
“When we first got engaged in this, our friends in the Gulf repeatedly said, ‘do not make the regional issue a central negotiating point…because if we’re not at the table, we’re on the table.’ The regional track has to be led by the regional actors.”
Op-ed with Daniel Benaim in Foreign Affairs on May 22, 2020: “In pushing for regional diplomacy, Washington would have to ask and answer two difficult questions about how its priorities and hoped-for outcomes fit together. The first is how closely—if it all—to tie a new regional initiative to a nuclear agreement with Iran. It is a recipe for failure to hold the opportunity to constrain Iran’s nuclear enrichment hostage to maximalist regional demands—as when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for getting ‘every last Iranian boot’ out of Syria. But there may also be a way to thread the needle, through a phased approach that delivers nuclear progress up front and creates space to address regional challenges over time. Under such an approach, the United States would immediately reestablish nuclear diplomacy with Iran and salvage what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal, which has been fraying since the Trump administration abandoned it in 2018. The United States would then work with the P5+1 and Iran to negotiate a follow-on agreement. In parallel, the United States and its partners would support a regional track.
“To be clear, verifiably halting Iran’s nuclear progress—in service of a vital U.S. interest—should not be made conditional on the success of a regional dialogue. But a loosely connected approach could create an incentive structure in which the pace and extent of sanctions relief are connected to both tracks.
“The second difficult question is how best to square diplomatic ambition with the desire to lessen the U.S. military footprint. Here, too, Washington will have to thread a needle. It should not condition its military redeployments on the outcomes of exploratory regional negotiations. But it could, for example, privately insist on serious, good-faith Saudi diplomatic efforts to end the Yemen war and de-escalate with Iran as part of the terms under which it maintains a complement of U.S. troops deployed in Saudi Arabia since May 2019.
“Ultimately, finding a more constructive approach with Iran is essential to the sustainable redeployment of U.S. forces from the region. Deterring Iran and preparing for contingencies arising from Iranian threats (to start a regional arms race, disrupt oil shipments, and support dangerous proxies) have helped drive the United States’ heavily militarized presence in the region over the past decade.”
“A new administration should aim to test the opposite premise: whether by restoring nuclear diplomacy, lowering regional tensions, and forging new arrangements, it can manage the Iranian challenge with fewer forces in the region. Trump has shown that military deployments cannot substitute for diplomacy. Even with a lighter footprint, the next administration would retain a credible military deterrent as a necessary backstop to diplomacy while minimizing the odds it would be needed.”
On Human Rights
Tweet on Dec. 13, 2020:
Iran’s execution of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who was denied due process and sentenced for exercising his universal rights, is another horrifying human rights violation by the Iranian regime. We will join our partners in calling out and standing up to Iran’s abuses.— Jake Sullivan (@jakejsullivan) December 13, 2020