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Salvaging the Nuclear Deal Before It Is Too Late

The Biden administration has a chance to salvage the agreement in the next few months.

One of the early priorities of the new Biden administration has to be rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and they can expect to encounter stiff resistance from the Iran hawks that have been working overtime to destroy the agreement for the last five and a half years. Hard-liners have already fired off two salvos with an article in The Atlantic and an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this week. The first is supposed to be a “case against the nuclear deal,” but it might as well be titled “the case against diplomacy with Iran.” Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi misrepresent what the JCPOA does, exaggerate the benefits that Iran is supposed to get (but has never actually received), and cling to an absurd maximalist demand of “zero enrichment” that Iran would never accept. It is very much the same tedious and disingenuous argument that we have heard before, and we can expect to hear it repeated many more times in the coming months.

Robert Kaplan’s piece is supposed to be an argument about countering China, but he starts it off by claiming that rejoining the JCPOA will “undermine key allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia” while “ignoring” the growth of Chinese influence. It never seems to occur to Kaplan that his call for countering Chinese influence is in direct opposition to his criticism of reentering the nuclear deal. If the U.S. wanted to limit Chinese influence in the Middle East, giving Iran the promised sanctions relief as part of the JCPOA would be the obvious move. Thanks to “maximum pressure” cutting Iran off from Europe and many other markets, the ties between Iran and China have been increasing. Ending the economic war on Iran would allow Iran to rely less on China and it would reestablish trade ties that the Trump administration’s sanctions had severed.

Preserving the JCPOA is consistent with trying to curb Chinese influence, but Kaplan can’t or won’t admit that because he is really just using fear of Chinese influence to support continued hawkish policies in the Middle East. This is why he begins by fretting over the possible “undermining” of “key allies” that are neither allies nor key. That is why he never tries to explain how rejoining a successful nonproliferation agreement would undermine countries that actually benefit from it. It is knee-jerk hawkishness against Iran masquerading as strategy.

The first thing to understand about hawkish objections to the nuclear deal is that they really have nothing to do with the specific terms and requirements of the deal. These objections have never been about the nuclear issue itself. Iran hawks are alarmed by any diplomatic engagement with Iran that reduces Tehran’s international isolation. Their technical objections to provisions in the agreement are usually wrong or misleading, but they are also being made in bad faith. They harp on the nuclear issue when they can use that as a pretext for sanctions and conflict, and then when that issue is resolved they harp on others at the expense of undermining the nuclear deal that successfully addressed the earlier issue.

Before the deal was negotiated, Iran hawks insisted that it was pointless because the Iranian government would cheat. When Iran consistently complied with the agreement even after the U.S. reneged on its commitments, they switched to arguing that Iranian compliance was proof that the deal was too favorable to them. When confronted with evidence that the nuclear deal had succeeded on its own terms, they tried to move the goalposts by whining about all the things that it didn’t and couldn’t possibly address. No agreement that would satisfy their extreme demands would ever be acceptable to Iran, and no agreement that might be negotiated would ever be good enough for them. Having failed to destroy the nuclear deal during the Trump presidency, Iran hawks are now desperately fighting a rear-guard action to delay U.S. reentry long enough so that hard-liners in Iran finally kill the agreement for them.

The Atlantic article refers to recent Iranian actions to increase enrichment to 20% as proof that Iran is engaging in “nuclear blackmail.” The authors misrepresent this as an attempt to “intimidate” Biden, when it is really the result of the failed “maximum pressure” campaign that the authors support. In fact, the reason that Iran has been steadily reducing compliance with the agreement since 2019 is the failure of the other parties to honor their end of the bargain and the constant provocations from the U.S. and Israel during this period. As any minimally informed observer knows, the most recent Iranian moves were a direct response to the Israeli government’s murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh late last year. Iran hawks cheered the murder, and now they seek to use the inevitable Iranian response as the latest pretext for scrapping the nuclear deal. It takes some gall to use the consequences of a terrorist attack that you supported as an excuse for sabotaging diplomacy with the victim of the attack.

Iran hawks make a lot of noise about provisions in the JCPOA that gradually expire, but these provisions are a necessary part of any negotiated agreement. No government is willing to accept onerous restrictions in perpetuity, and there is no reason to require that such restrictions remain in place forever as long as the purpose of the agreement is still being served. These so-called “sunset clauses” are probably among the least understood and most often misrepresented parts of the agreement. To the extent that some restrictions end, that will be because Iran will have proven over the course of years and decades that it intends to keep its nuclear program peaceful. Some restrictions loosen as it becomes clear that they are no longer needed. The hawks also conveniently fail to mention the many provisions that never expire that will make it practically impossible for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon later on. Ali Vaez discussed these several years ago:

Assuming the other parties to the deal reciprocate by holding up their end of the bargain, Iran will ratify in 2023 the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which allows short-notice inspections of undeclared facilities in Iran and which it is now voluntarily implementing. To date, no country on earth has developed nuclear weapons under the watchful eyes of the IAEA’s inspectors who are empowered by the access that the Additional Protocol affords them.

The Biden administration has a chance to salvage the agreement in the next few months. If they do that and the U.S. rejoins the JCPOA and lifts both old and new sanctions, then we can expect that Iran will be ratifying the Additional Protocol in just a couple years. That will effectively eliminate the path to an Iranian nuclear weapon, and that will deprive Iran hawks of their main pretext for sanctions and conflict from then on. The next two years will be a critical time for repairing and reviving the agreement so that its gains are locked in and secured, and the Biden administration will need to get started on that repair work at once. The first thing that Biden will have to do in starting that repair work is tune out the lies and bad faith arguments of Iran hawks.



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