3 min read
Back To Normal? Why American Attempts to Re-enter the JCPOA Are Foolish

Yeshaya Gedzelman

When Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, was asked how the 2020 US Presidential election will impact Iranian policy towards the US, in his response, Khamenei insisted that “It does not matter to us who comes and goes.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is difficult to believe that the difference between the Biden and Trump administrations’ approaches in dealing with the problem of Iranian nuclear capability were merely semantics to Tehran. While it’s true that both Trump and Biden shared a similar philosophical goal, to improve on the JCPOA (aka the Iran deal) and get a “better deal”, the two leaders had very different paradigms on achieving this goal. 

The Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA, imposed heavy sanctions on Iran, killed the leader of the elite Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, backed Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, and even considered military options to strike Iran in the final months of his presidency, only to be talked off the ledge by his senior military advisors. In contrast, Biden has made his intentions to revive the JCPOA quite clear, even if it can’t be improved. Despite Biden’s overtures towards the Iranians that the US is interested in returning to the Iran deal, the Iranians have refused to return to their enrichment commitments, unless the US lifts sanctions first. This Iranian demand to see the US make the first concession, was thought to have been a sticking point, but recently there were rumors that the US was considering lifting sanctions it had imposed on Khamenei as a trust building step in the negotiations. 

Biden’s eagerness to re-join the JCPOA hasn’t been lost on the Iranians, including their President Ebrahaim Raisi, who warned that, “time is running out for a deal” for the US. Indeed, time is not on America’s side when it comes to the progress of Iran’s enrichment program. Currently, estimates of a timetable for Iran to achieve 90% enrichment purity (the number needed for a nuke), are as short as a couple of months. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a return to the JCPOA is wise, particularly President Biden’s alleged consideration of acquiescing to the Iranian demand for an American first step. 

The JCPOA has three major issues that necessitate its renegotiation for a more comprehensive deal. The first is its so-called sunset provisions which allow Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure, allowing it to enrich uranium rapidly once the deal would expire. Another issue is that the deal doesn’t cover Iran’s developments in ballistic missile technology, which would allow Iran to continue working on its delivery methods and ICBMs (Inter-continental ballistic missiles), while it bides its time until the deal ends. This is a component of nuclear technology that must be addressed in any deal, because every state seeking nuclear weapons must achieve two technological developments: the uranium enrichment necessary (90%) and the integration of the weapons-grade uranium into its means of delivery. Thus, Iran could bide its time and focus on continuing to develop its missiles to be ready for the last day of the agreement, after which it could be a matter of months or even weeks until it has all the ingredients necessary for weaponized capacity. The third flaw of the deal is that it doesn’t cover Iran’s funding of terrorist proxies, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias in Iraq who are a growing threat to US forces in Iraq. Removing the sanctions that would be necessary to revive the JCPOA would be an economic boon for Iran and give far more resources to the Iranian Government to support their allies. 

Any arguments against the JCPOA are often met with the idea that there isn’t a better alternative, aside from US military action against Iran, and, at least, it postpones the immediate threat of Iranian nuclear capability. In reality, a better alternative may be continuing its sanctions, particularly against government entities, strengthening and increasing its sabotage efforts on nuclear sites and if relevant, arming Iranian dissidents. The wave of civil protests in 2019-2020 in Iran, known as the Bloody November has shown that economic frustration can be an effective agent to weaken the Iranian government’s domestic standing further. The recent poor turnout (under 50%) for the Iranian presidential elections this year, underscores that the Iranian Government has already seen an erosion of public support. If sanctions were continued and even strengthened, Iran’s economy would likely implode, increasing the chances for further unrest and even regime change, pressuring the Iranian Government economically and domestically and thus gaining leverage for a more comprehensive and improved Iran deal. In the event of an uprising against Iran’s government, the US would arm and support the dissidents. 

In the near future, the US has to consider its stance towards Iran carefully. War with Iran is a serious thing to contemplate, but is it preferable for Iran to possess the ultimate weapon? The US could pursue its policy of continued sanctions, and redouble its covert actions against Iranian nuclear infrastructure. The covert war waged by the Mossad for the last few decades has more than shown that clandestine efforts to sabotage and delay Iranian progress on its nuclear program can be effective in buying time for a permanent solution to this issue. 

A military air strike should be only used as a last resort, only undertaken if Iran is a week or two away from completing the enrichment purity necessary. If the Biden Administration decides to reinstate the JCPOA and leave the problem for a future US president who will be in office when the deal expires, it would be a dangerous decision. That president would have to consider whether to go to war with the Islamic Republic or allow it to get nuclear weapons, while facing an emboldened Iran that has the means of delivering the bomb and far better economic resources to fund its defense.

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