Simply returning to the JCPOA would be a huge mistake
27 Apr 2021|

As the US and Iran discuss a way back to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that Donald Trump abandoned three years ago, I recall a meeting in 2016 with an American official who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal in which I raised my concerns about it.

That was a year after I’d left the Israeli team that worked on the deal with our counterparts in the US and Europe. I wasn’t surprised by the outcome, but I was very frustrated. During our deliberations the Americans showed much appreciation for our advice about how to guarantee their goals would be achieved, but they yielded to most of the Iranians’ demands.

In that 2016 meeting, I emphasised that, among other faults, the JCPOA provided Iran with a safe path to a large nuclear arsenal after 15 years, when, before the deal, it would have had to cross a dangerous threshold on its way to a first bomb under painful economic sanctions.

My interlocutor agreed, but said, ‘Look, during the first five to seven years of the deal, we get more than what we give’—referring to Iran’s commitments to reduce the amount of enriched uranium it possessed and the level of enrichment and to halt the plutonium path in return for the lifting of sanctions. ‘From there on,’ he said, ‘you are right and the situation becomes more dangerous in every passing year. Therefore, the US president at that time is going to have to reassess, and if it seems that our expectations that Iran would change its behaviour do not come true, the president will have to leave the agreement. This is why we insisted on the snapback mechanism through which we can reimpose all the sanctions unilaterally.’

Five years have elapsed and Iran did not meet the Obama administration’s expectations.

It seems Iran lied from the beginning about the military dimensions of its nuclear program. Just recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that it had found anthropogenic uranium particles in at least two sites that Iran never declared to the agency. Three years ago, Israel revealed that Iran kept an archive of its nuclear program that included a well-documented record of its persistent lies to the IAEA.

Under the JCPOA’s terms, such deception should have caused the IAEA to stop the deal from coming into effect in the first place.

On top of that record of deception, Iran revealed recently that it did not fill the calandria of its heavy-water reactor at Arak with cement as required under the agreement.

Over the past two years, Iran has violated its commitments under the JCPOA in such an irreversible manner that, even according to IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi, it is now all but impossible to return to the original deal.

For example, under the deal, Iran could start enrichment with advanced centrifuges such as the IR-6 only after 10 years, in 2025. Yet it has already begun doing so.

Iran also never ceased its support for terrorism and its subversive activities around the Middle East and kept developing ballistic missiles that can be used as delivery systems for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the regime has kept up its human rights abuses—as evidenced by the case of Kylie Moore Gilbert and the executions of hundreds of people for dissent, including wrestling champion Navid Afkari.

Iran’s original intention, according to the seized nuclear archives, was to have five nuclear bombs by 2003, but under the JCPOA the goal has become much bigger. That arsenal is intended to enable Iran not only to deter foreign threats but to become a regional and global superpower, spread its version of Islam in the Middle East and beyond, and help erase Israel from the map.

Its path to that nuclear arsenal is again facing dangerous hurdles. Given Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA and adopt a ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran based on renewed American sanctions, any Iranian attempt to break out and build the bomb may lead to American or Israeli military reaction while Iran is still unprepared to overcome it.

Iran is now engaged in brinksmanship to force a return to the JCPOA on its terms and is taking escalating steps that bring it closer to having nuclear weapon capabilities. Building on Western fears of a confrontation with Iran, Tehran has been emboldened to make considerable progress in its nuclear program, launch attacks on Saudi oil facilities and Israeli interests, and test the West’s patience in the hope that these steps will lead the US to accept its terms for re-entering the agreement. However, aware of their own vulnerabilities, the Iranians are careful not to cross any ‘red lines’ that, in their estimation, may trigger a harsh reaction.

Iran prefers a return to the JCPOA because it’s the only safe path to having the capability to produce a large nuclear arsenal, even if it may take a little longer. In the meanwhile, the deal’s economic terms afford Iran the resources it needs to stabilise the situation at home and in the four countries it is trying to control (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen) while expanding its aggressive activities against its adversaries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

For Iran, the alternatives to the JCPOA are much less appealing. The economy is in a shambles, domestic stability is threatened and completing the nuclear project would be perilous.

So, why does the Biden administration insist on returning to the JCPOA? Factors include a belief in diplomacy, a reluctance to use pressure as a tool, a commitment to the legacy of the Obama administration (most of those who worked on the JCPOA then hold key positions in the new administration), a determination to overturn almost anything Trump did, and a fear of confrontation.

President Joe Biden and his team realise that there are many deficiencies in the JCPOA, but their main goal is to avoid escalation and to keep kicking the Iran nuclear can down the road. They certainly know that after they return to the deal and lift the sanctions on Iran, they’ll have no leverage to convince Tehran to change the deal, except the snapback option, which effectively ends the JCPOA. So, their announced policy of negotiating to improve the deal after the US rejoins the JCPOA is simply empty words.

The only way to fix the problem is to use the sanctions to convince Iran to accept a deal that doesn’t have sunset clauses anywhere nearly as short term as those in the JCPOA; that guarantees real monitoring anytime and anywhere (including access to Iranian scientists); that dismantles military components of the program such as the Fordow underground uranium enrichment facility; that limits considerably the number and types of centrifuges Iran is allowed to have; and that prevents Iran from developing delivery systems, namely long- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The deal should also address Iran’s other malign activities, such as supporting terrorism and insurgencies throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, and human rights violations within Iran.

The Biden administration justifies its policy by claiming that the maximum-pressure policy failed because Iran didn’t succumb and instead escalated violations of the deal.

The truth is the exact opposite. The pressure was so effective that Iran’s main goal has been to rid itself of the sanctions, and everything it has done has been focused on achieving that. This pressure gives the US a formidable starting point for negotiating a new and much better deal.

Unlike Trump, Biden has a much better chance of forming a coalition to maintain that pressure with Europe and other Western players such as Japan and Australia. Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will help too. The recent sabotage at the Natanz enrichment facility, which clarifies again that there are alternative or complementary ways to halt Iran’s nuclear program, may be exploited by the US administration as additional pressure on Iran.

What is the point of wasting this strong leverage by bringing Iran back into the JCPOA—which is where it wants to go anyhow—and only trying to negotiate a better deal once that leverage is gone?