The risks in returning to the Iran nuclear agreement
17 Dec 2020|

US President-elect Joe Biden has signalled that he won’t simply reverse Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and stated that the United States would rejoin the agreement if Iran returned to strict compliance with it.

Once that happened, the US would again take up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as a starting point for follow-on negotiations, Biden said in a carefully caveated statement.

After Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018, without any alternative arrangement in place, Tehran resumed uranium enrichment in 2019. The breakout time to build a nuclear bomb has since shrunk from 12 months while the JCPOA was in force, to somewhere between three and four months. The US withdrawal from the agreement generated dismay among America’s allies and partners, and rising tensions between Tehran and Washington have made further diplomacy difficult to envisage.

The JCPOA, as it was negotiated in 2015, is flawed because it won’t stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons in the longer term. That deal will reach a sunset stage from 2026 to 2031 as constraints on Iran’s nuclear ambitions are progressively lifted. Iran could fully comply with the agreement between now and 2031 but exploit the easing constraints to make a quick breakout to nuclear weapons by the late 2020s. Tehran’s 2019 decision to reverse compliance with JCPOA constraints on uranium enrichment highlights that Iran can quickly move to resume uranium enrichment when it chooses to.

The JCPOA will also ease constraints on Iran’s ability to acquire sophisticated military capabilities from 2023 onwards, allowing it to rapidly modernise its armed forces as the agreement ends. A more sophisticated Iranian military—backed up by an actual, or threshold, nuclear capability—would generate a far more threatening strategic outlook across the Middle East. Nor does the agreement constrain Iran from developing ever more sophisticated ballistic missiles with which it could hold targets in Europe or beyond under threat.

At best, the JCPOA, in its current form, represents a strategy of hope that Iran will moderate its regional ambitions, see the wisdom of not triggering a new cascade of nuclear proliferation, and become a good international citizen. It’s a pity, however, that hope isn’t a strategy. All indications are that conservative hardliners are in the ascendancy in Iran’s regime—not reform-minded, would-be democratisers willing to observe a rules-based international order.

The Biden administration will have its work cut out trying to resuscitate the agreement. The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is likely to see Iran accelerate its nuclear program and make Tehran less likely to agree to Biden’s call for it to restore compliance with the JCPOA as a condition for a US return to the agreement.

More broadly, the way in which regional geopolitical dynamics have evolved since 2015 may make a return to the JCPOA even riskier for the US. The Trump administration has negotiated the Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco has also now formally recognised Israel through another US-brokered deal. There has been a flurry of recent diplomatic activity between Israel and Saudi Arabia, too. The Gulf states have increased their cooperation to counterbalance and deter a more aggressive Tehran, especially after the Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019. Any return to US–Iranian engagement by Biden could put US credibility in the eyes of Gulf states and Israel at risk and generate significant diplomatic costs.

To make the JCPOA really effective, Biden would need to condition any diplomatic engagement with Iran on Tehran’s acceptance that the JCPOA must be part of a package of diplomatic engagement that includes new complementary agreements to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons closer to the agreement’s sunset date. A recent analysis by Mohammed Ayoob in The Strategist highlighted the difficulty of achieving this, noting that Iran is demanding a return to the JCPOA without preconditions from the US, and is refusing to consider further agreements.

This diplomatic standoff will be a key early test for the Biden administration. The challenge will be to develop a creative diplomatic approach that brings both sides back to a solution, without sacrificing each side’s key interests.

The most likely outcome is that, despite Biden’s best intentions, the JCPOA will be ‘DOA’ with the chance of resurrection receding fast. That suggests a dangerous regional outlook.

In that scenario, Iranian uranium enrichment will continue, and likely expand, generating a new regional crisis sooner rather than later as Tehran’s breakout timeline to a bomb dwindles. The incentive for the US, or Israel, to strike at Iranian nuclear facilities would grow and the potential for such a strike to generate counter-responses and a wider war would be high.

The alternative to either a diplomatic resolution or a military strike would be the prospect of a threshold Iranian nuclear weapons capability emerging this decade. That in turn might prompt Saudi Arabia to consider its own nuclear options, perhaps with the assistance of Pakistan. Might Turkey then follow suit?

Added to this is the challenge posed by Iran’s ballistic missile development. Such missiles could deliver an Iranian nuclear weapon against Israel or the Gulf Arab states with very little warning. They could deliver precision non-nuclear weapons just as quickly. The inability to determine whether an incoming missile is carrying a nuclear or non-nuclear payload raises highly destabilising and escalatory crisis dynamics for the region’s major powers, which could promote a wider arms race and see the growth of missile defence capability.

Any attempt by the Biden administration to return to the JCPOA as it’s currently written seems fraught with peril. Even if it is successful, it may do nothing to stop either long-term Iranian acquisition of a bomb or short-term escalation associated with its ballistic missile development.