The last 16 months of nuclear negotiations with Iran resemble the world’s slowest roller-coaster, where incremental progress is undercut by months of inactivity, only to rebound with a last-gasp effort to close the remaining gaps between Washington and Tehran.
We are at yet another high point in the negotiations. If public reports are accurate, Washington and Tehran are as close to re-signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — also known as the Iran nuclear deal — as they’ve ever been. On Aug. 8, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, the coordinator of the talks, put what he described as a “final text” on the table. The United States and Iran, however, naturally called Borrell’s bluff; it turns out there was nothing “final” about the draft after all. Iran, as expected, submitted a response with concerns to the EU. After days of evaluating Iran’s comments, the United States sent its own comments to the coordinator this week.
So, are we at a deal yet or not?
SIZING EACH OTHER UP
While it’s inaccurate to use the word “limbo” to describe the current state of negotiations, it’s fair to say that Washington and Tehran continue to size each other up. Iran dropped its initial demand that the United States delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization (although Iranian negotiators have rejected the notion this was ever a demand), but remains adamant that certain safeguards are built into a potential deal to ensure the United States would be penalized for withdrawing again, as it did in May 2018. Iran is reportedly looking for a clause that would give foreign companies operating in the country a two-and-a-half-year grace period in the event a new US administration leaves the deal for a second time.
The fact is none of us on the outside know what is going on behind closed doors. What we do know, however, is that opponents of the ongoing diplomacy are preparing for the day when US, Iranian, and European officials announce a return to the agreement. And they are likely to use the same poor arguments they employed in 2015.
WHAT THE CRITICS WILL SAY
Critics will inevitably bring up the fact that returning to the previous nuclear deal entails a significant cash windfall for Iran, Washington’s chief adversary in the Middle East. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) previewed this line of attack with a flair of embellishment, tweeting on Aug. 23 how “The Biden admin is willfully stumbling back into Obama’s failed fantasy, an agreement with Iran that flows billions of dollars to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
Granted, there’s no disputing that US sanctions relief will result in a fatter wallet for the Iranian government. US financial restrictions have frozen approximately $100 billion of Iran’s own money in international banks, reduced Iran’s oil exports by approximately 80% between 2018–2020, and forced Western business interests to flee the Iranian market for fear of being shut out of the US financial system.
Is the JCPOA a perfect deal? Hardly. But military options or additional economic sanctions aren’t exactly ideal either.
Yet, if the objective is to resurrect a stringent monitoring and verification regime over Iran’s nuclear program, then US sanctions relief is an inevitability. The Iranians are simply not going to eliminate the highly enriched uranium they’ve acquired, rip out the advanced centrifuges they’re operating, and agree to caps on the amount of uranium they can stockpile out of the goodness of their hearts. Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a major source of leverage for Tehran, so to expect Iran’s country’s own leaders to simply give away it without anything in return is about as ridiculous as expecting an employee to work 40 hours a day without compensation.
Sanctions relief for Iran, therefore, was always baked into the pie and is a fundamental prerequisite for reaching the point where Iran concedes a nuclear program it has devoted enormous resources to building over a span of decades. While one can debate the details and extent of the sanctions relief, nobody can argue with a straight face that the United States could achieve its goals without economic concessions.
Opponents will also point out that the JCPOA’s limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities are merely a temporary stopgap rather than a solid, unbreakable wall that prevents Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for good. In fairness, this is true on the merits. Under the previous nuclear deal, Iran is prohibited from enriching uranium with anything other than IR-1 centrifuges (the oldest available) for 10 years; barred from exceeding a 300 kilogram limit on its enriched uranium stockpile for 15 years; unable to use the underground Fordow complex for enrichment for 15 years; and is bound to provide International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who are tasked with monitoring Iran’s activities, with continuous monitoring of its uranium mines and mills for 25 years. By definition, all of these restrictions will eventually elapse, a development that causes disappointment and panic in the minds of those who are convinced the inherently nefarious Iranian government will quickly jump at the opportunity to become a nuclear-armed state.
Temporary limits, however, were the best the United States and its allies were going to get. Iran was never going to accede to permanent bans on its nuclear activity, which would be out of the ordinary in these kinds of negotiations. And the JCPOA would hardly be the first arms control agreement where limitations expire at a specific date. The US–Russia New START accord, for instance, had a 10-year duration subject to renewal by both parties (Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin extended the treaty in early 2021 for an additional five years). One could be as bold as to say that there is no such thing as permanent bans in the strategic stability domain anyway; even agreements without concrete expiration dates, like Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty, can dissolve if a party decides withdrawing is in their best interest.
Finally, there will be complaints about how a resumption of the nuclear deal fails to address Iran’s other nefarious behavior, including but not limited to its development of longer-range precision missiles, support for terrorism, or its meddling in the affairs of its neighbors. This, too, is a fair point; indeed, one shouldn’t discount Tehran using some of the money it receives from the sanctions relief on military initiatives.
THE ART OF DIPLOMACY
The art of diplomacy, however, is often measured in the ability to be pragmatic and to accurately weigh the costs and benefits, as well as be cognizant of the risks of striving for too much. Although some will scoff at this statement as defeatist, there are countless times in recent history when the United States allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good. There was a time when Iran’s nuclear program was much less advanced than it is today, but due in part to maximalist US positions the Iranians would never accept, Tehran used the time to instead master its nuclear knowledge to the point where it’s now flirting with the possibility of acquiring enough fuel for a single nuclear device. Trying to tackle all of the problems Washington has with Iran into one package is liable to break apart the entire process. In other words, by seeking to achieve too much, you could very well run the risk of walking away from the table with nothing.
Is the JCPOA a perfect deal? Hardly. But military options or additional economic sanctions aren’t exactly ideal either — and in the case of the former, it would unleash a cascade of consequences the United States would be wise to avoid in the first place.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.