An Introduction to the Pros and Cons of the U.S. Re-joining the Iran Nuclear Deal
During Donald Trump’s four-year presidency, one of the landmark U.S. Middle East policies was its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, and its reactivation of sanctions against Iran. Supporters believe that this was a sign of the U.S. fulfilling its moral duty as the leading democratic state against an authoritarian regime. Furthermore, despite Iran being certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as complying with its nuclear agreements, the nuclear deal itself is full of loopholes. If there is no amendment rectifying these loopholes, Iran will eventually possess nuclear weapons. Critics believe that Trump’s unilateral withdrawal undermined the credibility of the U.S. and damaged relations with its major European allies who urged for compliance. While there have been numerous detailed policy papers and reports discussing the technical issues of the Iran nuclear deal, this article looks to provide an introduction to the benefits and costs of the U.S. re-joining Iran nuclear deal.
In short, opposing voices in the U.S. and hostile Iranian conservatives are the two biggest obstacles preventing the U.S. from re-joining the agreement. U.S. sceptics are worried that the deal only partially limits Iran from developing nuclear technology without actually restricting its development of ballistic missiles and support for terrorist activities in neighbouring countries. Worse, the easing of the sanctions on Iran freed up resources allowing the country to expand its influence in the Middle East. Consequently, U.S. allies in the region have faced increased turbulence and unrest. In addition, while the original agreement does not permit the IAEA to perform spot checks on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and even grants them the right to refuse official inspection requests from the IAEA, a sunset clause allows restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme to be lifted after 2025, something that was totally unacceptable to Trump and the U.S. hawks.
Iran’s ambition to increase production of enriched uranium is no secret and presents an increasingly serious threat to the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Middle East. As such, some supporters of resuming the dialogue between the U.S. and Iran think that Biden should not make compliance with the original nuclear agreement to be the final goal. Instead, he should push for more restrictions.
However, some defenders of the Iran nuclear deal stress that, although flawed, the political reality is that it was not easy to reach the Iran nuclear deal in the first place. Now that U.S.–Iran relations are worse than when the agreement was being negotiated, there is less room for discussion. Trump withdrawing from the agreement, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani—one of Iran’s most powerful men and commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force—and the murder of Iran’s leading nuclear expert Dr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by Israel has deepened Iran’s hatred towards the U.S. and Israel. Iranian hawks have used these incidents to stir up nationalistic sentiment, and moderate figure President Rouhani has lost out in the core political power struggle.
While it is certainly true that Iran has not yet declared the U.S. and Israel to be enemies because of its weaker military capabilities, it is obvious that increasing the production of enriched uranium is to develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, despite suffering economically as a result of COVID-19, Iran has not slowed down its enrichment programme.
Some liberals, probably including Biden himself, hoped that there would be an opportunity to ease U.S.–Iran tensions after Trump stepped down as president. Unfortunately, soon after Biden won the U.S. presidential election, Israel—the U.S.’ most important ally in the Middle East and obviously not welcoming an improvement in the U.S.–Iran relationship—assassinated Dr Fakhrizadeh in an attempt to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons development plan. Some also saw this as a way to prevent the U.S. from reverting to its Obama-era Iran policy. In fact, it would not be a surprise if Israel took further action against Iran without the consent of the U.S., which would put the latter in very difficult position.
In theory, Iran faces a severe economic crisis and is supposedly tempted to ask the U.S. to lift the sanctions. As such, U.S. hawks are convinced that by persisting with the current hard-line policy, Iran will have little choice but to compromise. However, no one knows how big the gap is between Iran’s economic crisis and the break-down of the regime. Iran has already reiterated that it will not compromise and that Biden should comply unconditionally with the original nuclear deal.
Critics also point out that the adverse effects of reactivating sanctions on Iran is irreversible. Even if the U.S. lifted the sanctions today, it would not change Iran’s closer relationship with China, its hatred towards the U.S., and its determination to develop nuclear weapons. An unconditional lifting of the sanctions would be interpreted by some as a concrete proof that Biden is incapable of achieving the best U.S. national interests diplomatically.
Of course, the above debate will not stop, regardless of Biden’s future decisions. After all, U.S.–Iran distrust and hostility has lasted for nearly half a century and it is unlikely to end anytime soon. Furthermore, it is generally believed that the elderly Biden is only an “interim” president, one who will last, at most, one term. It is therefore questionable as to how long his Middle East policy will last.