How Should The Biden Administration Remedy The Iranian Nuclear Issue?
In 2015, following a large build-up in Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the P5 and Germany worked alongside Iran to draft the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (which I will refer to as the JCPOA, and is commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal). The JCPOA aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear program, increasing the time it would take Iran to produce a nuclear weapon to a year. Iran agreed, among other things, to limit the purity of the Uranium it enriched to levels needed only for nuclear energy, substantially decrease the size of the stockpile, scale back the size of its nuclear facilities implement a protocol that would allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its facilities. In exchange, Iran received broad relief from broad swathes of Western nuclear sanctions, providing Iran immense economic benefit.
In 2018, the US under the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA and re-instated sanctions on Iran, primarily for domestic political reasons. With the US not participating in sanction relief, the JCPOA quickly fell apart in all but name. Over the last couple of years, Iran has vastly ramped up its production of fissile material and now has far exceeded the limits to both purity and volume of enriched uranium material stipulated within the JCPOA. At the time of writing, Iran continues to expand its nuclear program to levels that could eventually reach the necessary limits required for a nuclear weapon.
This should be worrying for the entire world and leaves the Biden administration with three main choices: salvage the JCPOA, try to renegotiate a new Iran nuclear deal, or avoid any deal with Iran at all. This essay aims to highlight that the first option is both the most pragmatic and realistic way of stopping nuclear proliferation.
Prevention of nuclear proliferation is of the utmost importance for both the global community and the Biden administration. Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would weaken the safeguards of our global nuclear security and increases the chance of a nuclear weapon being fired. If Iran had a mentally unstable leader, experienced a civil war, had its facilities attacked by a terrorist group or simply desired to act maliciously, there would be the very real possibility of a nuclear launch occurring. This would be nothing less than calamitous.
Even if Iran itself never fired a missile, the results of it acquiring nuclear weapons could still be disastrous. Nuclear proliferation has the strong potential to be a chain reaction. If one nation sees that the global nuclear safeguards are weak enough for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, they might hedge their bets and try to acquire such weapons themselves. Iranian rivals (particularly Saudi Arabia) would equally feel an impetus to pursue a nuclear program to achieve nuclear and geopolitical parity with Iran. Further nations building a nuclear program would again increase the likelihood of a nuclear strike.
The JCPOA, through its general reduction in the size of the Iranian nuclear program, its limitation of nuclear weapon production to civilian uses, and its increased transparency to ensure Iranian compliance significantly helps to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This is very strongly beneficial.
There are several criticisms levelled at the JCPOA. Of the criticisms, the two most impactful are the following. Firstly, the JCPOA fails to properly address Iran’s funding of terrorist groups within the region and therefore could fund a state who will use its newfound economic growth to destabilise the middle east. Secondly, the JCPOA only lasts for a relatively short duration, and thus, according to critics, would merely delay the development of an Iranian nuclear program rather than eliminate it.
While it is true that the JCPOA could theoretically accelerate Iranian insurgent activity within the region, it is questionable whether this will be its actual effect. The JCPOA would build economic ties between Iran and the West which give Iran greater economic dependence upon the West. This would lead to Western sanctions having a far greater effect upon Iran. Since the JCPOA does not preclude sanctions for the non-nuclear hostile activity of Iran (e.g. terrorist activity), sanctions are very much a tool in the Western toolkit. This would in turn strongly disincentivise Iran from performing any actions which would warrant sanctions. This would in turn likely broadly disincentivise Iran from pursuing regional terrorist and insurgent activity. Even if it were to not have this effect, however, the threat of a somewhat marginal increase in insurgent activity is outweighed in importance by even a remote threat of potential global nuclear holocaust.
Furthermore, while the JCPOA does indeed have some deadlines which limit its efficacy (ten years after its implementation centrifuge restrictions expire, and fifteen years after its expiration date uranium limits expire), it is unclear how a better solution could be constructed. Iran would likely not agree to commitments spanning multiple decades. Considering that most experts believe the deal could be quite easily extended and that the factors leading to the deal (Western desire for Iranian denuclearisation and Iranian need for lowered sanctions) will almost certainly still exist 10 years from now, the deal would probably last longer than 10-15 years anyway if it were to be re-implemented now. Even if the deal were to not do be extended, however, a general delay to the Iranian nuclear program would still be beneficial and give the US and the World valuable time to determine an alternate response to Iranian nuclear proliferation.
Thus, the criticisms of the JCPOA are of limited impact, whilst the positive positive effects of having the JCPOA far outweigh the potential harms of not having a deal. Even the remotest threat of future nuclear weapons strikes should be considered extremely serious, and therefore the JCPOA is by far preferable to no deal.
The more contestable question is whether Biden should seek an entirely new Iran nuclear deal instead of the JCPOA. The answer to this is far less clear than whether he should seek the JCPOA over nothing, however, this essay posits that a return to the JCPOA would be preferable to its renegotiation for a few reasons.
Firstly, the benefits achieved from a renegotiation would be extremely marginal. It is unclear why the general impediments to Western priorities in the 2015 JCPOA will be easier to solve now. The hardliners within the current Iranian administration will likely make it significantly more difficult to renegotiate a deal on Western terms.
Additionally, the delay in the implementation of the JCPOA would allow time for the Iranian nuclear program to develop. Assuming their nuclear program continues along its current trajectory, Iran could be very close to achieving a weapon by the time negotiations would come to a close. This would give Iran an elevated position of power and allow it to potentially compel a more favourable deal for itself. Iran is currently still moderately early on in the reinstation of its nuclear program and so its influence is weaker than it could potentially turn out to be. Therefore, it is likely the JCPOA could currently be on more favourable terms.
Whilst it would be better for Iran and the US to pursue a broad return to the JCPOA. The current political reality of returning to the JCPOA is somewhat difficult. At the moment, each side is adopting a broad policy of desiring the other leader to return to compliance before they agree to action. Iran states they will not reduce their levels of enriched uranium until the US lifts sanctions, and the US states they will not lift sanctions until Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA.
This impediment to progress undesirable, yet Biden should not lift sanctions without guarantees of Iranian compliance. Doing so would propel him into a general position of weakness. The Iranian state would spout triumphalist rhetoric and point towards American guilt and failure. Such a tacit admonition of failure would probably intensify Iranian calls for compensation for America’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA - something which would not be within America’s or the Biden Administration’s best interests.
Biden should nevertheless keep a return to the JCPOA a top priority in foreign relations. He likely does have the leverage to force Iran’s hands. American sanctions have taken a grievous toll on the Iranian economy. In 2019/20 Iran’s real GDP contracted 6.8% and it is forecasted to contract 4.5% in 2020/2021. Whilst it is unlikely that Hassan Rouhani’s hard-line regime will blindly comply with Biden’s agenda, (Doing so would be extremely damaging for his reputation domestically, where he has an election later this year) there is a clear room for progress.
Ideally, Biden would use his economic and political pressure to make Iran comply with the JCPOA now. However, it seems that the most realistic way to return to the JCPOA would be through a type of mutual obligation or treaty to lift sanctions and denuclearise simultaneously. Only time will tell whether this will happen. A US state department recently stated that America is prepared to ‘walk the path of diplomacy'. Let us hope that America and Iran do so in earnest.