By Daniel Blake Martin
Biden Administration to withdraw Trump’s restoration of UN sanctions on Iran
Ever since November of 2021, the Biden administration has been working to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. In the time since Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord in 2018, Iran has managed to successfully enrich uranium to 60% purity, bringing it within touching distance of the 90% threshold needed to acquire a nuclear weapon. Current negotiations in Vienna are trying to re-establish the 3.67% ceiling set out within the original deal in exchange for sanctions relief on Iran.
However, the revival of the agreement faltered once again last week after the United States and its European allies passed a resolution accusing Iran of taking steps to undermine a mutual return to the JCPOA. Iran responded to the motion by dismantling 27 monitoring cameras from its various nuclear sites throughout the country, a move which Raphael Grossi —chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency— described as a potentially “fatal blow” to the agreement.
For those who have long opposed the JCPOA, the developments have provided a good opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the accord. In Washington, Republicans remain vociferous in their opposition to the revival, as do a handful of Democrats.
The criticisms are not without some kernel of truth. The Iran nuclear deal is indeed a deeply flawed agreement; it has failed to address the full spectrum of challenges posed by the Islamic Republic. But even despite its many shortcomings, diplomatic reproachment with Iran nonetheless remains the only viable solution to keep it from becoming a nuclear threshold state.
In the absence of a revived agreement, the West would have very limited policy options for curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The most obvious alternative would be to impose additional punitive sanctions on Tehran until it acquiesced to Washington’s demands. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence to indicate that such a strategy would succeed.
If the Iran nuclear saga has shown us anything thus far, it’s that the Islamic Republic is remarkably immune to sanctions pressure. Trump learnt this the hard way in 2018 after his “maximum pressure” policy failed on its promises to slow down Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and bring Tehran to its heel. For more attentive observers of Iran in recent years, however, this came as no surprise. Contrary to popular belief, sanctions did not force Iran into discussions for the original JCPOA with the Obama administration back in 2013. Rather, it continued to resist entering talks until it had built up sufficient leverage to extract certain concessions from its Western counterparts.
The collapse of the JCPOA would also be met with limited direct action. This would involve retarding Tehran’s nuclear advances through a combination of assassinations, cyberattacks, and other covert operations. Again, however, there are big questions regarding how effective this strategy would be. According to intelligence officers, even the Stuxnet cyberattack — considered by many to be the most successful attempt at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear infrastructure thus far—only constituted a minor stumbling block for the programme.
If these alternatives were to fail –as they most likely would— Washington would be left with its Hail Mary: cripple Iran’s nuclear infrastructure through a full-blown military strike. As dramatic as that might sound, it would not be unprecedented. Iraq’s nuclear programme met a similar fate in 1981, as did Syria’s in 2007. Moreover, it is well understood that a strike against Iran has been on the cards for quite some time now. And if Israel’s recent sabre-rattling in the Red Sea is anything to go off, we could even expect to see it happen soon.
However, by any rational risk-to-reward calculation, such a move ought to be avoided at all costs. Unlike Iraq and Syria, Iran has long been aware that a strike could one day be on the table for its adversaries. As a result, it has taken several measures to safeguard its facilities against that possibility. Even in the unlikely scenario that the attack succeeded in dealing a significant blow to the actual infrastructure, it wouldn’t be able to destroy the knowledge that Iran has already accumulated over the past several years. Nor would it eliminate Iran’s desires to push back harder; if anything, Tehran would be more aggrieved and determined than ever.
The only guarantee of a military strike would be an Iranian retaliation. This would risk opening up yet another Middle Eastern quagmire, something which the United States –and the international community more generally— are desperate to avoid.
The lack of a better alternative notwithstanding, a breakdown of the JCPOA would also be disastrous for the simple reason that Iran matters too much to be left in international isolation.
Here is a country which occupies an important part of the geopolitical chessboard. It is positioned at the intersection connecting Central Asia, the Middle East and South Caucasus. It has access to the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea- two of the largest sources of oil, crude oil and natural gas in the world. Despite the current sanctions, Iran remains a vital player in the global energy market. It also has a considerable military presence within the Strait of Hormuz: a narrow maritime passage which sees 18 million barrels of oil pass through it every day.
Strategic positioning is not all.
Being the primary flag bearer of Shia Islam as well as a significant cultural centre globally, Iran possesses a sphere of influence which encompasses much of the greater Middle East. Its presence can be felt either through the many sizeable Shiite groups dotted across the region, or through the historic, linguistic, and cultural ties it shares with large parts of Central Asia.
The West even experienced Iran’s regional influence first-hand back in 2001, after it served as a crucial interlocutor between Washington and the Northern Alliance during the preparation for the invasion of Afghanistan.
All of this, coupled with a sizeable population and a proud national identity which is informed by its history as part of an ancient civilisation, makes Iran too powerful a country to keep in its current straitjacket forever. However unpalatable it may seem, Iran must be recognised as an important regional player. And that’s a big part of what the Iran nuclear deal is all about.
No doubt much of what has been said thus far will probably sound quite defeatist. But there is a more optimistic side to all of this.
A revival of the Iran nuclear deal would also provide a valuable opportunity for the Biden administration to correct some of the many shortcomings of the original accord. During the 2014-15 negotiations, the focus on the nuclear question meant that several important non-nuclear issues, such as Iran’s ballistic missile programme, sponsorship of militant groups throughout the Middle East, and support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, were all pushed to the backburner.
Here, the Biden administration can make amends. While it can’t resolve the non-nuclear issues at this current juncture, the revival of the JCPOA will tame Iran’s disruptive behaviour and provide opportunities for follow-on negotiations. This in turn could then be a precursor for regional dialogue, thereby marking the beginning of a more sustainable security architecture in the Middle East.
The administration has several sources of leverage that it could use to promote this. A case in point, Tehran has already offered to de-escalate the region in exchange for a reversal of Trump’s decision to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. Although Biden’s resistance to the demand is a big reason for why negotiations have stalled in recent months, he would be naïve to let it torpedo the revival.
He should instead be using the designation to set some clear parameters on what “de-escalate” means, as well as a formal guarantee that Tehran will then adhere to its commitments. Other points of leverage, perhaps even offering to loosen nuclear constraints slightly, could earn Washington some additional political capital for making demands of Iran in other areas.
Of course, there are no guarantees that follow-on discussions would succeed. But the potential for future engagement in itself makes a revival of the Iran nuclear deal the best option currently on the table. If nothing else, a return to the JCPOA will buy the West time- time that can then be used to throw its weight behind a more sustainable security solution for the region. If the talks break down, then that opportunity will be lost altogether. This will inevitably mean paving the way for a period of unprecedented tension in the Middle East, with a very strong possibility of yet another regional war breaking out.
Image 1: Flickr/ Sienna Stewart
Image 2: Flickr/ Charles LeBlanc