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The United States unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, declaring the accord’s provisions inadequate and Iran in violation. The administration of former President Donald Trump began reinforcing sanctions, much to the chagrin of the accord’s other signatories; but Iran did not annul it. Rather, Tehran steadily increased pressure, directly on Washington and indirectly through other signatory nations, to restore the deal.
Why does Iran’s government still require a nuclear deal? Because in the long term, Tehran stands to gain much economically and geopolitically while giving up little tactically.
Iran has vocally insisted that “the nuclear deal it made” in 2015 be restored and “implemented word by word.” But in practice, the Islamic Republic has actually shown considerable flexibility. A senior member of Iran’s parliament, taking his cue from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has suggested that negotiations in Vienna will result in “a new and binding agreement.” The diplomatic door is open for the United States and Iran to reach a more robust deal that will weather transitions of administrations in both countries.
The Iran nuclear deal was an arms control agreement designed to abridge Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Its terms may have felt restrictive in 2015, but conditions have changed, and today Iran stands to gain far more than it would lose by adhering to the accord’s constraints or even agreeing to modifications.
To begin with, Iran has advanced its nuclear program considerably. Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement freed Iran to seek higher levels of uranium enrichment. Tehran breached the low-enriched uranium stockpile limit in July 2019, and it ceased enrichment compliance altogether in January 2020. Now, the country has reached 63 percent enrichment—still short of the 90 percent needed for the weapons capability that Iran steadfastly claims it does not seek. Nevertheless, it is far more likely now than in the past that Iran can realistically achieve nuclear breakout—once the original deal’s enrichment limit ends in October 2030 or even when an enhanced deal’s timelines eventually expire.
By continuing enrichment, Iran has demonstrated to itself and to the world that it can overcome strikes against its nuclear facilities and the assassinations of its scientists. Once a reinstated deal sunsets or at a renegotiated later date, Iran can stay at breakout capability or proceed to test a nuclear weapon—depending on its strategic and geopolitical needs at that time. Thus, the international agreement is no longer an absolute obstacle to Iran’s nuclear quest, which began under the last shah and continues under the Islamic Republic. Nor is the agreement much of an impediment to Iran’s conventional capabilities. The deal’s conventional arms embargo ended in October 2020, and the ballistic missile embargo ends in October 2023. Iran would lose little in conventional military ability by returning to full compliance for the remainder of these timelines or even for more drawn-out ones. Tehran has likely calculated that resuming its obligations under the nuclear deal would cost its military programs very little.
On the other hand, eliminating sanctions would greatly benefit the country economically and geopolitically. Direct and indirect financial pressure from the United States has made Iran dependent on a handful of trading partners. By 2019, China had gained a stranglehold of 48.3 percent of Iran’s exports and 27.5 percent of the country’s imports. So long as sanctions on Iran and secondary sanctions on its trading partners stay in place, Tehran remains economically vulnerable and reliant on those nations that dare to breach Washington’s will.
The diplomatic door is open for the United States and Iran to reach a more robust deal.
Iranians have experienced the negative consequences of such dependency before. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Iran depended variously on Russia, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Now, Iranian industries fear yet another loss of domestic control and have opposed the 25-Year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that Tehran and Beijing announced in March, even though it comes with $400 billion in Chinese investments. Iranians have realized that the removal of sanctions, especially banking restrictions, through a restoration of the nuclear deal is important for reasserting their country’s economic independence.
Similarly, during the period of heightened pressure from Washington, Tehran had little recourse but to seek diplomatic and defensive protection from the other two great powers. Russia, close at hand, has emerged as Iran’s primary security guarantor, military collaborator, and materiel supplier. China has also rapidly expanded its cooperation in those sectors. Both Russia and China have exercised their UN Security Council vetoes and persuasive abilities to protect Iran from American demands. Most recently, Moscow and Beijing have publicly opposed Washington’s insistence that Iran accept enhancements to the nuclear deal as a condition for U.S. reentry.
Yet Iran’s history of colonial exploitation predisposes its polity to view with deep suspicion any reliance on global players in national and international affairs. Iranian officials have good reasons for caution. Russia allegedly made a clandestine attempt in 2015 to stop the nuclear deal by exploiting struggles within the Iranian ruling class. And, through the recently announced Iran-China partnership, China seeks to gain military and surveillance access to and control of Iran’s ports and airports. Reviving the nuclear deal will loosen the grip of these two superpowers on Tehran. Factions within Iran’s political system would then become less amenable to foreign pressure and more mindful of Iran’s geopolitical autonomy.
For these reasons, notwithstanding the ostensibly adamant stance of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that “the United States, as the one who violated the deal, shall lift all sanctions and take practical steps in order to be able to return” to it and that “there is no need for negotiations,” Iran is engaged in talks at Vienna. As for Iran’s breaches of enrichment limits, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has stressed that “our measures are fully reversible upon full compliance by all.” Clearly, Tehran stands ready to work with Washington once again, as it did between 2015 and 2018 under the nuclear accord.
For their part, American policymakers are seeking more than a mere return to the 2015 status quo. Iran’s leaders are listening, even as they play diplomatic hardball. In his annual national address on March 21, Khamenei suggested that Iran might be open to modifying the deal—so long as the changes are “in favor of Iran,” meaning that they benefit the nation and its regime. Iranian officials almost daily urge the United States to lift the sanctions and have declared their country’s willingness to return to compliance in exchange. Preemptively, they even are spinning new concessions as gains: “Vienna talks will end with [the] Iranian nation’s victory,” Rouhani has said.
Consequently, diplomacy can realistically achieve quite a lot: not just the reimplementation of the deal but even upgrades, such as plugging enrichment and monitoring loopholes, managing advanced centrifuges, extending the ballistic missile embargo, and stretching out timelines. Economic and geopolitical gains outweigh military concessions, because tactical advancements can be resumed in the future, within the Iranian calculus. But to reach these goals, the United States needs to stop speaking through its partners and rivals, such as the European Union and Russia, and rejoin the Vienna negotiations to negotiate directly with Iran. At those meetings, the United States must emphasize that significant enhancements to the nuclear deal will reduce the risk of future sanctions. Through tough but fair negotiations, the Biden administration can indeed achieve its stated objectives of not only forging a “longer and stronger” agreement but also opening the way for further constructive engagement.
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