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The new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed for Iran and the United States to return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But this prospect poses considerable risks to regional and even global security. A better approach, in our view, would be one that aims to reach a modest interim agreement, or “JCPOA minus,” after which talks would focus on achieving a more restrictive nuclear deal than the original, or “JCPOA plus.”
If, however, the Biden administration remains determined to revive the previous agreement, it should take additional steps to ensure that Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons—and to reassure U.S. allies in the region that Washington will not gamble with their security.
For the United States to simply return to the nuclear agreement would be a major strategic blunder. The deal was based on assumptions that ultimately proved flawed and overly optimistic. The accord did not tame Iran’s policies, empower moderates in Tehran, pave a path to a good-faith relationship with Iran allowing for further cooperation, or “block all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.” Rather, from 2015 onward, Iran increased its support to regional proxies. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remained the ultimate decision-maker as the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) grew more influential. Tehran deceived the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding the military dimensions of its nuclear program despite committing to act in good faith, and it continued researching and developing advanced centrifuges that could significantly shorten its breakout time. If a future Iran policy is to avoid producing a similar outcome, it must counter Iran’s malign regional activities and resist the temptation to try to game Iran’s political dynamics. At the same time, it should allow for a more intrusive inspections regime and more restrictive and longer-lasting constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.
The new U.S. administration seeks a return to the original Iran nuclear deal in the hope of achieving two aims: heading off a nuclear crisis and preparing the ground for a follow-on agreement that patches up the 2015 deal’s weaknesses. But that path to the latter goal is unrealistic. The original agreement adequately satisfies Iran’s long-term interests, such that Iran has little further reason to negotiate—let alone bargain away the advantages that the nuclear deal affords it. Recall that Iran did not seek any follow-on deals after 2015, nor did it conclude that it would be advantageous to withdraw from the agreement, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. Should the United States prove unable to conclude a new and improved nuclear deal with Iran after returning to the JCPOA, then it will have revived an arms control agreement shortly before the second half of its 15-year timeline, during which the nuclear restrictions gradually expire.
Some nonproliferation experts argue that returning to the deal will reserve U.S. leverage to strike follow-on agreements. Tehran might continue negotiating after the deal is reinstated, these proponents suggest, in the hope of further sanctions relief. But Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, Khamenei, is not motivated by a desire to fully integrate his country into the global economy. In fact, Khamenei has encouraged efforts to create a “resistance economy” and urged Iranian industries to make their supply chains as invulnerable as possible to sanctions. His fiercely loyal cadres in the IRGC also benefit from Iran’s sanctioned and poorly integrated economy. Iran’s leaders do, however, seek the billions of dollars that flow into government coffers each month when Tehran is permitted to sell oil on the global market—as it is under the Iran nuclear deal.
The new administration is likelier to achieve its two aims, while safeguarding the strategic interests of its regional partners, with a modified two-stage approach. The first stage would be to reach an interim agreement (JCPOA minus) that is more limited than the original nuclear deal, and the second would be to conclude an agreement that surpasses the original and closes its loopholes (JCPOA plus). The principal components of the first, interim deal would be to de-escalate tension, put Iran’s nuclear activity on pause, and withhold enough concessions to give Iran an incentive to enter another round of nuclear talks.
During the period of the interim deal, the Biden team should take lessons from the experience of the last two administrations regarding Iran’s activities in the surrounding region. Under President Barack Obama, the United States shied away from confronting Tehran on this matter, whether through the nuclear agreement or apart from it. President Donald Trump, on the other hand, took some bold steps against Iran’s mischief in the Middle East and showed that doing so would not lead to war (or even to Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal).
For the United States to simply return to the nuclear agreement would be a major strategic blunder.
Washington should now coordinate efforts among regional partners to expose and interdict Iranian shipments of materiel to proxies and disrupt planned attacks. The normalization of relations among Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates can facilitate cooperation in this endeavor. At the same time, Washington should make a concerted effort to improve allied Arab militaries (rather than simply selling them the latest and most expensive weapons systems). In addition, the White House should promote cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states on missile defense. Iran has, after all, rapidly improved its precision-guided munitions and already used them to considerable effect. The United States and its allies should develop early-warning systems, conduct joint missile research, and share intelligence on Iranian technology and tactical plans.
Washington is unlikely to reach and enforce a comprehensive agreement with Iran on both nuclear and regional issues. For this reason, the second-stage deal—the one that improves upon the 2015 agreement—should focus on reining in Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible. The United States should seek to extend the original deal’s restrictions by another 30 years, subject to an inspections regime that reserves the right to check Iran’s facilities “anytime, anywhere”; and it should further constrain Iran’s nuclear research.
Reaching such an accord would require Iran to forgo the loopholes it painstakingly negotiated leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal. But our proposed path offers the United States more negotiating leverage than the one that requires returning to the original deal before building upon it. Moreover, it offers the United States more leeway to contend with Iran’s irreversible violations of the original nuclear deal, such as the research it has pursued on advanced centrifuges and its deception of the IAEA regarding the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.
Nevertheless, should Washington insist on returning to the 2015 deal despite the reservations of regional allies, we would counsel our respective governments not to fight tooth and nail against a policy that the United States is determined to implement. Instead, they should establish discreet channels of dialogue with the White House through which they can ensure that their views, concerns, and interests are taken into account.
For its part, if the Biden administration returns to the original agreement, it should make clear to its allies that its participation is conditional on the conclusion of another, farther-reaching agreement within 18 months. To allay possible concerns that the United States will abandon its negotiating position as it races against that clock, Washington and its regional partners should define the general contours of an acceptable final agreement.
If past is prologue, a determined U.S. administration may be difficult to dissuade from joining a nuclear deal with Iran.
If the United States is to secure a truly restrictive follow-on agreement, it will need to maximize its leverage by countering Tehran’s deadly non-nuclear activities, including its expansive support for regional terrorist groups and its murderous domestic repression. Taking a firm stand against these activities is inherently good policy—and can also bolster the U.S. negotiating position by increasing the pressure on Tehran.
The United States and its allies will have to be prepared for the possibility that they will not reach an acceptable agreement with Iran within 18 months. In that case, they should be prepared to snap back sanctions to “maximum pressure” and to conclude a parallel agreement between the United States and its Middle Eastern allies, delineating redlines for Iran’s nuclear program and dividing the labor of a last-resort military option. Having a “plan B” handy, rather than banking on the success of nuclear negotiations, would ultimately serve U.S. diplomatic efforts to make a far-reaching nuclear deal, because Iran would be forced to understand that it has no good option other than making an agreement.
Returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is highly risky, especially given the approaching “sunsets” on nuclear restrictions, so we have proposed an alternative that can better satisfy the interests of both Washington and its regional allies. But if past is prologue, a determined U.S. administration may be difficult to dissuade from joining a nuclear deal with Iran. In that case, Washington will need a strategy that mitigates the hazards of its chosen course, especially in the event that a more expansive nuclear deal does not materialize. As one of us wrote about Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, “Hope is not a strategy.”