For better or worse, the interests of Israel have consistently been at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. In few cases is this more apparent than in US policy towards Iran. Just months before the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu cautioned a joint session of Congress against the adoption of this “bad deal.” Today, the US is in a similar situation. Tensions between Iran and Israel are high and warnings against rejoining the JCPOA are abundant. The JCPOA is indeed far from perfect, particularly with its “sunset clauses” producing legitimate concerns. Nonetheless, the alternatives proposed, such as the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, have proven to be far worse. Therefore, rejoining the JCPOA is currently the best course of action.
In his 2015 speech, Netanyahu outlined his preferred alternative to the JCPOA. He called for maintaining pressure on Iran to obtain a “better deal.” This “better deal,” Netanyahu argued, could only be obtained if Iran ended all of its aggression in the region and withdrew all of its support for terrorist organizations.
Three years later, the Trump administration decided to pursue this lofty vision of a radically transformed Iran. The administration withdrew from the JCPOA, replacing it with a new “maximum pressure” policy. This policy of unprecedented sanctions failed to transform Iran and instead highlighted the limited power of sanctions. Just two years after the US withdrawal from the deal, Iran’s low enriched uranium stock increased twelvefold compared to under the JCPOA. In addition, the time required for Iran to acquire enough highly enriched uranium to obtain a nuclear weapon fell from at least a year under the JCPOA to as little as 3.5 months under maximum pressure. By Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own account, a nuclear-armed Iran is the greatest threat facing our world. Maximum pressure has brought the world to the brink of that threat becoming a reality.
Sanctions also serve to entrench hardliners. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which the Trump administration labeled a terrorist organization, capitalizes on black markets that emerge from sanctions to expand their wealth and power. This development should not surprise anyone, given it is remarkably similar to the impact sanctions had on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. When food and other essential supplies became scarce, the population became dependent on state rations, thereby entrenching state control.
Furthermore, The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA undermined moderates in Iran, like President Rouhani, who are perceived as foolish for agreeing to a deal with the US only for the deal to collapse within three years. This contributed to a political climate that all but guarantees a victory for hardliners in Iran’s elections on June 18th.
The JCPOA’s robust inspection regime and its limitations on Iran’s nuclear program are obviously preferable to the failures of “maximum pressure,” so why is there so much controversy around the deal? The answer lies in the “sunset clauses.” These clauses, common to many arms control agreements, are provisions that go out of effect after a specified date. In the case of the JCPOA, by the end of 2030, there would no longer be any restrictions on the enrichment purity or stockpile levels of uranium. This is seriously concerning, as it means that after 2030, the time necessary for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon could be shortened to a time frame similar to that which exists without the JCPOA.
Fortunately, not all clauses of the JCPOA are sunset clauses. A fully implemented JCPOA will require Iran to permanently allow short-notice inspections of its facilities, in some cases with as little notice as two hours. This is far more access than monitoring agencies possess without the deal and ensures the international community access to ample intelligence to judge the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Under the JCPOA, Iran agrees never to seek nuclear weapons, so if monitoring agencies ever determined that Iran was heading down that path, or if monitors were prevented from performing inspections, sanctions could be justifiably reimposed. If Iran remained undeterred by the reimposition of sanctions, the much less desirable option of a military operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities could be carried out with significantly more accurate intelligence and greater international legitimacy than without the deal.
The JCPOA will not resolve all of the issues with Iran. As Prime Minister Netanyahu accurately points out, the deal doesn’t end Iran’s support for terrorism, nor does it constrain Iran’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program. It does, however, provide the international community with the tools to combat its most pressing threat: the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. Only after addressing this primary danger can progress be made with Iran on the remaining concerns. Therefore, President Biden must rejoin the JCPOA.