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Could U.S. Rejoin the Nuclear Deal?

By Mitchell Bard

The Democratic National Committee adopted a resolution praising the nuclear agreement’s achievements and calling for rejoining the treaty with Iran without any preconditions. Five Democratic candidates for president in 2020 – Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who both voted for the deal in 2015, Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-CA), Florida mayor Wayne Messam, and spiritual leader Marianne Williamson – have said they would do so if elected.

Harris “would rejoin the Iran deal if the U.S. could verify Iran is not cheating and is complying with the strict requirements detailed in the agreement,” said a spokesperson for the senator. A Warren spokesperson said that “as long as Iran continues to abide by the terms of the deal, she would return to it as president in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” And a Sanders aide said that “Sen. Sanders would rejoin the JCPOA and would also be prepared to talk to Iran on a range of other issues, which is what Trump should’ve done instead of simply walking away. Rejoining the JCPOA would mean meeting the United States’ commitments under the agreement, and that includes sanctions relief.” Messam said returning to the treaty would be a priority for him.

Joe Biden was Vice President when the deal was signed and a vigorous supporter of the agreement. “Talk of a ‘better deal’ is an illusion,” Biden said in a statement when Trump pulled out in May. “It took years of sanctions pressure, painstaking diplomacy, and the full support of the international community to achieve that goal. We have none of that in place today” (Al-Monitor, March 19, 2019). Biden also warned, “Biden warned that all Trump’s move would “accomplish is to put Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapon with no clear diplomatic way out” — putting the United States on a “collision course not only with an adversary but also with our closest partners” (Haaretz, April 26, 2019).

In addition to the Trump administration’s supporters, some outside experts oppose the idea of returning to the agreement. “Rejoining the deal without the necessary fixes to it would in essence bless Iran to enlarge its conventional, missile, and nuclear programs without receiving any commensurate concessions from Iran,” according to David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security. They warned:

Reentering the Iran nuclear deal and dropping U.S. sanctions will increase the risks of Iran developing nuclear weapons.

  • Reduce Iran’s breakout timeline to missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, and heighten the chances of military confrontations.
  • Allow Iran to start building up its industrial infrastructure to build advanced gas centrifuges that enrich uranium in 2023.
  • Spur an increase of the spread of nuclear weapons in the region.
  • End the UN conventional arms embargo on Iran, allowing it to import conventional arms and military hardware from such states as Russia and China.
  • Offers implicit support for ending the ballistic missile embargo, permitting Iran to import missile technology, materiel, and equipment from willing suppliers.

As they observe, many of the provisions of the deal are scheduled to end within a few years of a new president (if Trump were defeated) taking office.

Albright and Stricker also pointed out that supporters of the deal incorrectly claim the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has certified Iranian “compliance” with the deal when, in fact, it has not done so. “The IAEA has reported that it still has not been able to determine that Iran has no undeclared nuclear facilities and materials and thus cannot conclude that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful,” they noted. “While Iran has been pressed successfully to stop its multiple technical violations of specific nuclear limitations, the basic proposition of whether Iran seeks nuclear weapons has not been answered in the three plus years since the deal commenced.”

They conclude: “The most likely endpoint of the JCPOA is an Iran that in about a decade can quickly build nuclear weapons mounted on intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles, lacks an inspection regime that can ensure that Iran does not have undeclared nuclear facilities and materials, and has a greatly expanded conventional armed forces and ballistic missile arsenal.”

Instead of withdrawing from the deal, they advised that the international community seek stronger inspections “to ensure that Iran does not have undeclared nuclear facilities, materials, and activities.” The IAEA also should investigate “sites, equipment, and individuals detailed in the archive” discovered by Israel (The National Interest, April 4, 2019).

It may not be possible to salvage the agreement by the time a new president takes office. Richard Nephew, who was the sanctions expert for President Barack Obama’s negotiating team with Iran, said that even if a Democrat made a tactical decision to reenter the deal, “we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with the lost time.” The current terms of the JCPOA, he said, are “rapidly becoming not worth it” (The Atlantic, March 17, 2019).

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to facilitate a meeting between President Trump and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the G7 meetings in Paris in August 2019 in hopes this would lead the president to agree to enter negotiations with the Iranian president. According to former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Zarif was “playing to Trump’s vanities.” He, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer tried to prevent the meeting (New York Times, June 21, 2020).

Ultimately, Trump did not agree to meet Zarif but expressed a willingness to talk in the future. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told his Parliament, however, “We’ve said it before time and again, and we say it again: We have no intention to hold bilateral talks with the United States. We never did and never will. Rouhani added, “we said that the U.S., as part of the 5+1, held talks with us and we took part in the talks.” He said the only way Iran will speak to the U.S. is as part of the 5+1, and only after it first removes all sanctions (Politico, July 7, 2019).

In June 2020, Rouhani somewhat changed his tune in a televised speech, “We have no problem with talks with the U.S.,” he said, “but only if Washington fulfils its obligations under the nuclear deal, apologies and compensates Tehran for its withdrawal from the 2015 deal” (New York Times, June 24, 2020).

See also: Biden Contemplates New Iran Deal for most recent developments.