There exists now a brief window of time for Iran and the United States to return to the principles of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known to supporters and critics alike as the Iran nuclear deal.
In 2015, a group of world powers signed on to relax some international sanctions if Iran gave up the most worrisome aspects of its nuclear program and agreed to robust inspections. The nuclear deal wasn’t a peace deal. It was an agreement to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. In 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from that agreement, convinced that a new set of far more oppressive sanctions would cripple the country enough to humiliate it into accepting new terms more favorable to the United States.
But President Donald Trump’s gambit failed. The new sanctions have crippled the country. But they also prompted the Iranian government to restart nuclear work that it had given up. Other nations, including China, which worked closely with the United States and European powers to forge the nuclear deal with Iran, have grown weary of U.S. unilateralism and could resume doing business with Iran, one way or another.
That’s why Robert Malley, President Biden’s special envoy to Iran, spent this past week in Vienna negotiating the path back to U.S. compliance with the deal. Diplomatic niceties being what they are, European diplomats shuttled between the U.S. and Iranian delegations, which were holed up in separate hotels. The talks, which have been described as “constructive and results-oriented,” will continue next week. That’s cause for cautious optimism.
On offer from the United States is an end to most of the “maximum pressure” sanctions that the Trump administration piled on in an attempt to seal Iran off from the global economy. Those sanctions target a wide array of the country’s institutions, including its central bank, its oil ministry and the National Iranian Oil Company. Seyed Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister, has indicated that Iran could halt and reverse its own nuclear work if it is given the sanctions relief promised under the agreement.
Of course, the same old spoilers who never wanted a deal in the first place are loath to see the United States talk about resuscitating it. The most common criticism is that lifting the sanctions — honoring the United States’ old commitments — will squander leverage that has been accrued over the past three years. That’s the attitude of Republicans like Elliott Abrams, who served as Mr. Trump’s special representative for Iran, as well as Democrats like Bob Menendez, the New Jersey senator who leads the Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Menendez signed a recent letter from 43 senators that seems to call for sanctions to be kept in place until another agreement can be reached that puts deeper restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, its ballistic missiles program and its support for Shiite militias in the region. That letter is more of a wish list than a starting point for talks. If Iran was inclined to capitulate to those American demands, it would have done so long ago.
At this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense. If the United States refuses to honor the first agreement, why would Iranians ever trust it to honor a second?
The uncomfortable truth is that “maximum pressure” sanctions are unsustainable. They haven’t changed Iranian behavior for the better. Quite the opposite. To punish the United States for refusing to hold up its end of the bargain, Iran has orchestrated calibrated violations of its own — to remind the United States what a world without the Iran nuclear deal looks like. Under the nuclear deal, Iran was allowed to enrich uranium up to a purity of 3.67 percent, far below weapons grade. It is now enriching up to 20 percent purity. Under the nuclear deal, Iran was limited to 202.8 kilograms of uranium. It is now estimated to have stockpiled three tons.
Under the nuclear deal, international inspectors were also allowed to investigate every inch of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle with little advance notice. Now, inspectors have been notified that they will lose that kind of access. In May, unless the nuclear deal is revived, international inspectors will lose visibility on what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear sites. That status quo is not static.
The situation is also untenable in other ways. Sanctions on Iranian banks and European and Asian institutions that do business with Iran were originally intended to produce enough short-term pain to force negotiations. Leaving them in place indefinitely risks driving the entire economy of Iran, a sophisticated country of more than 80 million people, onto the black market. It will empower the most hard-line and criminal elements in the country, including the Revolutionary Guards Corps. It will make fools of moderates, including President Hassan Rouhani, who spent political capital on forging a deal with the United States and wants to see it back on track before he leaves office in August.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned in 2016 that overuse of financial sanctions could backfire badly. If other countries tire of the U.S. threat to punish banks and businesses around the world that do business with Iran, they could begin to seek alternatives to the U.S. financial system. Not only will U.S. sanctions lose their power, but the centrality of American banks and the dollar’s status as the world’s dominant reserve currency could also begin to erode.
We’re starting to see glimpses of what can happen if sanctions remain for too long. China’s recent announcement of a plan to invest $400 billion in Iran’s oil, gas and transportation infrastructure in exchange for oil is a sign that China and Russia won’t abide by such onerous restrictions forever.
Most of all, the status quo is unsustainable because of the toll sanctions are taking on ordinary Iranians. While authoritarian governments tend to find ways around sanctions, normal people suffer. That was a lesson from Iraq in the mid-1990s, when more than half a million Iraqi children died of malnutrition because of sanctions that failed to curb Saddam Hussein’s power. Today, Iranians are dying from lack of insulin and other drugs — deaths that the Iranian regime attributes to the United States. Although there are humanitarian exceptions to sanctions for the sale of food and medicine to Iran, the widespread use of sanctions against Iranian banks has complicated procurement efforts. Iran has also faced huge difficulties in paying for coronavirus vaccine because its foreign currency is frozen in banks overseas. It is not in anyone’s interests to have Iran remain a coronavirus incubator.
Yet hope springs eternal for hawks, like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insist that the sanction-driven misery will miraculously cause the Iranian people to one day rise up, throw off the theocracy and embrace the West. But uprisings in Libya, Syria and elsewhere have shown the folly of rose-colored fantasies. While the Iranian people deserve a government that is more humane and democratic, there is no guarantee that it will happen, or that whatever comes after this regime will be any better.
Other countries in the Middle East have valid concerns about Iran’s support for Shiite militias in the region and the proliferation of ballistic missiles technology. Some nations argue that the Trump-era sanctions should be left in place to starve Iran of cash that can be used for such mischief-making. But starvation hasn’t worked thus far. It has made Iran an even more belligerent neighbor.
If the nuclear program can be brought under control peacefully, a regional coalition could address Iran’s role in the region. Leverage abounds: Even if Mr. Biden rolls back the Trump-era sanctions, a vast majority of U.S. sanctions will be left in place, leaving economic leverage that can be used to strike follow-on agreements.
Mr. Biden's foreign policy team came into office promising to make the nuclear agreement “longer and stronger,” a worthy goal. The first step toward it is getting back into the deal.
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