As policymakers grapple with both the hangover of a near-war with Iran and the implications of recent anti-government demonstrations by Iranians, "standing with the Iranian people" is back in vogue in Washington. It is also front of mind for many Iranian Americans who are cautiously relieved that the imminent threat of war seems to be on pause but who are still anxious about the plight of our families inside Iran. Fortunately, the best and most impactful way America can improve the lives of Iranians is simple: if the United States wants to help Iranians, we must return to the nuclear deal—or, if necessary, some Trump-branded version of it.
The thought of Donald Trump and the Iranians getting to the negotiating table and returning to the nuclear agreement may sound like wishful thinking considering what has happened in just the first few weeks of 2020. There had been some positive signs heading into the new year—including a near-miss last September for a preliminary agreement for talks, as well as a successful prisoner swap in December—but the prospect today seems as dim as ever. However, for the sake of the argument, and mindful of the mercurial nature of our current administration, let's assume the improbable: that there is a breakthrough and Trump and Iran agree on a JCPOA 2.0 that is roughly the same as the existing agreement but with extended sunsets and more effective sanctions relief. What would this mean for the Iranian people?
Today, many Iranians are grieving. They're angry that their government shot down a passenger plane and killed yet more Iranians. They're fed up with corruption and frustrated by, to borrow a phrase, the country’s malaise. Many are disillusioned with the prospect of internal reform or expressing their agency through the existing structure after decades in which every glimmer of hope, like the nuclear agreement, has been dashed by forces outside of their control. Iranians are trapped between a rock in U.S. policy and a hard place in the Islamic Republic.
A revitalized JCPOA would be no magic wand but, if actually implemented, would begin to free Iranians from their twin pressures, dramatically improve life in Iran on many fronts, and begin to address the more fundamental issues at the core of many Iranians' day to day frustrations.
The original JCPOA never got off the ground. Implementation day was four years ago but came just ahead of the first votes in the Republican primary—when Donald Trump was surging and all the major candidates were pledging to tear up the nuclear agreement. Few banks or businesses wanted to risk investing in Iran if the next U.S. president was simply going to tear up the deal and send businesses back out of the country. Meanwhile, the sanctions relief in the agreement was structurally flawed—no similar sanctions regime had ever been partially dismantled in such a way, and there were practical shortcomings separating the intent and the execution of the relief that only became clear once implementation began. As a result, while there was a clear track record of macroeconomic improvement under the JCPOA, it was too brief, too narrow, and too tempered by political uncertainty to be felt by most Iranians.
Trump, or his successor, could actually improve on Barack Obama’s deal and provide the Iranian people with real economic gains. It wouldn't solve other challenges—it wouldn't reform or get rid of the theocratic system. But it would empower private entities that have suffered under a sanctions economy in which the main beneficiaries have been corrupt, state-affiliated entities. It would provide the necessary leverage to crack down on financial corruption inside of Iran—another process envisioned by Iranians but never implemented once the United States aborted the deal. The agreement remains the best, and likely necessary, first step to open eventual pathways for regional diplomacy to reduce tensions and security concerns. And, it would provide opportunities to address and collaborate on areas of mutual interest, like environmental challenges.
Perhaps most importantly, a return to an agreement would lift outside U.S. pressure that, for decades, has been completely counterproductive to the independence of the Iranian people and has distorted the political economy of Iran to keep a revolutionary system frozen in place. An end of outside pressure and isolation would open new space for the middle class and civil society that are always the first victims of sanctions and are necessary for any successful human rights and democracy movement. Even during the brief window between the JCPOA's implementation and Trump's exit, there were positive political trends for those who wanted to see Iran's political evolution under the agreement—with moderates and reformists triumphing in 2016 parliamentary elections and the hard-line Ebrahim Raisi overwhelmingly defeated in the 2017 presidential elections. But after Trump's withdrawal, we have seen a reversal. Raisi has been elevated to head the powerful Judiciary and many reformists have been disqualified from 2020 parliamentary elections that many believe will mark a return to power for hardliners. And Iran's security apparatus has become far more bold and repressive—killing hundreds of Iranians in November protests.
Many Iranians and members of the diaspora may be too disillusioned by the first experience of the JCPOA to embrace a return as the solution. But compared to the proposed alternatives for addressing deep-rooted systemic problems with the Islamic Republic—increasingly inhumane sanctions and fantastical twelve-point demands, a bloody revolution or civil war, a U.S. led invasion or coup d'etat - returning to, or revitalizing, the nuclear agreement is easily the most probable, impactful, and sustainable way to improve the lives of ordinary Iranians and begin addressing challenges beyond U.S.-Iran tensions. Enabling Iranians to organize and choose their government over time is the most plausible and expedient path to freedom and dignity. If Donald Trump or American policymakers seriously want to stand with Iranians, they would make a return and revitalization of the not-yet-dead nuclear agreement their top priority before it is too late.
Jamal Abdi is president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the executive director of NIAC Action. He formerly served as policy adviser on foreign affairs, immigration and defense issues in the U.S. Congress.