When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as the Iran nuclear deal, was under negotiation several years ago, it faced opposition so virulent that at one point some U.S. senators who were part of the opposition blatantly tried to undermine U.S. negotiators with a letter to Iranian leaders. The broader opposition used a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that warned of various untoward happenings if the agreement went into effect.
Now with a new administration preparing to bring the United States back into compliance with the agreement, the opposition machinery is gearing up again. Many of the same people are voicing many of the same arguments. They are doing so despite the fact that since the previous time we heard from them, a rich and highly relevant history has unfolded, including drastically different policies of two different U.S. administrations, which provides plenty of hard data about which approaches work and which ones don’t. It is almost as if the opponents had fallen asleep for the better part of a decade and, having just awakened, they reach for their old talking points before learning what had happened in the interim.
The JCPOA closed all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon by requiring drastic cutbacks in Iran’s nuclear activities. This included disposing of 97 percent of its low enriched uranium, disposing of all of its uranium enriched to higher levels, ripping out two-thirds of its enrichment centrifuges, filling a reactor with cement, and various other measures. A result was to set back the “breakout time” that would be required to build a nuclear weapon if Iran chose to do so, from what most experts estimated to be as little as two or three months before the JCPOA to a year or more after the agreement went into effect.
For assurance that Iran was living by its obligations, the JCPOA imposed the most intrusive system of monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency to which any nation has ever voluntarily submitted. The IAEA inspections confirmed that Iran did indeed abide by its obligations, from the entry into force of a preliminary agreement in January 2014 through a full year after the Trump administration reneged on all U.S. obligations in May 2018.
The result of that reneging provided a stark contrast from the earlier favorable results. Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran was a maximum failure. After exercising patience for a year, Iran responded to the U.S. pressure with counterpressure of its own. This mainly took the form of incrementally exceeding the JCPOA limits regarding uranium enrichment (which Iran was no longer obliged to observe, given that the United States was now in violation of the agreement). As a result, Iran has acquired twelve times the low enriched uranium that it did when the JCPOA was fully in effect, as well as beginning to enrich to higher concentrations of fissile material than it did under the agreement. This heightened activity represents a bargaining chip that Iran has repeatedly emphasized it can, and will, quickly reverse if the United States comes back into compliance. But in the meantime, Iran’s nuclear program is bigger than it was when the United States was complying with the JCPOA, and breakout time has decreased (though not down to where it was before the agreement was negotiated).
It was not just on the nuclear front that the maximum pressure policy failed. Notwithstanding Trump administration rhetoric about how the economic warfare it waged on Iran supposedly would deprive it of resources to conduct other undesirable activity in its region, that activity increased, not decreased, after the U.S. reneging. Previously Iran was deterred from going after other nations’ oil industries, lest its own oil industry be harmed in reprisal. The Trump administration, by doing everything it could to destroy Iran’s oil trade anyway, changed that calculation. A result was seen in the missile and drone attack against critical Saudi oil facilities in September 2019.
Politically, the prospects for any new agreement with Iran, be it a “better deal” on nuclear matters or anything else, decreased under the Trump policies. Iranian hardliners who had voiced skepticism about negotiating with the Americans could now credibly say to others in Tehran, “we told you so,” and the hardliners’ political power grew.
Objectives of the Opposition
In light of this history, and insofar as the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon as well as other Iranian activity in the Middle East is the prime concern, the case for coming back into compliance with the JCPOA is so strong as to be almost a no-brainer. In this regard, the opposition to returning to compliance does not make sense. The opposition becomes more comprehensible if one recognizes that such concern is not necessarily the main motivator for the oppositionists. For many of them, the objective is not a “better deal” but rather no deal with Iran. Their goal is for no one to do any business, diplomatic or commercial, with the Iranians.
One of the original motivators for Republicans in Congress and then for Trump was to knock down anything that could be described as an accomplishment for Barack Obama. Trashing the JCPOA became one more step in Trump’s efforts to destroy, or do the opposite of, whatever Obama did.
For many other vocal opponents of the JCPOA, as Matthew Petti points out, the main goal is regime change in Tehran. That’s a lot different from seeking a “better deal.” Reaching deals, better or otherwise, with another government is not a step toward overthrowing that government, but instead an alternative to it.
For still other vocal opponents, and especially the right-wing government of Israel, the main goal may be not so much regime change but rather the perpetuation of Iran as a despised, sanctioned, and isolated bête noire that can be blamed for every malady in the region. Keeping Iran in this role serves Benjamin Netanyahu’s government by weakening a regional rival, blocking it from any rapprochement with the United States, deflecting blame and international scrutiny from Israel’s own activities, and diverting attention from other troubles. Similar considerations may apply to those who habitually line up with Netanyahu’s government, such as the loudly anti-JCPOA Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
FDD on Sunset Clauses
FDD’s latest treatment of the subject, written by Behnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker, has the aforementioned flavor of talking points that were composed six or seven years ago. There is no mention of what the JCPOA accomplished in tearing down what had been a far larger Iranian nuclear program. There is no acknowledgment of how miserably the more than two and a half years of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach failed.
When some of Iran’s more recent actions do get mentioned, the FDD essay tries to blame on the JCPOA what was actually a consequence of abandoning the JCPOA. It says that Iran’s ramping back up of some of its enrichment activities shows that the JCPOA “did not actually resolve” the Iranian nuclear question, without noting that this Iranian action was a direct result of, and solely due to, the Trump administration’s reneging on the agreement.
The FDD piece has many of the tendentious touches that became familiar during the first round of opposition to the JCPOA. For example, crippling another nation’s economy, as the Trump administration endeavored to do with its unrestricted economic warfare despite Iran’s compliance with its obligations, is tacitly taken as just a normal way of doing business. But what Iran has done to counter the pressure with pressure of its own is labeled as “blackmail” and “nuclear extortion.”
To be fair, not every essay about the JCPOA can be expected to cover every facet of the topic, and the FDD authors focus in their recent piece on the “sunset” provisions that attach expiration dates to some of the provisions of the agreement. This topic was also a focus of oppositionists several years ago, and their treatment of the subject now exhibits most of the same deficiencies that the opposition rhetoric back then exhibited.
The FDD authors make no mention of the important provisions of the JCPOA that never expire. The basic prohibition on developing or owning nuclear weapons—a prohibition that reinforces Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—is permanent.
Perhaps the most important provision of all in the JCPOA—the unprecedented, intrusive monitoring and inspection by the IAEA—also is permanent. There is no substitute for on-the-ground monitoring in keeping the world informed about what is going on inside a suspect country. Any doubt about this ought to be removed by recalling how gaps in such monitoring next door in Iraq led at different times to serious underestimation or overestimation of Iraqi development of nuclear and other unconventional weapons, with that lack of understanding sometimes leading to tragic consequences.
The FDD authors do not explain the reasoning underlying some of the provisions that do expire, such as the already-expired conventional arms embargo. Such an embargo has no self-evident place in an agreement that is about nuclear matters. The embargo was imposed in the first place as just another of the multilateral sanctions designed to induce Iran to negotiate restrictions on its nuclear program. Iran did negotiate such restrictions, so logically the embargo should have been lifted when the JCPOA entered into force. Far from the lifting of the embargo being a concession to Iran, the fact that the embargo was extended for another five years was a concession reluctantly made by Iran.