It has become increasingly evident that restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, is extremely challenging without ensuring its durability. Several years after Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and began pursuing a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, and Tehran retaliated by accelerating and expanding its nuclear program, policymakers in Washington and Tehran must ensure that the deal, once revived, remains in force for all its parties over its entire duration. While some politicians call for intensifying economic pressure and military threats against Iran to bring it into conformity with U.S. objectives, these tools have proven to be counterproductive and dangerously escalating. Rather, the best solution lies in strengthening the JCPOA in a manner that would minimize the possibility of defection by the parties.
It is no secret that the JCPOA’s enforcement mechanisms and overall costs and benefits are distorted, but what is less recognized is that the JCPOA’s built-in imbalance is undermining U.S. interests and nuclear nonproliferation goals. By far the most notable manifestation of this imbalance is the agreement’s failure to establish mutual legal and political deterrence between Iran and the United States with respect to violating the agreement or quitting it altogether. Instead, the JCPOA constructed one-sided deterrence against Iran by threatening the snapback of multilateral and unilateral sanctions against it and automatically triggering its referral to the UN Security Council, should it violate the agreement or withdraw from it.
In contrast to Iran, the United States and other parties to the JCPOA faced no legal or political impediments to walk away from the agreement or otherwise be in noncompliance with it. As such, the only potential deterrent against defection by the United States and other members remained Iran’s unilateral nuclear measures outside of the JCPOA to raise the costs of noncompliance for these parties. However, the huge power disparity between Iran and the United States and uncertainties about Tehran’s political and technical capacity to resort these measures left room for miscalculation and undermined Iran’s unilateral deterrence. This condition was compounded by what I have referred to as the asymmetry of the commitments’ reversibility, or the relative ease and speed with which Washington may snap back its sanctions against the far more arduous and lengthy process that Tehran must undertake to rebuild its dismantled nuclear facilities.
This situation is clearly not in the long-term interests of any JCPOA participant, as the developments of the past several years have testified. Biden administration officials have frequently denounced the Trump administration’s withdrawal as a strategic mistake and as one of Washington’s worst foreign policy decisions over the past decade. The international community too, which was once largely apathetic toward the JCPOA, is now mostly convinced that restoration of the agreement and a return to compliance by all parties are in the best interest of regional peace and security. Today, while former and current members of the Israeli government continue to dismiss the JCPOA as a dangerous agreement that paves Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, many former and some current senior Israeli security officials recognize that the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA was a grave mistake that has undermined Israel’s security, and as such have backed the Biden administration’s bid to rejoin the deal.
Correcting this predicament and minimizing the chances of yet another JCPOA breakdown requires building mutual legal and political deterrence into it. Any legal and political procedures that make the violation of and withdrawal from the agreement costly and cumbersome can contribute to this goal. Adding more domestic and international veto players in order for a withdrawal decision to become effective is one such mechanism. This could take the form of exhausting a rigorous internal review process within the JCPOA and requiring the authorization of the UN Security Council and/or the national legislature of the respective parties to complete a withdrawal bid. While these mechanisms could help lock in the parties’ JCPOA commitments by erecting legal and political hurdles against abandoning the deal, devising an international financial compensation scheme for the parties who suffer economic loss as a result of a member’s withdrawal can further raise the costs and lower the benefits of defection for the respective party. Granted, none of these mechanisms would provide fail-safe deterrence against a future U.S. withdrawal, but a combination of such legal and political procedures, a financial compensation scheme, and the credible threat of more drastic Iranian nuclear expansion would minimize the chances of this scenario.
While the absence of effective mutual legal and political deterrence remains the largest threat to the revival and durability of the JCPOA, any other issues that diminish the actual economic benefits of the deal for the parties pose a similar challenge to the agreement by undermining popular and elite support for the deal. The record of the JCPOA’s implementation from 2016 to 2018 demonstrates that Iran was not able to fully access the international financial system due to lingering U.S. restrictions on Iran’s dollar-related transactions and the risks of navigating the legal minefield of the remaining U.S. sanctions regime for foreign banks and companies. While the application of these restrictions did not contravene the letter of the JCPOA, it was contrary to the spirit of the agreement to allow Iran to freely engage in international trade in return for providing objective guarantees that its nuclear program would never be diverted to military purposes.
Similarly, imposing new sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear purposes is not prohibited by the JCPOA as long as they do not nullify the effects of the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. Given other areas of dispute between Tehran and Washington, it is understandable that the U.S. government would not want to give up the sanctions weapon against Iran in light of their leverage value and political function to satisfy domestic interest groups and serve symbolic and expressive goals. But these imperatives should be balanced against the far more important goal of nuclear nonproliferation toward Iran. Any new sanctions that erode the economic benefits of the deal for Iran also run the risk of undermining support for the JCPOA within Iran, thereby harming broader nuclear nonproliferation goals.
Overall, rather than insisting that the JCPOA be restored strictly in its original form and implemented per its letter, the parties should seek to redress the agreement’s imbalance in regard to its enforcement mechanisms and delivery of its economic benefits. Failing to address these important deficiencies is likely to pave the way for an Iran with a far more advanced and unconstrained nuclear capability enjoying nuclear threshold status, or a disastrous military conflict with it that has the potential to engulf the whole Middle East region and beyond.
Abolghasem Bayyenat is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Iran’s nuclear policymaking at Syracuse University. His earlier writings can be accessed on his website at www.IranDiplomacyWatch.com.