President Hassan Rouhani is unlikely to be elected when Iranians go to the polls in the spring. Turnout was low in the most recent parliamentary election, with only 43 percent of the electorate arriving at the polls, and is likely to be low again. The lower the turnout, the stronger the chances that a hardliner closely associated with the Revolutionary Guard Corps will be the winner. And that will complicate the Biden Administration’s plans to somehow revive and rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear agreement.
The Obama Administration, and John Kerry’s State Department in particular, was far too eager to consummate the original deal with Iran. The Iranians were able to obtain concessions in terms of the scope of the deal—no reference to Tehran’s malign activities in the region, no reference to its missile program—and to its duration. Indeed, the notion that the deal was somehow a great accomplishment because it delayed the time frame within which Iran could fashion a nuclear weapon from what was expected to be a few months to an estimated year was fanciful at best. On the one hand, a year can pass very quickly, and the difference of a few months might prove to be no difference at all, given uncertainties surrounding what exactly Tehran was up to, and the reluctance of the West to go to war. On the other hand, were the West truly able to detect Iranian activity, it could do so within the few months it would take Iran to build a bomb in defiance of the JCPOA.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, once the agreement was reached, the United States was duty bound to adhere to it. Every time America backs out of its commitments, it undermines its credibility as a reliable interlocutor. It was for that reason that many who opposed the deal felt that once America signed the agreement it should not withdraw from it.
Having abandoned the JCPOA, returning to it is, however, an entirely different proposition. Precisely because Iran is likely to be led by a hardliner and has already demonstrated that it can enrich uranium to 20 percent, Tehran now has the ability to build a nuclear weapon in about six months. As a result, Iran has far less of an incentive to limit itself just because Washington had a change of heart. Moreover, Tehran has also demonstrated that it would not capitulate even under the pressure of ever-tighter sanctions and an economy that is buckling under their weight. Finally, the IRGC values what it considers to be the nation’s security over economic issues, and in any event, has a stranglehold over the economy, meaning that its members are suffering relatively less than ordinary Iranians. For all of these reasons, Iran will likely hold out for terms at least as favorable as those it negotiated in 2015, namely, that there be no reference to regional issues, no reference to missile development, and that agreement’s sunset clauses be no more onerous than those in the original agreement.
The Biden Administration, for its part, must be wary of making any gestures that the Ayatollahs could pocket without giving anything in return. Washington should not do away with any sanctions unless Iran reciprocates in some fashion. That Tehran could do, for example, by withdrawing support for the Houthis in Yemen. Doing so would be a low-cost gesture for Iran, unlike, say withdrawing its support for Hezbollah, but would create the prospect of some relief for that embattled country and for a longer-term end to its brutal civil war.
Iran could also begin to cut back its support for Iraqi militias. These militias have undermined the ability of the Baghdad government to put the country back on its economic and social feet. Iraq poses no threat to Iran, and its previously downtrodden Shi’a population holds sway over the government. Withdrawing support for the militias would not in any way endanger Tehran’s security.
The list of sanctions against Iran is a very long one. Scaling those sanctions back on a gradual basis, as long as Tehran reciprocates in turn, may ultimately lead to the two sides agreeing to and adopting a new updated version of the JCPOA. Whether a hardline Iranian government will be willing to go that far is, of course very much an open question, and it therefore is one about which the Biden negotiating team should have no illusions as it seeks to reach some degree of accommodation with the Tehran regime.
Dov S. Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985–1987. He also served as the DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.