Why the U.S. Must Restore the Iran Nuclear Deal
As of February 2021, Iran has again breached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal by starting production of uranium metal. Established in 2015, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) agreed that, in return for lifting sanctions, Iran must reduce its uranium stockpile by 97 percent and maintain it below 3.57 percent; non-civilian research such as the production of uranium metal was also prohibited. This breach highlights the long-standing conflict between Iran and the U.S. that the passage of the JCPOA hoped to resolve. Since 1951, Iran and the U.S. have been entwined in decades of shadow war, the nexus between war and peace. Over the past 70 years, this protracted conflict has taken the form of economic sanctions, nuclear threats, planned assassinations, and small military offensives. This shadow war leaves many in fear of the horrific potential a full scale U.S.-Iran War holds. However, given that a return to the Iran Nuclear Deal is entirely achievable, and indeed the safest and best route for peace between the U.S. and Iran, the restoration of the JCPOA should be our most immediate step towards establishing stable diplomacy between Iran and the Western world—the most sustainable deterrent for future conflict.
The modern conflict between Iran and the U.S. began when Mohammad Mossadegh, who, during his first few days as Prime Minister of Iran, nationalized Britain’s Anglo-Persian Oil company (later known as British Petroleum) in Iran. In a rage, Britain and the U.S. joined forces in Operation Ajax, a coup that overthrew Mossadegh in 1953. This act tarnished subsequent relations between the Iranian people and the U.S. In the coming years, the U.S. supported the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who stepped into his role as an official monarch. Iranians who disapproved of Pahlavi’s immoral despotism instigated the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which resulted in the overthrow of the pro-Western monarchy and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Relative to this shift, the U.S. withdrew support for nuclear research in Iran, and Iran’s backing of Arab nationalist movements in the Middle East placed the nation on the U.S. Department of State’s list of state-sponsors of terrorism. This antagonistic feud triggered economic sanctions and minor wars. Iran’s continued development of nuclear technology also prompted the U.S. and the other countries of the P5+1 to negotiate a compromise: hence the Nuclear Deal of 2015, which intended to bring momentary, fleeting ‘peace.’
On May 8, 2018, former President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. Even though the majority of experts believe that the JCPOA would effectively curtail a potential nuclear threat from Iran for almost two decades, Trump’s election campaign rhetoric declared that he would approach the Iran conflict with a tougher methodology so that “Iran never, and I mean never, acquires a nuclear weapon.” Following this withdrawal, all draconian sanctions were reimposed in Iran. The sanctions proved detrimental to Iran’s economy, costing the country billions of dollars worth of trade. The effectiveness of these sanctions, however, is hotly contested. Iran has not changed its regional policies and actually ramped up development of a bomb in response (as a means of achieving greater leverage and forcing new negotiations). Trump was also unhesitant in using force against the Iranians. In 2019, militants connected to Qassem Soleimani, a leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, attacked a U.S. military base in Iraq, killing a civilian contractor. To send a message to Iranians, Trump killed Soleimani, claiming that he was “stop[ping] a war.” The United Nations deemed the attack likely a violation of international law, and although some acknowledge Trump’s decision to refrain from setting forth upon more problematic options, as Dina Esdandiary, an Iran expert, puts it, the assassination “unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems for Americans in the region.” When a hostile, or even militaristic approach is taken in dealing with an already tense conflict, retaliation is to be expected, and in weighing the costs and benefits, straying from diplomacy only instigates a chain of said retaliations.
The threat of nuclear warfare is nigh unfathomable; thus, a shift in relations between Iran and the U.S. would be undeniable if Iran engages in extensive uranium proliferation, regardless of whether it be for research purposes or developing a nuclear weapon. The possibility for a full-blown war would skyrocket due to the call and response nature of the U.S.-Iran conflict—the floor we tread would turn to brittle glass. Recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran has produced minute amounts of uranium enriched up to 20 percent—just meeting medical research levels whereas weapons-grade would mean a 90 percent enrichment. This is a large jump from their previous violation of the agreement, when they enriched their uranium proliferation by 4.1 percent following Trump’s withdrawal from the deal. While both are blatant breaches of the deal, they aren’t absolute acts of defiance towards the JCPOA. Iran still allows the IAEA to monitor centrifuge activity and has not engaged in any new plutonium activity. The Iranian leadership has made it clear that it was the U.S. that first breached the JCPOA, and if swift actions are taken by the U.S. to make its intentions clear, such as preemptively lifting sanctions, Iran will likewise again comply with the deal. Furthermore, though Biden (in order to appeal to conservatives), wants Iran to make the first move and return to the agreements made in the deal, he has expressed interest in moving forward with diplomacy. It would only be right for both sides to stop playing politics and begin negotiations immediately to facilitate an effective reentry into the deal.
It won’t be simple for Iran to make its return to the JCPOA, but it is likely. New negotiations are forthcoming due to soon expiring sunset clauses (provisions that are automatically terminated if not extended by law) and Iranian elections in June. Avoiding impending war can be achieved best through immediate diplomatic compromise between the Iranian government and the U.S. A renewal of the deal would reopen Iran’s market, allowing the country to begin international relations with various companies. A better (even if not perfect) relationship with Iran would also smooth over a portion of the Middle East conflicts that continue to persist. Regardless how bleak the situation might seem, it is important to remember that neither country truly wants a war; thus, both sides must move quickly in starting negotiations immediately.