How should the US adjust its policy toward Iran going forward?
By Gabriel Noronha and Nicholas Miller. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.
The JCPOA Does Not Protect Against Iranian Threats
By Gabriel Noronha – Former Special Advisor for the Secretary’s Iran Action Group at the Department of State; Executive Director, Forum for American Leadership
The radical Islamic Republic of Iran presents one of the greatest and most comprehensive threats to peaceful nations in the Middle East and around the world. As the world’s leading state-sponsor of terror, they have conducted as many as 360 targeted assassinations and terrorist attacks in more than 40 countries since 1979. The regime is set on destabilizing their Sunni neighbors and replacing their largely peaceful governments with radical Shia vassal states. Their hackers have targeted U.S. dams, banks, and voter registration systems, while their financial system uses money laundering to funnel funds to their terror proxies. Four Americans and several Europeans are being held hostage in the regime’s dangerous prisons. As the world has seen, the regime has pursued a clandestine nuclear program as well as an advanced ballistic missile program that can threaten European capitals.
Solving such a massive problem set is a difficult task. Rather than solve or abate these issues, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has only strengthened the regime and its ability to advance its radical ambitions.
The JCPOA’s Misguided Theory
The JCPOA was a temporary and limited deal that only modestly addressed one of the issues presented by the regime: its nuclear program. At the same time, the deal provided many tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief that enabled Iran to escalate its campaign of terrorism, its regional destabilization, and a whole host of other behaviors that threaten the world.
Worse, the JCPOA and the accompanying UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 have already started expiring. UNSCR 2231 watered down previously permanent UN resolutions on Iran so their restrictions on the regime would expire by 2025, a massive concession to the regime that was not predicated on any accompanying behavior changes by the regime.
Last October, the UN’s conventional arms embargo and visa restrictions on Iran’s top terrorists expired, allowing Iranian weapons to flow with ease to rogue regimes around the world, and clearing the way for advanced Russian and Chinese weaponry, such as planes, tanks, and submarines, to flow to Tehran. Two years from now, the restrictions on ballistic missiles will expire. Over the next decade, all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, such as its enrichment capabilities and the number and sophistication of its centrifuges, will also expire. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the behavior American and European leaders fret about today will be entirely legal, while our sanctions would be lifted, leaving us no leverage.
The JCPOA was predicated on a misguided theory that engagement with Iran would moderate the regime or empower elements that would be more willing to change their policy toward the United States. This theory relied on the faulty assumptions that moderates existed in the regime, that they could be bolstered against the more radical forces, and that the regime could be swayed to live in peace with the United States. At the end of the day, Iranian foreign and national security policy has always been set by the clerical state consisting of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The top Iranians who occupy these institutions are brutal theocrats who have mercilessly ordered the killings and torture of thousands of Iranians, and been complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the Middle East. They do not seek peace or cooperation with the West – they seek the destruction of Israel and of the United States.
The Possibility for a Regime Collapse
The JCPOA is not the right solution to the problems the Iranian regime presents. For different domestic reasons, the regime doesn’t want to get back into the deal either. So, for the past four months, Iran has played European and U.S. negotiators like a fiddle, making one excuse after another not to return to negotiations. Like their North Korean and Venezuelan friends, the Iranian regime strings the West along with excuses in order to earn a cessation of sanctions and enough time to export oil and other petrochemical products. These proceeds fund the regime’s nuclear and military programs and stabilize its economy against the stagflation and mounting debt crisis it has endured the last few years under U.S. sanctions. They have been quite successful in this ploy – earning roughly an additional $8 billion in oil revenue in the first 10 months of the Biden administration due to weak sanctions enforcement.
This cash influx has staved off the fear of imminent collapse, but they can’t keep this up forever. Leaks from the Iranian government’s budget office recently disclosed its estimate that the regime’s debt burden in 2027 would be $561 billion if it obtains sanctions relief this year. However, if sanctions remain in effect, debt would soar to nearly $1.4 trillion, guaranteeing the regime’s bankruptcy and consequent inability to fund its campaign of terrorism, its ballistic missiles development, and its nuclear program.
A New Economic Approach
Rather than rejoin a fatally flawed deal, we have an opportunity to do the responsible thing and work with our allies to jointly confront the regime’s nefarious agenda. First, we can work with our European allies to initiate the snapback mechanism at the United Nations and restore full sanctions on Iran. This action would also return the UN’s conventional arms embargo against the nation. The snapback mechanism was designed to ensure that Iranian violations of the deal would be penalized with a return of international sanctions. But it is important to note that even without European cooperation, the vast majority of international companies will abide by our sanctions. Why? Because U.S. sanctions force companies to make a choice: do business with Iran or do business with the United States and all entities that use our financial system. That will be the easiest and fastest decision most corporations will ever have to make.
Second, we need to use our economic power to weaken the regime and prevent it from having the cash to carry out its nuclear and conventional threats. Much like our criminal laws, sanctions only work when they are enforced, and violators are cut out of an American-led financial system or given stronger criminal penalties. For instance, Chinese oil companies, with the help of several international shipping and insurance companies, have been importing Iranian oil without consequence all year. We need to sanction all players in this illicit market to stop Iran’s oil-for-terror scheme. If we keep our pressure up, the regime’s racket will eventually grind to a halt as it is forced into severe austerity measures.
Finally, what to do about Iran’s nuclear program? We can never allow the world’s leading state sponsor of terror to acquire the world’s deadliest weapon. But there’s a reason that the regime hasn’t pursued a full-on nuclear breakout during the decades it has kept its nuclear program: fear. The past six U.S. presidents have pledged they will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. President Biden should send a firm message to the Islamic Republic of Iran: any attempt to weaponize its nuclear program will be met with overwhelming force. At the end of the day, Israel is the country at the greatest risk of an Iranian bomb. We should equip our ally with all the tools as well as military and intelligence support it needs to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. A firm and public blessing for Israel to carry out that task will likely be sufficient to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold and requiring that mission in the first place.
In Response to Mr. Noronha: Why We Should Hope for a JCPOA Revival
By Nicholas Miller – Professor, Department of Government, Dartmouth College
At the time of this debate, the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is highly uncertain. Though both the Biden administration and Iranian government have stated an interest in reviving the pact, and are slated to resume negotiations to that end at the end of this month, it remains unclear whether there is enough common ground between the two sides. In particular, the Iranian government has made a number of demands that go beyond the original nuclear deal.
Noronha argues that the Biden administration is misguided in seeking to rejoin the deal, which he argues only “modestly address[ed] Iran’s nuclear program” and made Iran more aggressive in the region. Instead, he argues that Biden should return to the Trump era policy of extreme economic pressure, which he contends will force the regime to change its behavior. Instead of using diplomacy to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, he suggests the threat of military force will be sufficient to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
But Noronha’s characterization of the JCPOA and its effects on Iranian behavior are off the mark. The JCPOA had a dramatic effect on reducing the Iranian nuclear threat. Moreover, Iran has been substantially more aggressive since Trump withdrew in 2018, even under intense sanctions. Amping up the economic pressure and threat of force would not compel Iran to change its behavior, but would instead lead it to double down on its nuclear program and aggressive activity, significantly increasing the odds of an Iranian bomb or a regional war. The JCPOA is a far preferable alternative and the Biden administration is right to seek to revive it.
Rolling Back Iran’s Nuclear Program
The JCPOA had far more than a “modest” effect on Iran’s nuclear program. Prior to its conclusion, Iran was enriching with close to 20,000 centrifuges, possessed a stockpile close to 9,000 kilograms of enriched uranium — some of it enriched close to 20% — and was estimated to have a breakout time of just 2-3 months. As a result of the deal, Iran gave up 98% of its enriched uranium, removed two-thirds of its centrifuges from service, and limited its enrichment to 3.67% — far from the 90% threshold usually considered weapons usable. Overall, this extended Iran’s breakout time to around a year.
The value of a functional JCPOA is starkly illustrated by Iran’s nuclear escalation since Trump withdrew in 2018 and imposed “maximum pressure,” leading Iran to cease complying with many of its commitments. Since 2019, Tehran has accumulated more than 2,000 kilograms of enriched uranium, a small amount of which is enriched to 60% — a short step from weapons grade. Iran has also begun using advanced centrifuges which enrich uranium more quickly, and has experimented with producing uranium metal, a key step in the production of a uranium-based warhead. As a result of Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA, Iran’s breakout time is now as short as one month. Instead of producing the “better deal” Trump promised, economic pressure has disastrously backfired.
Critics are right that the JCPOA contains sunset clauses allowing restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program to lapse between 2026 and 2031. But, sunset clauses are common in arms control agreements and are often necessary for deals to be struck between distrustful adversaries. If Biden succeeds in reviving the JCPOA, the decade between 2021 and 2031 could provide valuable time and space for further diplomacy. This could result in nuclear restrictions being extended, perhaps in exchange for an easing of U.S. trade restrictions with Iran, which the JCPOA largely kept in place.
“Maximum Pressure” has led to Maximum Resistance
Noronha argues that by providing economic relief, the JCPOA “enabled Iran to escalate its campaign of terrorism, its regional destabilization, and the whole host of other behaviors that threaten the world.” In fact, the evidence suggests there is not a tight link between Iran’s economic situation and its regional aggression, as illustrated by the fact that Iran responded to Trump’s crippling sanctions by behaving much more brazenly.
Since 2018, Iran has attacked and seized multiple oil tankers, shot down a U.S. drone, launched a missile attack against key Saudi Arabian oil facilities, and fired ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, injuring more than 100 U.S. personnel. And while Iran reportedly had to cut its economic support for its regional proxy forces, this did not stop them from behaving aggressively. For instance, Iran-backed militias have launched dozens of rocket attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, including several deadly ones, and the Houthis in Yemen have escalated their drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia.
Noronha argues that with enough economic pressure, the United States can stop Iran “from having the cash to carry out its nuclear and conventional threats.” Yet the evidence detailed above clearly shows Iran was capable of escalating both in the nuclear and non-nuclear realm, even under intense economic duress. Indeed, the economic pressure is what motivated the escalation and there’s every reason to believe it will continue as long as the pressure remains.
Moreover, it’s unlikely there’s some magical threshold of economic pain around the corner that will change Tehran’s calculus. Iran’s economic fortunes were beginning to recover, even while Trump was still in office and enforcing “maximum pressure”, with its oil sales significantly rebounding in 2020. In fact, one of the most consistent findings from academic research on sanctions is that they have a low success rate, in part due to nationalism but also because countries learn to economically adapt and can find allies willing to help them do so. Comprehensive economic sanctions against authoritarian regimes like Iran often backfire, weakening opponents of the regime more than they weaken the regime itself.
The Perils of Relying on Military Threats
To his credit, Noronha departs from the common line pushed by JCPOA critics — that economic pressure will lead to a “better deal.” As Trump’s Iran policy demonstrated, this is a fantasy. Instead, he argues that the threat of U.S. or Israeli force on its own will prevent Iran from crossing the final threshold of producing nuclear weapons.
Such a policy is freighted with risks. If Iran remains under a “maximum pressure” policy aimed at destabilizing its regime, this will heighten its security concerns and increase the chance that it will gamble on weaponizing. Iran may calculate it can do so covertly without getting caught, or it may believe it can deter a U.S. or Israeli attack through its ability to lash out across the region, directly and through its proxies. If Iran makes this decision, either the U.S. and Israel would back down and accept a nuclear Iran, or launch an attack with the potential to escalate into a devastating regional war, the last thing the United States needs when it should be focused on a rising and increasingly assertive China.
Iran could also seek to ward off an attack by remaining as a nuclear threshold state. This could involve stockpiling large amounts of highly enriched uranium without taking the final steps of leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or weaponizing. While better than Iran producing nuclear weapons, this would also be a dangerous situation, increasing the incentives for countries like Saudi Arabia to build up their own nuclear programs and leaving the region in a precarious situation where Tehran is a stone’s throw away from a bomb. Because of its dangers, this is an outcome Israel and the United States might not be willing to accept, possibly triggering the war Tehran hoped to avoid by stopping just short of the threshold.
There is no perfect policy that will solve all of the problems Iran poses for U.S. foreign policy. However, Trump tried a policy relying solely on economic pressure and military threats and the catastrophic results speak for themselves. While imperfect, the JCPOA successfully addressed the most consequential threat from Iran — its potential acquisition of nuclear weapons — while reducing the odds of war in the region. The Biden administration is wise to try to restore it.
This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.