Americans always had their doubts about the Iran nuclear deal.
In July 2015, the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the European Union agreed to lift economic sanctions in exchange for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The deal would be a boon “for the United States, for our allies in the region, and for world peace,” Obama argued. It would prevent Iran from getting the bomb and keep its nuclear activities “exclusively peaceful.”
The public didn’t share his enthusiasm. In a Pew Research poll that fall, just 21 percent of Americans supported the JCPOA and only 1 in 5 were confident that Iran would live up to the deal’s terms.
They were right to be skeptical.
Far from leading Iran to, in Obama’s words, “get right with the world,” sanctions relief encouraged Tehran’s regime to redouble its belligerence. It entered Syria’s civil war in support of Bashar Assad, helping to murder tens of thousands of civilians. It armed Houthi rebels in Yemen and subsidized Hezbollah terror in Lebanon and Europe. It seized US Navy vessels, blindfolding American sailors and ransacking their boats. It violated United Nations bans on arms trafficking and ballistic missile activity. It repeatedly called for Israel’s annihilation.
And from the start, Iran breached its commitments under the nuclear deal. It amassed stockpiles of enriched uranium beyond the permitted limits, deceived and stonewalled international inspectors, and illicitly transferred advanced centrifuges to underground bunkers. Even before President Trump’s 2018 decision to pull the United States out of the JCPOA, Iran’s promises had proved to be worthless. It has since declared openly that it will not comply with the deal’s terms, but its cheating began well before Obama left the White House.
Now it is Trump who is leaving the White House, and President-elect Joe Biden has a decision to make.
On the campaign trail, Biden condemned Trump’s “reckless” withdrawal from the JCPOA. But he has also said he would rejoin the deal only “if Iran returns to strict compliance” with its terms. That isn’t going to happen.
For more than 40 years, the theocrats who rule Iran have broken diplomatic agreements, Security Council mandates, and international law. It was folly to imagine that the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, one of the most destabilizing forces on the planet, would become a responsible member of the world community if only America and its allies would agree to shower it with billions of dollars in cash and relieve the pressure of sanctions. It would be even greater folly to return to the JCPOA and expect anything to change.
Much of Trump’s foreign policy has indeed been reckless and harmful, but his legacy in the Middle East has proved to be remarkably successful. Abandoning the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions starved Tehran of resources that might otherwise have fueled its terror and ballistic missile operations. It helped restore US credibility in the region and incubated a strategic coalition uniting Israel and the Sunni Arab states in the Gulf, for whom resisting Iranian aggression is an existential priority. That coalition blossomed spectacularly with the signing of the Abraham Accords, the peace agreements between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and with the normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan, the third-largest Arab nation.
Obama had insisted that war was the only alternative to the Iran deal. But jettisoning the deal didn’t lead to more war. It led to more peace.
The JCPOA was misbegotten from the outset; it did nothing to make the world safer or Iran less dangerous. Biden’s Democratic allies may want him to reverse Trump’s withdrawal, but America’s allies in the Middle East are imploring him not to.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN said the Iran deal has “proven its failure to the entire world” and urged the incoming administration not to be “naïve enough” to revive it. A similar message came last week from Bahrain’s foreign minister. Likewise from Israel’s envoy to Washington. “Sit with your allies in the region,” Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer entreated Biden. “Listen to us. We have the most skin in the game.”
Good advice. To all intents and purposes, the Iran nuclear deal is dead. Biden’s best bet, and the world’s, is to leave it that way.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.