After several years of a fruitless and unnecessary standoff, the United States and Iran are now engaged in a diplomatic dance over reactivating the nuclear nonproliferation agreement that as recently as three years ago had sharply limited Iran’s nuclear program — and imposed a multifaceted verification regimen.
Preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon was, and remains, a critical priority with broad international support. Should Iran develop nukes, that would trigger a dangerous Middle East nuclear arms race that would introduce even greater instability to the volatile region.
The Biden administration wants to resuscitate that deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which the United States and its negotiating partners struck with Iran in 2015, but which Donald Trump exited. Iran says that since it was the United States that left the deal, this country must take the first step to patch things up; Tehran wants Biden to lift economic sanctions before Iran returns to compliance or even joins discussions about restoring the deal. The United States is hoping to find a way to avoid moving first, for face-saving reasons.
Meanwhile, hard-liners are insisting that Biden should demand broad new concessions from the Iranian regime unrelated to the nuclear program, including a change of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the region and controls on its missile program, as a condition for lifting the economic sanctions the Trump administration reimposed after abandoning the agreement in 2018.
Since that seems likely to become the more-or-less official conservative position — and because there are, in fact, legitimate US objections to Iran’s behavior — it’s worth examining why those demands don’t hold up.
Yoking other issues to an arms control deal would be historically unparalleled, according to Thomas Countryman, a former State Department nonproliferation expert who now chairs the board of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan group devoted to that cause.
“There is no precedent for an arms control agreement that simultaneously solves all of the disputes between the parties to the agreement,” Countryman said during a recent Zoom meeting with the Globe editorial board.
Nor are some of the demands floated by critics of the Iran deal reasonable expectations. Consider, first, the matter of missiles. Iran, notes nuclear nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is hardly the only country in the Middle East that has worrisome missile capability. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — and probably the United Arab Emirates — do as well.
“The idea that the Iranians would give up their missiles but no one else would have to is pretty unrealistic,” Lewis said. That is particularly true since Iran’s air force is mostly composed of older aircraft left over from the Shah’s reign, which ended more than four decades ago. That means Iran’s aerial military capability relies largely on its missile program, rendering it even more illogical to expect Iran to agree to unilateral restrictions there.
A change in Iran’s nonnuclear regional behavior is also an illusory goal, as well as something that can’t be measured and quantified in the way nuclear activity can.
“How do you specify limits on what Iran is allowed to do when it comes to sponsorship of terrorism, on regional misbehavior?” asks James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And further, “How do you verify those things?”
Nor is it likely that the United States could get agreement from the other parties to the deal — the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — on such limitations. An illustration: Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo had insisted that Iran remove all its forces from civil-war-torn Syria, where they support strongman Bashar Assad. Problem: Russia, another party to the nuclear deal, also backs Assad. How probable is it that Russian President Vladimir Putin would sign off on that demand?
Indeed, in the view of those other signatories, the United States isn’t in a position to make big demands. We, after all, are the party that left the nuclear agreement. Until we did, Iran had been honoring the agreement, which in broad terms was a quid pro quo: a verifiable limitation on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Under the pact, Iran had sharply reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium and given the International Atomic Energy Agency widespread access to its various nuclear facilities.
None of that is to say that broader concerns about Iran should be ignored, but rather that they will have to be addressed other ways, outside nuclear negotiations.
So let’s call those demands from US hawks what they are: hugely unrealistic and thus highly unlikely to succeed. Rather, they would only ensure there will be no new deal and would thereby further raise nuclear-standoff stakes.
“Those people are demanding those things, plus a pony, because they don’t want any deal at all,” said Lewis.
The most plausible way forward would be for both sides, using the good offices of the other parties, to move in unison back into compliance. But Iran’s insistence that the United States, as the country that left the agreement, move first is a boulder in that particular path. The Biden administration has tried to ease the way forward with low-key diplomatic moves; it has reversed a Trump declaration that the United Nations “snap-back” sanctions must be reimposed on Iran since it has now moved out of compliance, agreed to multiparty talks about restoring the deal, and relaxed travel restrictions on Iran’s UN diplomats.
But Biden and his team are obviously wary of being perceived as weak on Iran, particularly in the aftermath of a missile attack launched by an Iranian-backed militia group on a US airbase in Iraq, an attack that resulted in the death of a US foreign national and injuries to six others. The administration’s carefully calibrated retaliatory strike against the Syrian facilities of Iran-backed militia was a signal that though the United States will not let such an attack go unanswered, it doesn’t intend to escalate.
Now that that message has been sent, the United States should make a good-will gesture of significant sanctions relief. That, as some have suggested, could be cast and justified as a humanitarian gesture to relieve suffering during the pandemic. Such a gesture is important for several reasons. First, the fault for the deal’s unraveling lies with the United States, not Iran. It’s also important to realize that Iran is in the midst of a presidential election, and that that country’s anti-deal, anti-US hard-liners are pointing to this country’s abandonment of the agreement as we-told-you-so vindication of their opposition. For outgoing President Hassan Rouhani to reengage on the deal, he would need the sign-off of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. To secure that, Rouhani probably first needs a US concession. By giving him something substantial to point to, the Biden team might help grease the skids for an arrangement by which both parties return to compliance at a specified date. Then, once the deal is restored, Acton said, we can plausibly say to the Iranians, “Let’s talk about more for more.”
Half a decade has gone by since the nuclear agreement was struck, which means that five years have run on the various sunsetting restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. It’s certainly desirable to extend those timelines.
But as this diplomatic dance progresses, perspective is vital. The result of years of painstaking negotiations during the Obama presidency, the nuclear deal was working well. The agreement required Iran to alter its heavy water reactor so it did not provide a pathway to weapons-grade plutonium, the material for the most powerful atomic bombs. Iran had done so.
It also set limits on Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium, as well as the centrifuges that produce it, and gave the IAEA timely, if not instant, access to acknowledged and suspected Iranian nuclear sites, as well as video monitoring. The objections that not all such inspections were immediate is true, but misses an essential point: You can’t hide evidence of nuclear activity the way, say, our ally Saudi Arabia might clean up a murder scene. IAEA inspectors were confident they had what they needed to detect any clandestine nuclear activity.
Further, the deal offered a belt-and-suspenders approach to detection by giving the IAEA 25 years of inspection rights over the entirety of the uranium cycle, from mining to milling to disposal. Thus even if Iran somehow managed to construct a secret nuclear facility that went undetected, the IAEA would know if that country had diverted a significant amount of uranium from its normal cycle.
By contrast, the Trump administration’s alternative — a so-called maximum pressure campaign aimed at bringing Iran to its knees economically and thereby forcing further concessions — failed on virtually all fronts. It’s time to recognize that, return to the negotiating table, and use intelligent diplomacy to return to an arrangement that worked.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.