Sometimes you can identify a colossal blunder by what doesn’t subsequently happen. That’s the case with this country’s 2018 decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on that nation.
Then-President Trump, egged on by Benjamin Netanyahu, the demagogic right-winger who was prime minister of Israel at the time, aborted one of Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievements, supposedly in pursuit of a longer-range, more comprehensive deal. He did so despite repeated certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran was abiding by the pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Shrugging off the counsel and cajoling of the other signatories to the deal, Trump withdrew this country from the agreement and reverted to sanctions in the hopes of forcing Iran to accede to an arrangement that would not only have far longer timelines than the 2015 agreement but would also constrain Iran’s missile program and end its support for other bad actors in the region.
Critics of the Trump approach countered that the United States hadn’t lost any of its long-term options vis-a-vis Iran by entering the deal; that it simply wasn’t realistic to expect a single agreement to cover the broad array of Iran’s regional activities; that as a longer-term safeguard, the belt-and-suspenders approach of the existing pact included 25 years of inspections rights over the entirety of Iran’s nuclear-fuel cycle; and that the best way to extend the deal’s other restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities was to stay in the agreement and negotiate those extensions as time progressed. The hope, of course, was that with economic sanctions lifted, Iran would become more engaged with the Western nations and evolve toward more amenable conduct.
So, after Trump ended the deal and reimposed sanctions, what happened? The renewed sanctions did not bring Iran to its knees or cause it to accept a tougher deal. Instead, after a period of continuing to honor the arrangement, Iran, too, abandoned the 2015 agreement. Tensions between the United States and Iran got worse. Whereas the seven-nation compact had limited uranium enrichment to under 4 percent, Iran is now enriching at nearly 60 percent, much closer to the weapons-level concentration of about 90 percent. Amid cloak-and-dagger explosions at its Natanz underground facility, Iran has also brought new lines of advanced enrichment centrifuges into use.
Iran now has 12 times the amount of enriched uranium it possessed when the nuclear deal was in effect, amounting to about 70 percent of the close-to-weapons-grade uranium required for one atomic bomb. Whereas, under the deal, Iran was judged to be at least a year from breakout — the period in which it would have enough enriched uranium for a bomb — experts say it is now only three to six weeks away. (The “breakout” terminology can sound overly alarmist, in that it seems to suggest Iran could have a functioning and deliverable bomb in that period, and not just enough fissile material for one.)
Until quite recently, it appeared that the Biden administration’s efforts to reestablish the 2015 nuclear deal were on the cusp of success and that the remaining problems were mostly about finding face-saving cover for each side. However, Russia’s war against Ukraine has complicated things. Russia, part of the original eight-party agreement — the others are Iran, China, France, Britain, the United States, Germany, and the European Union — is insisting that any future business or military dealing it has with Iran be free of US and EU sanctions imposed because of its invasion of Ukraine. Although a new agreement could theoretically be struck without Moscow, Russia had previously taken Iran’s excess uranium stockpiles, so another nation would have to assume that role.
A second complication is the recent Iranian missile strike near a US diplomatic facility in Erbil, in northern Iraq, for which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s large, quasi-institutionalized rogue military organization, has claimed responsibility. The group said its strike, which caused no deaths, had targeted an Israeli spy center in retaliation for a recent strike by Israel on a weapons-and-ammunition depot in Syria that the Revolutionary Guard claims killed several of its members.
This missile jousting is the kind of thing conservatives insist any deal with Iran must constrain. In fact, however, in a region rife with tensions and tit-for-tat retaliation from diverse well-armed militia, it underscores the critical need to keep the Iranian government from developing nuclear weapons that might then find their way into the possession of shadowy, chaos-inclined groups.
Further, the entire experience with the nuclear deal demonstrates that it’s far easier to upend a carefully negotiated multinational agreement than to negotiate or restore such an arrangement. That’s a lesson everyone should bear in mind if the Biden team does find a way to reestablish the former compact. Although such a renewed agreement probably won’t have extended timelines, it would put the United States back in a position where a longer-term modus vivendi with Iran could be productively pursued.
That’s not a guarantee, noted Jeffrey Lewis, a professor and expert in nuclear nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, but rather a theory of the case that runs this way: “If you get to the point where the deal is reinstated and we are confident they don’t want to build a bomb, and they are getting sanctions relief, then why would anybody want to kill the golden goose?”
Conservatives, predictably, will. On Monday, in a resurgence of Republican world-as-triumphalist-will-and-idea posturing, 49 of the Senate’s 50 GOP members vowed to do everything they can to block any deal that does not meet their comprehensive demands. When evaluating those declarations, Americans should recall what happened when Trump and his team made the extremely unlikely perfect the enemy of the already-established good. Not only was no progress made, but Iran moved closer to a possible bomb, making the Middle East a more dangerous place.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.