A Means to End Nuclear Proliferation: An Argument for U.S. Recommitment to an Iran Nuclear Deal

Kerry Zarif RTX22N89

The City of Music is set to host a round of negotiations on a potential return to the magnum opus of nuclear agreements next week. Vienna, Austria’s capital city, is to welcome intermediaries from the United States and Iran, with hopes of indirect discussion on a recommitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). [1]  It is imperative for the Biden Administration to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, before being able to develop any further agreements or negotiations or other points of contention.

By no means was the Iran nuclear deal perfect, but it was progress. It bound a country that was labeled an “axis of evil” by the Bush administration to a negotiated agreement that benefited the United States and global security. [2] The ultimate goal of such a treaty was to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity, and through limits on plutonium stock, unhindered access to and full monitoring of nuclear sites, and expeditious access to requested records, the deal was a major step toward achieving that goal. It is fair to argue that it did not go far enough, but it was neither intended to be the ultimate and final nuclear agreement, nor did anything in its constitution discourage building upon its groundwork to extend it through further negotiations. [3] It was a refreshing win for diplomacy in a region rife with decades of treacheries. President Biden has called for a return to American decency and respect for facts, promises, and diplomacy. Honoring our commitment is consistent with and imperative to this political approach. [4] 

The JCPOA, implemented in 2015 by the Obama Administration and the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom) plus Germany and the European Union, was an ambitious effort at an American-Iranian nuclear deal that involved and bound other world players. It was motivated by a recognition that Iran has preliminary nuclear weapons capability and has the potential to use their knowledge to produce and use nuclear weaponry. [5] In 2018, with overwhelming  evidence suggesting that Iran was still complying to the agreement, the United States unilaterally abandoned the agreement at the  bewildering and seemingly unprompted behest of the Trump Administration. [6] The United States subsequently levied crushing economic sanctions on the country with no clear goal, and never attempted to renegotiate new terms. [7] 

The JCPOA was not created to resolve the many real and serious conflicts between Iran and the rest of the world. It actually did not remove the entire set of existing sanctions against Iran, only those imposed in response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The U.S. kept its sanctions pertaining to human rights, terrorism and missile activities, and —held—- the right to impose additional sanctions for non-nuclear issues. [8] The agreement was intended to focus only on nuclear issues–not to ignore the rest, but to remove the most critical issue in the short-run, and then build on its diplomatic foundation to address other problems, such as Iran’s tendency to cause political and military agitation in the region. Most notably, the JCPOA placed limits on Iran’s plutonium production and storage. Iran agreed to modify the development of reactors, effectively reducing plutonium levels, and to reduce the reprocessing of plutonium. The JCPOA also established strong limits preventing Iran from producing the materials necessary for nuclear action and called for permanent prohibition on certain weapons development. [9] This prohibition included certain restrictions on non-direct nuclear developments, such as those for civilian production of oil, or for other militaristic endeavors. Critically, the JCPOA put in place limits that allowed the international community time to respond in case Iran ever wanted to pursue a nuclear pathway. It created a 12 month breakout for response, roughly the time it would take Iran to build a nuclear weapon. [10] 

The JCPOA created a systematic and comprehensive international monitoring system for every level of Iran’s nuclear supply chain. Under the JCPOA, inspectors had access to all facilities that produce nuclear materials as well as to all extraneous locations that support production. These facilities were to be monitored in real time, and inspectors were given daily access into uranium enrichment facilities. Inspectors were even granted access to military sites, which Iran had to grant within 24 days after the initial request. [9] Through this monitoring system, any material infractions of the agreement would be quickly flagged and investigated. 

Opponents of the JCPOA often cite the inclusion of “sunset clauses,” or expiration dates on certain restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, as a fatal shortcoming of the agreement. One of the most iterated elements of such concerns is that after 15 years, some limits on Iran’s uranium production (limit and stockpile) will expire. [11] However, a number of the monitoring mechanisms are permanent and will still act as considerable barriers to Iran if the state ever chooses to pursue nuclear weapons. [12] These sunset clauses are in fact a further reason to rejoin the JCPOA. Expedient reentry into the agreement would allow ample time to renegotiate these restrictions and to build upon the deal, thus extending the life of such restrictions.

In 2018, when President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and implemented crippling sanctions in an attempt to restrict the Iranian government, he neglected to consider the wellbeing of the people. [13] The global focus tends to be on Iran’s external actions, while ignoring the fate of the Iranian population. The devastating reality of these crushing measures is that those most affected are not part of the regime or other leadership, but rather the eighty million Iranianian citizens. [14] Sanctions levied onto an already struggling country has pushed many Iranians below the poverty line,, and hardened the severity and frequency of unemployment. [15] 

In an effort to make up for lost funds, the Iranian government raised fuel prices by as much as 200 percent  in November 2019. [16] The one commodity that consumers could rely on became unattainable, which caused  Iran’s economy to collapse, inflation rates to rise well over 800 percent, and for recession to ravage the country. [17] To those who support Trump’s boycott of Iran, the sanctions were a success. But there is little evidence that it weakened the regime. When fuel prices rose, the Iranian people erupted in mass protest, fighting for the right to survive. The United Nations reported around 7,000 arrests and over 300 deaths from the protests. [18] The U.S. estimates 1,500 deaths. Amnesty International reported that nearly a year later more than 500 people involved in the protests were still being tracked down, tortured, jailed, or executed. [19] There is a level of moral hazard in the argument to make life painful for the population of a country in order to punish a government that a certain administration dislikes. 

 Pursuing nuclear weapons is the Iranian government’s desperate attempt at self-preservation while facing immense internal pressure. It is important to note that the JCPOA was the initiative of Iran’s moderates and was opposed by many influential conservatives. Its demise has also doomed the political fortunes of the reformers and emboldened the hardliners. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has stated that if he believed the US could efficiently come back to the JCPOA, he would have quickly rejoined. However, he has made it clear that, seeing as the return to the JCPOA is looking to be a slow process for the Biden Administration, he has no rush to expedite the process. The immense economic hardships and political inefficiency in Iran has created a sense of societal despondency, translating into political indifference. This has led to diminished faith in the political system, and the subsequent election of hardliners by a more extreme voting electorate. [20] If the economy starts to get better before the election, there will likely be higher political turnout in the polls, and the candidate chosen will be less extreme, much to Khomeini’s disadvantage. [21] 

 In May 2019, Iran began violating the rules of the JCPOA following the withdrawal from the agreement by the Trump Administration. Much of what Iran has done as of yet is reversible. However, Iran has plans to roll back monitoring mechanisms, which would create gaps in IAEA records and to begin the production of uranium metal. [22] The longer we wait to rejoin the JCPOA, the more difficult these measures will be to reverse. 

From the perspective of Iranian leadership, restoring the JCPOA is vital before considering deliberations about any other issue. [23] However, there is an opportunity to extract some concessions from Iran before a full restoration. As Iran is the weaker party in negotiations, but there is no incentive for them to negotiate against themselves. They can’t create the impression that the U.S. can sign deals, renege on them, and then try to extract more concessions. [24] 

Another critical angle in our relationship with Iran is Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of our closest allies in the region, as well as a prominent dissenter of Iran. There lies a certain level of irony, however, in the moral indistinction between Saudi Arabia, our stark ally, and Iran, our vehement enemy. Saudi Arabia has an appalling domestic human rights record; U.S. has declared its current de facto ruler and the heir to the kingdom’s throne to be a murderer; there are troubling signs of their support for Islamic exterimism, and their war in Yemen is a horrific genocide with a crushing toll on innocent civilians. [25] Yet, as a matter of realpolitik we need to continue our love-hate relationship with them. In order for us to be able to “manage” this relationship, we need to remove the existential threat of a nuclear Iran from the equation, and then try to deescalate the rivalry between the two countries that is hurting the interests of the U.S. in the region through destabilizing neighboring states.

While the structure of the 2015 nuclear deal is not yet so corroded, there is time for the new administration to renegotiate terms of reentry. Two years of full implementation of the JCPOA, from January 2016 to May 2018, showed both its effectiveness, and Iran’s willingness to be regulated by its terms. Iran could quickly and easily come back to compliance by removing centrifuges, reducing stockpiles, and halting uranium enrichment. [26] Restoring the JCPOA is still viable, and would help both U.S. national security interests, as well as international peacekeeping efforts. [27] 

The JCPOA was the first nuclear non-proliferation treaty that had the practical effect of obstructing another able country from entering the nuclear club. There is no realistic, good alternative to effectively curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Only once we’ve essentially reimplemented the JCPOA, could we then use that basework to further develop a new round of UN P5+1 nuclear negotiations. [28] For global security, for the future of peaceful negotiations, for relieving the suffering of tens of millions of innocent Iranians, and for restoring the value of an American promise, it is imperative that the Biden Administration work quickly to return to an Iranian nuclear deal. The City of Music may be just what is needed to unify the cacophony of voices towards a viable path forward. 


[1] David E. Sanger, Steven Erlanger, and Farnaz Fassihi, “U.S. and Iran Agree to Indirect Talks on Returning to Nuclear Deal,” The New York Times, April 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/world/europe/us-iran-nuclear-deal.html?campaign_id=60&emc=edit_na_20210402&instance_id=0&nl=breaking-news&ref=cta®i_id=95582531&segment_id=54754&user_id=e6d52a827364021645638f4ac3b47b72. 

[2] Andrew Glass, “President Bush cites ‘axis of evil,’ Jan. 29, 2002,” Politico, January 29, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/01/29/bush-axis-of-evil-2002-1127725

[3] Kali Robinson, “What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?” Council on Foreign Relations, January 4, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal.

[4] Associated Press, “Biden Urges Restoring Decency After ‘Assault’ on Democracy,” US News, January 6, 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2021-01-06/biden-calls-on-mob-to-pull-back-urges-restoring-decency.  

[5] “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” July 14, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/245317.pdf.

[6] Zach Beauchamp, “Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, explained,” Vox, May 8, 2018, https://www.vox.com/world/2018/5/8/17328520/iran-nuclear-deal-trump-withdraw.

[7] Julian Borger, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, and Oliver Holmes, “Iran deal: Trump breaks with European allies over ‘horrible, one-sided’ nuclear agreement,” The Guardian, May 9, 2018,  https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2020-08/limits-breakout-estimates-assessing-irans-nuclear-program.

[8] “The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program”, Arms Control Association, August 4, 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2020-08/limits-breakout-estimates-assessing-irans-nuclear-program

[9] The Obama White House Archives, “The Iran Nuclear Deal: What You Need To Know About The JCPOA,” https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/jcpoa_what_you_need_to_know.pdf.

[10] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, March 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/JCPOA-at-a-glance

[11] “Iran nuclear deal: US ‘sunset clause’ concern remains – Tillerson,” BBC, September 21, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41344366

[12] Ali Vaez, “The Iranian Nuclear Deal’s Sunset Clauses,” Foreign Affairs, October 3, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2017-10-03/iranian-nuclear-deals-sunset-clauses.

[13] “Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran,” BBC, December 9, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109.   

[14] Rick Noack, Armand Emamdjomeh, and Joe Fox, “How U.S. sanctions are paralyzing the Iranian economy,” The Washington Post, January 10, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/01/10/how-us-sanctions-are-paralyzing-iranian-economy/

[15]”Iran urges Biden to lift sanctions affecting medicines as it fights COVID-19,” The Jerusalem Post, January 26, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/iran-urges-biden-to-lift-sanctions-affecting-medicines-as-it-fights-covid-19-656766

[16] Davide Barbuscia, “Iran recession to deepen, reserves to fall to $73 billion by March: IIF,” Reuters, January 15, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-economy-iif-idUSKBN1ZE139

[17] “10 Facts About The Recession In Iran,” The Borgen Project, July 26, 2019, https://borgenproject.org/10-facts-about-the-recession-in-iran/.   

[18] Michael Safi, “At least 7,000 people reportedly arrested in Iran protests, says UN,” The Guardian, December 6, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/06/at-least-7000-people-reportedly-arrested-in-iran-protests-says-un.

[19] Michael Safi, “Iranians tortured and jailed after mass protests, Amnesty says,” The Guardian, September 2, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/02/iran-iranians-tortured-and-jailed-after-mass-protests-amnesty-report-says 

[20] “Middle East Roundup: Biden Takes Steps Forward on JCPOA & What Iran’s Feb. 23rd Deadline Means,” NIAC Action, February 19, 2021, https://www.niacouncil.org/news/middle-east-roundup-biden-takes-steps-forward-on-jcpoa-iran-to-reduce-iaea-access/.

[21] John Defterios, “What impact will US sanctions on Iran actually have?” CNN, August 7, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/08/06/middleeast/us-iran-sanctions-impact-intl/index.html 

[22] Natasha Turak, “Biden team takes a major step in offering to start talks with Iran as Tehran’s sanctions deadline approaches,” CNBC, February 19, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/19/jcpoa-bidens-return-to-the-iran-nuclear-deal-is-getting-harder.html

[23] “US return to JCPOA meaningless without lifting sanctions: Iran’s UN Amb.” The Iran Project, February 20, 2021, https://theiranproject.com/blog/2021/02/20/us-return-to-jcpoa-meaningless-without-lifting-sanctions-irans-un-amb/

[24] “U.S. Should Lift Sanctions Practically Before Rejoining JCPOA,” Iran News Daily, February 14, 2021, https://irannewsdaily.com/2021/02/u-s-should-lift-sanctions-practically-before-rejoining-jcpoa/. 

[25] “Saudi Arabia: Events of 2019,” Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/saudi-arabia#.  

[26] Bahar Ghonsul, “Return to the JCPOA,” International Policy Digest, December 13, 2019, https://intpolicydigest.org/return-to-the-jcpoa/.

[27] IFP Editorial Staff, “Biden Should Return to JCPOA Not Only in Word, but in Deed: Iran,” Iran Front Page, January 2, 2021, https://ifpnews.com/biden-should-return-to-jcpoa-not-only-in-word-but-in-deed-iran

[28] “Iran Sanctions: JCPOA Basics,” OFAC Law Group, https://ofaclawyer.net/economic-sanctions-program/iran/jcpoa-basics/