Sensitive talks to restore constraints on Iran’s nuclear program began in Vienna on Tuesday between the United States and other leading countries. Their job is to undo the damage Donald Trump did when he left a deal that effectively cut Iran’s program, froze it for a generation, and locked it up.
Talks to return to the nuclear deal will be difficult. Neither party wants to be seen as weak or giving in to the other. But the first signs are encouraging.
It should be possible to put the deal back on its feet, but not if President Joe Biden listens to siren song rejecting the deal for “a better deal.”
Biden was part of the process that culminated in the landmark 2015 deal that blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb for the next decade. This plan – known by the complicated title of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – has received almost universal praise from experts, military leaders, diplomats and former national security officials – including some Israeli military leaders.
Under the deal, it would take Iran at least a year to assemble the material for a bomb. With the cameras, electronic surveillance devices, and constant inspections mandated by the agreement, along with U.S. and allied intelligence operations, we could see Iran doing it. Plenty of time to act with force if necessary.
But not everyone liked it. Those who wanted to topple the Iranian government, in particular, opposed any deal that would give legitimacy to a government they hated. They and other critics claimed the deal did not provide for adequate inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities while simply allowing Tehran to wait for the terms of the deal to expire before building a bomb on the road.
These opponents included hawks in Congress, the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and many supporters of the son of the former Shah of Iran, who want to restore the monarchy that Islamic revolutionaries overthrew in 1979. As a Obama Administration CIA Director John Brennan recently wrote in a Chicago Tribune editorial, “the opposition was rooted in an eclectic mix of rigid ideological fervor, partisan politics and substantial ignorance of the deal.” .
This coalition, along with the money and influence they wielded, helped persuade Trump to go back on America’s word in 2018 and violate the deal by reinstating all the sanctions that had been lifted, as well as adding more for a total of over 1,500 imposed by Trump. punishments. He said his maximum pressure program would force Iran to accept a “better deal” or fall apart. Neither has happened.
We are now in a worse situation, as Iran has gradually moved away from the deal, increasing its nuclear activity and influence in the region through proxies, allies and its ability to capitalize on chaos. triggered by the US invasion of Iraq.
Once again, Iran may be just weeks away from having enough uranium for a bomb. Once again, we are threatened with a difficult choice. The Los Angeles Times reports that some Pentagon sources believe tensions in the region are so severe that without a deal, “the choice becomes to watch Iran move closer to the ability to build a bomb, or to go to war for it. stop it “.
Opponents of talks with Iran know that “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran” is not a convincing slogan. So they came up with a more attractive solution: a better deal. They want to persuade the Americans to abandon a deal that works, like Aesop’s greedy dog with a bone in his mouth, who, seeing his reflection in the water, drops what he has to catch what he has. thinks to be a bigger bone.
Senator Hawkish Robert Menendez, DN.J., and Lindsey Graham, RS.C., last month led a group of 41 senators offering such a course. They pushed for a comprehensive deal “which prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons” but also “significantly limits its destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program” and frees detained US citizens in Iranian prisons while preventing “attacks on important US security measures. partners.”
All laudable goals. But doing it in one big deal is like hunting unicorns. Such an agreement is simply impossible. It is not just the mistake of making the best the enemy of the good. He cynically exploits the inherent optimism of the United States and the spirit of volunteerism to prevent reconciliation with a government they oppose.
In September 2013, I had dinner in New York with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and a small group of experts and opinion leaders just before the start of the first round of talks on the initial Iran nuclear deal. We pressed him on the idea of a big deal.
“The history between Iran and the United States is long and complicated,” he said. “The table will not bear the weight of all these issues at once. That is why we have decided to tackle the nuclear issue.” He saw the nuclear deal as a “gateway opportunity”. The Obama administration too.
Indeed, if we could solve this most critical problem, it could provide the basis for solving the others. Fortunately, this is the approach favored by the White House. “The Biden-Harris administration hopes to bring Iran back into compliance with the agreement. We would then be in compliance with the agreement,” Wendy Sherman, Biden’s candidate for deputy secretary of state, Told the Senate during its confirmation hearing. “We would go from there to get a longer, stronger deal … and then get to other areas of concern.”
This approach does not ignore other critical issues. It just gives them priority. All the other problems we have with Iran are much more difficult to resolve if Iran has nuclear weapons. While we care deeply about our regional allies, human rights in Iran, and American prisoners, we must prioritize threats against the United States itself. A nuclear Iran is an existential danger. The same goes for the nuclear arms race in the Middle East that Iran could unleash if Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others try to match its capabilities.
The Vienna talks may be our last chance to restore the deal. The clock is turning. Iran’s presidential elections slated for June will soon make it impossible for the current government to negotiate, as Rouhani’s diehard opponents do not want him and his more pragmatic political allies to be given credit for returning to the deal. . Some don’t want any deal. In this way, Iranian politics mirror that of the United States, with a fierce partisan politics that trumps national security interests.
While we care deeply about our regional allies, human rights in Iran, and American prisoners, we must prioritize threats to the United States itself. A nuclear Iran is an existential danger.
Talks to return to the nuclear deal will be difficult. Neither party wants to be seen as weak or giving in to the other. But the first signs are encouraging. The countries agreed on Tuesday to stay all week, establishing working groups to detail precisely how Iran and the United States would synchronize their return to compliance.
The key will be to move quickly. While Biden has a large and ambitious national agenda, it’s not an issue he can shelve and address in September. There are too many in the capitals and the Middle East who want to end the deal and too many conflicts that could erupt into full-scale war.
Biden can’t hunt unicorns. He must act deftly to resolve a foreign policy problem that could derail his presidency if it heads into a violent and unnecessary war.