Not all problems in international affairs have solutions that the parties involved are willing to pursue in the time and manner necessary for success. The Iranian nuclear challenge did have a solution, namely the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was agreed in 2015. It wasn’t perfect, but it stabilized things by keeping Iran well short of acquiring nuclear weapons. In May 2018, then president Donald Trump and the individuals and organizations that abetted him ruined it. Now Iran and its neighbors, along with the United States and other major powers, are heading back into nuclear crisis with little hope for a stable outcome.
To see why the crisis appears politically impossible to resolve, consider the perspectives of the three antagonists.
Iran agreed to the JCPOA after twelve years of on-again-off-again negotiations at various times with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); with the European Union-3—namely France, Germany, and the United Kingdom; and with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. According to the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence community, Iran was complying with the terms of the deal. It was limiting its enrichment-related activities, closing required facilities, converting a research reactor, and more. The rest of the world was removing sanctions that were specified, though businesses remained reluctant to invest in or trade with Iran for reasons having to do with political and economic conditions within Iran and fear of future U.S.-imposed sanctions.
By the time Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, Iranian leaders and citizens felt that the hoped-for benefits of the JCPOA were not being delivered. The subsequent imposition of many additional sanctions by Washington cost the Iranian economy $1 trillion, according to then foreign minister Javad Zarif in February 2021. Thus, when Iranian leaders think about recomplying with the JCPOA or any additional constraints on their nuclear program, they demand to be compensated for the losses suffered due to the United States’ breaking the deal. They also demand (but know they cannot receive) guarantees that the United States won’t renege again.
From the standpoint of basic fairness and political psychology, it’s difficult to argue against the Iranian position.
The second set of antagonists in this drama includes the United States, France, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, as well as the Israeli government, plus other neighbors of Iran. This group in varying degrees acknowledges that the United States broke the agreement and then says, essentially, “That can’t be undone, let’s focus on the problem at hand.”
To them, the problem now is that Iran has enriched uranium well beyond the limits of the JCPOA—in percentage of highly-enriched uranium, in the number and quality of centrifuges used, and in the stockpile that has accumulated. It has also not cooperated with the IAEA in many ways, contrary to the JCPOA. Beyond the accumulation of physical capabilities and material, Iranian personnel have also gained invaluable know-how.
Thus, these antagonists doubt that a “mere” return to the JCPOA would be sufficient to meet the fundamental aim of keeping Iran a year away from acquiring nuclear weapons, if it decided to do so. They want Iran to accept more or longer-lasting restraints than were in the JCPOA. From the standpoint of physical capabilities and preventing nuclear proliferation, it’s difficult to argue against this position.
The third group of antagonists includes large factions in Washington, D.C., guided by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, if not other neighbors of Iran. They want the collapse of the Iranian regime—or at least relentless maximum economic, political and clandestine physical pressure on the government and key figures in its nuclear, missile, and power-projection agencies. To them, a nuclear agreement that relieves pressure on Iran without broader positive changes in Iran’s regional behavior is undesirable. This group influences a large fraction of the U.S. Congress in ways that would impose significant political costs on President Joe Biden if he agreed to a nuclear arrangement of the sort that Iran would require.
If the perspectives described above are even close to being accurate, it is difficult to see how the Iranian leadership and the Biden administration will have the political courage or ability to provide each other enough of what they need to resolve the current crisis. Iran “needs” more than it received from the original JCPOA, but the administration feels politically unable to give more. Indeed, it cannot guarantee Iran that a new administration in three years’ time would not break an arrangement and reimpose wide-ranging sanctions. The United Stated and others “need” more than Iran gave in the JCPOA, but Iranian leaders feel that they would look like fools because there’s no reason to think they would get more in return.
What makes this situation possibly tragic is that Iran’s leaders have not decided that they actually want to make nuclear weapons, as William Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, affirmed on December 6. But, if Iran cannot gain at least a large share of the economic redress it feels is fair, and responds by continuing to ratchet up its nuclear capabilities, the logic of maximum pressure will continue to guide the United States and, through secondary sanctions, others. Iran will then further increase its capabilities in a ratcheting spiral that could have three basic outcomes.
One is that Iranian leaders would decide finally to manufacture nuclear weapons. They could determine that they need the leverage of nuclear weapons to compel others to reduce pressure on it. Most likely this effort would be detected by Israel or the United States, or both. One cannot know what would happen next, but it’s reasonable to think that Iran would be attacked on a scale and intensity that it has not experienced since the war with Iraq during the 1980s. Such a war would have unpredictable effects not only on Iran, Israel, and the United States, but also on Iran’s Arab neighbors. Nor would acquisition of nuclear weapons end international sanctions.
A second outcome could be that Iranian leaders decide that they don’t gain useable military, economic, or political benefits from the nuclear material and capabilities they are acquiring, therefore they should do what’s most likely to create a sustained process of sanctions relief and stabilization of external relations. In other words, Iran concedes and agrees to a JCPOA-plus, in return for promises of immediate major sanctions relief. Given the dynamics affecting U.S. demands and the apparent psychology of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the new government, it’s difficult to imagine that Iran’s leaders will be willing to gamble on this approach.
A third outcome—which seems most likely because it requires less courage and risk-taking from one or more of the antagonists—is that they all continue to behave as they have for the past few years (and from 2002–2009). The United States and its partners will keep offering Iran less than Iranian leaders think is fair for the restraints demanded of it. Iran will keep increasing its nuclear and other activities in alarming ways. The situation overall will remain highly unstable, often on the verge of crisis or war.
It is tempting to think that, surely, the United States government or the major European powers will not just let this situation tick like a time-bomb. Someone will step up and take action that leads to a solution. Such optimism does not seem warranted, however.
Consider North Korea. That country has steadily advanced its nuclear capabilities over the past 30 years as six U.S. administrations and many allied governments and the United Nations have tried to negotiate, or mostly sanction it to “denuclearize.” The country continues to build and test more dangerous missiles and acquire more bomb material, but the United States, Japan, and South Korea have not changed their “denuclearization” approach to it in any way that would significantly and durably reverse negative trends. North Korea has increased its capacity to deter offensive military efforts to destroy its regime, but it cannot remove extensive sanctions that keep its people poor and backward. South Korea, Japan, and others continue to live under the shadow of a nuclear attack from a government whose behavior is hard to predict.
Consider the Palestinians’ plight and the so-called peace process. Or Kashmir and India and Pakistan. There are other examples, too, of major international challenges that could erupt into war, even nuclear war, that the governments most involved in them are politically unwilling or unable to resolve. Compromise and accommodation seem more dangerous or unacceptable than the continuation of volatile competition.
And so it is with Iran and its nuclear program. Until there is a war, and maybe even after that, Americans don’t suffer noticeably from sanctions on Iran; Iranians do. If some are innocent, that’s their government’s fault for continuing to cling to a useless nuclear program. “We will be okay,” political figures seem to think. This way of seeing things may become increasingly pervasive in the United States until a new ideology and leadership emerge in the Republican Party that would allow the national and international compromises necessary for bipartisan diplomacy to succeed.