February 4, 2022 | Newsweek

Biden Must Learn From the JCPOA’s Mistakes

February 4, 2022 | Newsweek

Biden Must Learn From the JCPOA’s Mistakes

The parties to the Vienna talks on Iran’s nuclear program have returned to their capitals and are expected to reconvene soon for a final round. There are signs that the next round could see an announced return to an even more flawed version of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Congress is not sitting on its hands. On Tuesday, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to the Senate floor to condemn the 2015 deal and the Biden administration’s rush to return to it. He argued that the deal allows the clerical regime to continue building its nuclear capacity: “This is exactly why I was so concerned over the JCPOA framework of leaving the vast majority of Iran’s nuclear program intact.”

Chairman Menendez is correct. The 2015 JCPOA not only kept much of Iran’s nuclear program intact; it permitted the program to expand. The deal offered Tehran a pathway to nuclear weapons as enrichment restrictions sunset, and allowed it to build industrial-size enrichment capabilities with near-zero nuclear breakout time and an easier clandestine sneak-out option. It gave Iran the immediate right to work on R&D for advanced centrifuges, which are more powerful and therefore easier to hide because fewer are needed to produce weapons-grade uranium. The Islamic Republic also had more latitude to develop ballistic missiles, as well as access to heavy weaponry, as the UN conventional arms and missiles embargoes were scheduled to lapse in five to eight years. All of this in return for the lifting of sanctions to allow tens of billions to flow into the coffers of the mullahs.

Now, six years later, the conventional arms embargo is already gone; the missile embargo will sunset next year; key restrictions on the installation of advanced centrifuges begin disappearing in 2024; and most enrichment restrictions, including the ban on weapons-grade uranium enrichment, will be gone by 2031. In the meantime, Tehran has massively expanded its nuclear capabilities. Much of that escalation occurred after the election of Joe Biden and the abandonment of his predecessor’s maximum pressure campaign.

What’s equally concerning is that the 2015 agreement has no mechanism to force the Iranians to renegotiate and reach the “longer and stronger” deal that the Biden administration now acknowledges must come before Tehran is a turn of the screw away from developing nuclear weapons. In 2025, the snapback mechanism that gives the U.S. or other parties to the deal the unilateral right to restore UN sanctions on Iran will expire. Gone will be any multilateral leverage, as China and Russia are unlikely to agree to reimpose sanctions.

Washington cannot be satisfied with an agreement based solely on “compliance for compliance.” It must be made explicit, whether in the agreement or outside it, what will happen if Tehran does not agree to a new deal that permanently blocks all pathways to nuclear weapons (“longer”). U.S. negotiators have to addresses the deal’s many flaws relating to inspections, military weaponization, missile development, support for terrorism and other malign Iranian activities (“stronger”).

The U.S. team also cannot prematurely close the International Atomic Energy Agency’s open investigations into undisclosed nuclear materials and activities. Iran has blocked the agency’s weapons inspectors in at least four sites. The U.S. should be satisfied with nothing less than a full resolution of all outstanding questions related to the military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. There can be no “unprecedented verification and monitoring regime,” of the kind Obama administration promised back in 2015, without addressing this critical element of the Iranian program.

While American diplomats have been offering proposals in Vienna, the clerical regime has responded with increased attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and against U.S. allies. Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists—who the Biden administration removed from the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list in February to appease Tehran—have replied to this unilateral American concession by attacking the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones. One attack on the UAE used long-range missiles traveling more than 1,000 km and carrying around 500 kilograms of conventional warheads. It was the first such attack in decades of this range and potency. And it’s a clear violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement between three dozen countries to control the proliferation of missiles. While Tehran is not a part of this agreement, its flagrant violation cannot go unanswered. Returning to the JCPOA without a clear way forward on how to constrain Iran’s deadly missile program—the delivery vehicle for a nuclear weapon—would pose a direct threat to American allies and, when Iran finishes an intercontinental ballistic missile, to the American homeland.

Returning to an even worse version of the 2015 deal legitimizes all of Iran’s nuclear advances, permits it to retain and expand its nuclear and missile capabilities and enables it to build a deadly conventional military. This “JCPOA minus” will leave Tehran less than six months from nuclear breakout with this time limit dropping sharply in a few years. The JCPOA, at least temporarily, kept breakout time to one year. Fueling all this will be tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief that will fortify Iran’s economy, strengthen the regime and expand support for its terrorist proxies.

If the Biden administration does return to the 2015 agreement, it will need a “day after” package that imposes clear and painful costs on Tehran if it doesn’t move quickly to negotiations on a longer and stronger deal. That package should address the imminently expiring UN snapback that is essential for negotiating leverage. There will also be no new deal of any length or strength without serious pressure and a credible threat of military force.

Playing for time is not a strategy when time benefits your enemy. And, as Chairman Menendez made clear in his remarks on the Senate floor, hope is not a strategy either.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty. He previously served as acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as head of the National Security Council. Mark Dubowitz is FDD’s chief executive. An expert on Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions, he was sanctioned by Iran in 2019. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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