Iran recently revealed that it began enriching uranium at the 20 percent level, taking its most provocative nuclear step since President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In reference to Iran’s now-decreasing breakout time for a nuclear weapon, Antony Blinken said in his confirmation hearing for secretary of state that we may be at a “crisis point that we were reaching before the deal was negotiated.” The news of Iran’s increased enrichment came a day after the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, where the weeks leading up to the day saw a ramp-up of U.S. military assets in the Gulf, including the deployment of B-52 bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a nuclear submarine.
While the landscape between Iran and the United States has changed dramatically over the last few months, the solution to Iran’s growing nuclear stockpile and increasing tensions in the region remains the same: a swift compliance-for-compliance return to the nuclear deal. The last thing the United States needs right now is a nuclear showdown, especially after the violent, white supremacist-led attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Reentering the deal would give the administration time in its early months to solve problems at home, all while boxing in Iran’s nuclear program and setting the stage for follow-on negotiations on other issues.
Trying their best to play spoilers, hardliners in both Iran and the United States have tried to undermine prospects of salvaging the deal. Conservatives in Iran’s parliament rose to power after campaigning against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to remain in the nuclear deal after Trump’s withdrawal. After taking the majority, parliamentarians wrote a bill in November 2020 that would compel Iran to take a variety of provocative nuclear steps.
The bill didn’t initially receive a vote but was fast-tracked following the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, one of Iran’s chief nuclear scientists. The killing further securitized the nuclear debate in Iran and enraged Iranians across the political spectrum, enabling the Guardian Council, which vets legislation to approve the bill at an unprecedented speed. The Rouhani administration waged a public battle against the bill since it reduced Rouhani’s flexibility with the United States and could allow parliament to take credit for potentially bringing the United States back into compliance with the nuclear deal. Rouhani eventually lost a procedural battle aimed at stalling the bill’s mandates, so his administration was forced to begin enriching uranium at 20 percent (well over the limit set by the JCPOA) and to potentially limit access to nuclear inspectors if sanctions are not lifted by February 21st.
Enriching uranium at the 20 percent level is a serious escalation, but it remains reversible and is not a major barrier to returning to full performance of Iran’s JCPOA commitments. After the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran either sold its 20 percent-enriched uranium on international markets, down-blended the excess, exported it to Russia or fabricated it into fuel for Iran’s research reactor. Iran can do the same thing with the 20 percent-enriched uranium it accumulates between now and when the two countries return to full performance of their commitments.
In the United States, two hawkish Senators, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, indicated in December that they were lobbying the Trump administration to submit the JCPOA as a treaty to stymie then-President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to resuscitate the deal. Cruz sent a letter to Trump stating that only by submitting the deal as a treaty can the Senate “provide advice and consent in the event any future administration attempts to revive these dangerous deals.” Similarly, Graham tweeted in the same week that he is working to “secure a vote” on the JCPOA to ensure the Senate can voice its opposition to Biden’s potential decision. Their efforts ultimately failed but both Senators remain major opponents of the JCPOA and, similar to their attempts at undermining the 2015 negotiations, will do their utmost to halt a U.S. return to the deal.
The Trump administration also built what it considered to be a sanctions web that it believed will be difficult for Biden and his team to unwind. Even though Biden will have near limitless authority in removing new sanctions imposed under the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his allies hoped that, for example, removing the terrorism designation of Iran’s financial sector will be a political liability. In reality, its removal would upset those already opposed to the JCPOA instead of the growing number of proponents.
Despite these pressures, both Rouhani and Biden have habitually reiterated their desire to return to compliance with the JCPOA. In an interview with The New York Times, when asked whether Biden stood by his previously stated desire to return back into compliance with the nuclear deal, he answered, “It’s going to be hard, but yeah.” His soon-to-be national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said more recently that returning to the deal is “feasible and achievable.”
Members of the House have rallied behind Biden’s position even though some of their colleagues in the Senate have attempted to lock Biden into a failed approach. In the House, 150 members sent a letter to President-elect Biden voicing their opposition to President Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure campaign’ and their support for “swiftly taking the necessary diplomatic steps to restore constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and return both Iran and the United States to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a starting point for further negotiations.”
Rouhani has time and time again stated his desire to return to the deal if the United States does the same. He said in a recent cabinet session on Jan. 11th that “if you fulfill your obligations [in the JCPOA] we will fulfill all our obligations as well.” More importantly, in his most explicit statement on the nuclear deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a recent speech that “of course, if [the U.S.] returns to their commitments, we will return to ours as well.” Even amid protests calling for revenge following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, Khamenei’s subtle endorsement displays growing institutional inertia behind a JCPOA return.
All these dynamics may not have closed the door on the JCPOA, but they have highlighted the urgency of enacting a swift, unencumbered return to compliance for both sides. With Iran’s presidential elections coming up in June 2021, and moderate factions severely undermined over the last two years, a new Iranian president may not be keen to salvage the deal. As time goes on, Iran’s nuclear stockpile will continue to grow and Biden will risk becoming locked into Trump’s failed approach that did not procure Iranian concessions on nuclear issues or a change in regional behavior.
President Biden should move quickly to signal his intent in a variety of ways. First, he should revoke National Security Policy Memorandum (NSPM) 11, which formally ceased U.S. participation in the JCPOA. He should also issue a statement confirming that he does not view the UN sanctions on Iran as “snapped back” – a view all of the other JCPOA participants already share. Finally, he should remove the Trump administration’s objection to the stalled $5 billion International Monetary Fund loan that Iran requested earlier this year to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Either or all these steps would send a quick signal to Tehran of Biden’s intent, greasing the wheels for a swift return to mutual compliance.
The efforts of hardliners in both Iran and the United States should be seen for what they are: attempts to undermine the JCPOA to achieve unreasonable demands or to take credit for its eventual benefits. With a pandemic raging and economies of both countries in tatters, and a failed insurrection having rocked Washington, both Iran and the United States cannot afford brinkmanship or delays in returning to the deal. While the JCPOA cannot resolve all of the flashpoints between the two adversaries, it would shelve the nuclear file for now and provide Iran with desperately needed sanctions relief. With the nuclear framework restored, Biden’s team can finally turn the page on Trump’s failed policy and pivot its diplomatic energy towards other pressing issues.