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The Iran Nuclear Deal: Dead or Reborn?

Source: Flickr

Cameron Smith

The Biden administration’s intention to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal is proving to be among the first significant foreign policy tests for the new leadership. This has been described as a “critical early priority” to prevent “an escalating nuclear crisis” by the administration. As long simmering issues around Iranian nuclear ambitions continue to exacerbate regional tension, it is clear that something must be done. But what?

The JCPOA: past and present

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was struck by the Obama administration with Iran alongside the P5+1 in 2015 and is viewed as one of the signature foreign policy achievements of the Obama era. The JCPOA placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. To ensure verification, Iran also agreed to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unfettered access to all its nuclear facilities. Many experts agreed that, if all parties adhered to their pledges, the deal could almost certainly have prevented Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons for longer than a decade and aided regional stability.

The agreement was effective in the beginning, with Iran meeting its preliminary pledges and the US easing nuclear-related sanctions. Despite this, in 2018 the Trump administration withdrew from the accord and imposed many devastating economic sanctions on Iran. This is what Trump called a “maximum pressure” strategy in order to bring Iran to the table for an improved deal. As a result, the US-Iran relationship rapidly deteriorated. Biden, during the 2019/20 Democratic primaries, labelled Trump’s Iran strategy a “self-inflicted disaster” and pledged to rejoin the agreement if Iran returned to compliance.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has been preoccupied with COVID-19. However, Iran is angling for advantage on Biden’s priority list. Tehran has started enriching Uranium to 20 per cent, in a new breach of the JCPOA. US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, states that it could be “only a matter of weeks’’ before the regime has enough fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon. As of February 21, Iran also stopped intensive and unannounced IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. However, Iran recently agreed to allow “necessary” monitoring activities to continue for up to three months.

Collectively, this has led to a growing urgency for the Biden administration to restore the deal. Recent developments have shown that there are indicators that a return to the deal might be possible. The US has said it is willing to hold talks with Iran, alongside the P5+1, to discuss a way forward on Iran’s nuclear program. While Iran did not accept the offer, Jake Sullivan, the White House National Security Adviser, has said that the “ball is in their court”.

The likelihood for a deal

Most experts agree that there are significant obstacles to a return to the JCPOA. Both the US and Iran have conflicting visions on how to proceed. Biden has publicly said that the US will not lift economic sanctions until Iran complies with the terms agreed under the JCPOA. In contrast, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said Tehran would only return to compliance if the US first lifts all economic sanctions.

The Biden administration also currently faces several competing priorities and pushback from Republicans, the pro-Israel lobby and vocal opposition groups, which makes a return to the nuclear agreement politically tricky. The most significant opposition, however, comes from US allies in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia, in particular, believe that the JCPOA accomplished too little to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and gave Tehran a free hand in the region. They could make the deal not only more difficult politically, but their opposition could endanger the sustainability of the deal. Israel has already displayed a willingness to decisively prevent Iran from acquiring further nuclear capabilities, recently being accused of the assassination of one of Iran’s most prominent nuclear scientists. Israel’s Chief of General Staff has also warned that the Israeli military is drawing up its own plans to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The apparent willingness of Israel to act unilaterally on this matter is another complication that will need to be addressed.

The situation for Iranian leadership is also complex. The economy is still grappling with the US-imposed sanctions and COVID-19. Politically the outlook of whether to build a nuclear weapon appears to be shifting, with prominent hardliners in conservative circles calling publicly for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. This is a notable shift in thinking in the Iranian leadership. Until recently, openly supporting a nuclear weapons policy was considered taboo and public figures would not stray from the official line. However, prominent Iranian analysts, political figures and media personalities are also now publicly calling for a nuclear weapon, calling it a “nuclear weapons as deterrent’’ which has its own hashtag on twitter. Further, a recent remark by Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, contending that Tehran could be forced to seek nuclear arms to fight back like a “cornered cat” has sparked concern in US defence circles.

The most significant complication in Iran, however, is the Iranian election scheduled for June 2021. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who helped to negotiate the nuclear deal, is in the final six months of his final term, with hardliners expected to be in a strong position for victory in the next election. For the Biden administration, this presents something of a conundrum as they may be reluctant to re-engage with Iran until the country's future leadership and policy agenda has crystallised. At the same time, some analysts argue the US’ return to the agreement could have an impact on the elections, giving a much needed boost to more moderate forces. This could affect the direction of Iran’s next administration in a positive direction for US interests.

If a deal is to be made, time is critical. The US has made the case that it will not return to the deal until Iran is compliant. In the short term, an interim agreement could possibly take shape, but several obstacles remain. Nonetheless, both sides have displayed a cautious willingness to reach a compromise before the situation spirals out of control.

Nuclear proliferation

One of the most critical foreign policy hurdles that the Biden administration will face is the prevention of nuclear proliferation in two regions: the Middle East and East Asia. If Iran were to obtain ‘the bomb’, nuclear proliferation in the region would almost be inevitable.

Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, made clear that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, Riyadh would quickly “follow suit”. Many analysts believe that if Saudi Arabia acquires nuclear weapons, Turkey would follow with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declaring that he “cannot accept” the argument that Turkey should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Other powers in the region, such as Egypt, may also be enticed into this trend.

From the US’ standpoint, this situation would be of great concern and undermine their various interests throughout the region. Similarly, the US is also faced with the threat of a nuclear proliferation cascade in East Asia, after North Korea rapidly developed both the weapon and delivery capability. Preventing nuclear proliferation in both of these areas will be important objectives of the Biden administration.

One thing is certain: nuclear politics is back into focus within US security concerns.


Cameron Smith is a recent Bachelor of Arts History (Hons) and International Relations graduate from the University of Wollongong. His interests include US global affairs, international security and Australian foreign policy.