With the transition of administrations and the insurrection on the Capitol last week, a distracted United States offers the perfect opening to enemies eager to use our internecine fights as an opportunity to expand their ambitions. Iran, out of the spotlight in recent months due to the pandemic and international political news, has reappeared, signaling to the incoming Biden administration that they shall not be forgotten by announcing their plan to enrich uranium to 20 percent by adding additional advanced centrifuges. Civilian nuclear energy only requires 15 percent enrichment. Any additional enrichment would serve only as a path toward the 90 percent needed for nuclear weapons.

It is unacceptable for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. But how to stop them? Some argue that weakening our economic sanctions regime in exchange for stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a fool’s errand, but that may be the only option, aside from a ground war, that will prevent a nuclear Iran. We must resolve to block this from happening by immediately rejoining The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and holding Iran to the agreements set in place five years ago.

Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons goes back to the 1950s, when the U.S. Atoms for Peace program was developed to share nuclear materials and technology for peaceful purposes with other countries, including Iran. The program required countries to agree to inspections of the transferred technology and ensure that it was used to promote sustainable clean energy. Although the program ended abruptly after India’s first nuclear test, Iran continued its interest in nuclear technology and eventually developed an extensive nuclear fuel cycle. The enrichment capabilities became the subject of intense international negotiations and sanctions between 2002 and 2015. On July 14, 2015, an alarmed China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States (collectively known as the P5+1) attempted to prevent expanding the nuclear club by putting in place the JCPOA. This 159-page, five annex, nuclear agreement reached with Iran was adopted on July 20, 2015 after being endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

Due to national security concerns, on May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the JCPOA. Since the United States’ withdrawal, Iran has broken multiple commitments. In 2019, Iran began lifting the limits on its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water in violation of the agreement’s limitations. By alleging to provide fuel for the Bushehr power plant, they then enriched its uranium past the 3.67 percent limit to 4.5 percent concentration and installed more advanced centrifuges. They also resumed enrichment at Fordo, again bringing more centrifuges in operation. Iran indicated that they would allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring to continue and would reverse course if the United States re-entered the agreement.

The Iranian parliament recently passed a law giving the United States until February 21 to reenter the agreement. Otherwise, the Iranian government will prevent IAEA inspectors from inspecting production. While we do not accept Iranian threats of demands, we must make policy in the best interests of the United States, which in this scenario is in line with Iranian interests: we must rejoin JCPOA.

Opponents of re-entry contend that it would destroy any potential leverage through maximum pressure sanctions for a better deal. Further, they worry that easing sanctions would allow funding to flow back to Iran that could then be used for conventional arms or to fund the revolutionary guard, a group recently designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. Finally, opponents contend that re-entry would send a signal around the world that the United States will always allow nations violating agreements to re-enter them without penalty.

Although these arguments have some merit, they ignore the reality of what is possible. Iran is a sovereign nation in an anarchic world—the United States has only so much influence and leverage on their actions. We have tried, and failed, with sanctions. Even with the Iranian economy in free fall due to a combination of the sanctions and the pandemic, they are not willing to switch course, showing that Iran has a much higher threshold for pain than the Trump administration anticipated. If sanctions were a deterrent, we would expect to see a less belligerent Iran but have instead only seen more violations of the JCPOA with the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement.

Easing sanctions could lead to the use of funds for unseemly purposes but this is always a reality of dealing with unseemly countries. Further, the United States could potentially re-enter the JCPOA with some clear limitations on the use of funds in order to ensure that they are not given to their worst uses, and the United States should maintain vigilance in the region to ensure other countries do not take re-engagement with Iran as an excuse to arm.

Re-entry will also not necessarily signal to the global community that the United States will not retaliate when agreements are broken. The United States has already retaliated against Iran through maximum pressure sanctions that have crippled its economy. In an ideal world, the United States could broker a better deal to ensure that Iran never creates a nuclear weapon, and with JCPOA in place, perhaps other options may be on the table, including renegotiation of the agreement. Many of the JCPOA’s provisions have sunset dates that will require renegotiation to extend regardless.

Continuing without JCPOA assumes that Iran will crumble under the weight of sanctions before it musters enough enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon. Are we willing to take that risk?

Image credit:  saeediex

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