Updated: Jun 14, 2021
In July of 2015, the Obama administration reached a deal with Iran and five other countries to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons development in return for reduced economic sanctions. President Trump withdrew three years later. Now that another three years have passed, President Biden hopes to rejoin the agreement, but it is quite polarizing. Objectors fear that the deal is too mild and temporary, claiming that it will not succeed in checking Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They might be right; however, the Iran deal deserves celebration because it is a crucial diplomatic stepping stone on the way to a more sustainable solution.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Deal, sprung from two years’ deliberation between Iran and a group of countries called the P5+1. The participating members of the deal were the five UN Security Council permanent members -- the U.S., France, the UK, China, Russia -- and Germany. Essentially, they agreed to lift economic sanctions against Tehran, Iran’s capital, in return for decreased nuclear bomb research. Iran, for its part, signed on to a range of limitations: it had to cut its cache of enriched uranium by 98% and reduce production, and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspectors would be allowed to patrol Iran’s nuclear facilities to ensure it was abiding by the rules.
While the deal was in effect, it seemed to be functioning properly. Problems only arose when President Trump backed out. Opponents of the deal point to decades of enmity between the U.S. and Iran, including a U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979, to prove that Iran is untrustworthy. It is this very history that makes the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons so frightening. But despite turbulent past relations, Iran held up its end of the bargain for years. Every time the IAEA investigated, it found Iran to be below its enriched-uranium limits. Its cooperation began to deteriorate when President Trump imposed sanctions that were against the JCPOA’s rules. Believing that top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was plotting against the US, Trump launched an airstrike to kill him in early 2020, and Iran backpedaled completely. Its uranium levels now exceed twelve times their allowed amount. Indeed, it is closer to assembling nuclear weapons than ever before.
The Trump administration pulled out of the Iran deal because it wanted a harsher alternative, something that never came to fruition. President Trump imposed economic sanctions immediately thereafter, angering Iranian leaders and further straining relationships between the two countries. After Soleimani’s assassination, the threat of war seemed more imminent than it had under the deal. Wendy Sherman, Biden’s nominee for deputy Secretary of State, said that “Iran is not just being emboldened but is being left in some ways to take actions that say they will not be pushed back.” Trump has urged Iran toward, not deterred it from, violence. Although he intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons more than the JCPOA had, his sudden withdrawal had the opposite effect. Iran had still been a year away from acquiring nuclear weapons, but its increased uranium production in the past three years has accelerated the process. It’s now only a few months away.
Trump’s approach failed, but who’s to say the deal was succeeding? Critics worry that it is too temporary to make any meaningful difference, as its sunset clauses will expire after ten years. But Iran’s nuclear development was slower during the deal than it has been since the withdrawal, demonstrating at least some degree of effectiveness. Trying to make Iran agree to more permanent regulations would be fruitless and unproductively adversarial. What some view as leniency is simply compromise, without which non-violent interference is impossible. For example, people complain that the JCPOA permits Iran to enrich any uranium whatsoever, but it is only allowed to make enough for its energy needs. Iran would not agree to cap enriched uranium production at zero. The Iran deal isn’t lax; it’s just logical.
Iran’s nuclear development threatens Israel, in particular. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the aforementioned rationale to rally against the Iran deal. Human nature is to turn our backs on our enemies, and diplomacy with them seems traitorous and foolish. But Israel-supporters cannot let their Zionism cloud their judgment. What’s best for Israel is the Iran deal, and what’s best for the U.S. is what’s best for Israel. Compromise is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, a willingness to do anything to prevent violence. The JCPOA might not be perfect, but it’s the world’s best chance at setting Iran back, buying leaders time to come up with a long-term solution. It’s a bandaid, but without it, we have an exposed and gushing wound, and Iran will not hesitate to pour salt on it.