Much has changed since the enactment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Developments in recent years have reduced nuclear warheads to just one part of a larger, deadlier arsenal Iran is honing. (This is described in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment.) Consequently, it will not be enough to resurrect the JCPOA. An enhanced deal must be negotiated. The incoming Biden administration should not rush this process, even though hardliners are poised to take control of Iran in a few months.
Iranian and American stances
Iran will hold presidential elections in June 2021, and incumbent President Hassan Rouhani cannot run due to term limits. A recent amendment of electoral law put the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s intelligence wing in charge of background checks on potential contenders. As a result of this selective process, anti-American, pro-nuclear, regionally expansionist candidates have gained a major edge, and they include five former and current military commanders.
Systematic sabotage of facilities and elimination of scientists and commanders by the United States and Israel have triggered pushback. Iran’s parliamentarians voted to raise uranium enrichment to 20%. Iran’s public overwhelmingly rejects acceding to agreements that would limit military enhancements. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clearly stated his opposition to any new deals: “We tried negotiations to no result; we can nullify sanctions.”
Nonetheless, realizing that Iran cannot progress while it is under U.S. sanctions, and also hoping to restore the legacy they staked on negotiations with the Obama administration, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif profess willingness to resume nuclear limits. They have, however, set a prerequisite of “[the U.S.] returning to the JCPOA and unconditionally abiding by all of its terms.”
Rouhani and Zarif have a willing partner in U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. Biden was vice president when crippling sanctions began to be imposed in 2009 and when the JCPOA was signed in 2015. Now he expresses an eagerness to return to the JCPOA, which President Donald Trump walked away from in 2018. Biden’s goal is “to change course … If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement.”
Readopting a deal that is no longer viable will not set a course toward good policy, let alone solve the destabilizing impact of Iran’s wide-ranging weapons programs. Any deal with Iran, including a reinstated JCPOA, will need ratification by the U.S. Senate to endure over the long haul. Any agreement made in haste, and failing to encompass all of the threats Iran poses to the region, would fail under opposition from Congress, Israel, and the Gulf Arab kingdoms.
To achieve lasting Iranian disarmament and buy-in from a broad range of American policymakers and from America’s foreign allies, Biden and his team need to reach a number of thresholds.
Any deal must plug exemptions that could be useful for progress toward nuclear weapons. Loopholes to raw-material quantities, uranium and plutonium enrichment levels, and warhead detonation mechanisms that make the JCPOA less than effective must be closed. Iranian fusion research must also end. Tehran inaugurated a nuclear fusion program in 2010 and has declared domestic capability to reach its goals. Hydrogen bomb capability cannot be permitted if the goal of denuclearizing Iran is to be achieved.
Chemical weapons development must cease. Iran needs to declare its existing chemical weapons capability, halt further development, and return to full compliance with global norms.
Negotiators must end transfers of nuclear and chemical WMD technologies. Iranian officials speak of exporting enriched uranium and heavy water. Sales could seed other WMD programs — by rogue states and non-state actors — thereby endangering the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and global stability.
The same is true for missile development. Iran has built up the Middle East’s largest inventory of ballistic missiles. These are capable of targeting U.S. bases, Saudi oilfields, and Israeli cities with conventional warheads. Such missiles would be highly efficient for nuclear and chemical WMD strikes as well, so they create a broad threat.
Any acceptable deal must also end the military dimensions of Iran’s space program. Iran’s progress on launchers provides the means and signals the motivation to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles for the delivery of WMD. Iranian orbital vehicles could also be used to disrupt global communications and surveillance satellites, in addition to neutralizing ground targets in other nations.
It is also necessary to curb precision munitions. Iran’s cruise missiles and weaponized drones are already striking directly and through proxies — take as an example last year’s attacks against Saudi oil facilities. These precision systems could eventually be modified to carry tactical nuclear and chemical weapons, in addition to conventional ones.
Finally, any deal needs to set distant end dates. The JCPOA halts Iran’s nuclear developments only until 2031. Nuclear, chemical, and conventional weapons restrictions should be reset at least to several decades into the future.
Other problems remain outstanding as well. The 2020 U.S. Homeland Threat Assessment lists Iranian cyber-attack and online-influence operations as a growing menace to the socioeconomic stability of nations worldwide. The IRGC’s provisioning for terrorist organizations across the Middle East and its backing of unpopular regimes from Syria to Venezuela comprise a destabilizing attempt at hegemony by Tehran’s leaders. Yet these geopolitical issues may need to be laid aside until the munitions development ones are resolved.
Results will take time
Iran will not be willing to curb capabilities while it suspects Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are developing parallel ones. The Biden administration will need to convince Tehran’s leaders they will not be attacked from outside after agreeing to give up martial safeguards.
The end goal likely will not be achieved with a single grand bargain, which has proved elusive with Iran just as it did with other American rivals such as the Soviet Union. Rather, several interconnected accords can fulfill the same purpose, building upon each other while adapting to technological and political changes in Iran, the United States, and the Middle East.
Rouhani emphasized his government’s openness to a stepped approach at a Cabinet meeting in late November: “Iran and the United States can both decide and announce that they will return to the terms and then we can continue taking the next steps on different issues.” Models exist for compartmentalized negotiations, such as deals the United States wrought with the Soviet Union and Russia. Indeed Moscow’s leadership, upon which Iran relies for support and protection, also recommends: “It is not prudent to mix up the nuclear dossier and other issues.”
So once he takes office, Biden should focus on the opportunity that the JCPOA’s collapse presents, irrespective of who wields power in Tehran or what threats are made by Iran’s leaders. Biden needs to include and convince other members of the P5+1 while pushing for a range of weapons limits. Comprehensive cutbacks by Iran should be instituted in exchange for sanctions relief, global reincorporation, and a guarantee that no future unwarranted nullification of agreements will occur. This path will take time and may require several deals, but it would prove more beneficial and enduring than simply recommitting to the JCPOA, or signing Tehran’s opening offer because Washington worries that no better ones can be reached.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University and was a member of the U.S. National Council on the Humanities from 2008-2019. Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University. The views expressed are the authors' own.