Sticks, Not Carrots

After more than two months of intense negotiations in Vienna, the odds are high that at some point this summer, the United States and Iran will agree to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). When they do, President Joe Biden will have a serious challenge on his hands. The backlash in Congress—from Republicans, for sure, but at least a few Democrats as well—will be fierce. So, too, will come near-universal opposition from America’s most important Middle East partners, especially Israel. Biden would be well-advised to try to mitigate the battle royale to come, and the damage it could inflict on his presidency, by finding ways to reassure JCPOA skeptics that he is committed to addressing their legitimate concerns. 

Though Biden and most of his top national security aides were directly involved in crafting the JCPOA, to their credit they now concede that the agreement had significant flaws that require correction. The shorthand they’ve developed to capture that insight is the need for a “longer, stronger, broader” deal. In other words, lengthen the timelines for lifting key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Toughen the inspection and verification regime for determining whether Iran has been engaged in illicit nuclear activities. And expand the deal’s scope to include Iran’s most worrying non-nuclear behaviors, in particular its missile and drone program, as well as its backing for terrorist proxies across the Middle East. 

So far, so good. On these broad objectives, there’s virtually no daylight between the administration and its critics. But where things break down is over how best to get to “longer, stronger, broader” and whether the JCPOA has any role to play in the process. 

Biden and his team have answered unequivocally: “Yes.” They believe that resurrecting the JCPOA is essential. They argue that former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 was a grievous error. Rather than compelling Iran to negotiate a better deal, they claim that it provided Iran an excuse to stop complying with the deal’s restrictions and expand its nuclear program in dangerous ways—accumulating more and more enriched uranium, at higher and higher levels of purity, using increasingly powerful centrifuges. As a result, rather than being at least a year away from producing the fissile material for a nuclear weapon—as was the case under the JCPOA—Iran today may be as little as two to three months from a possible nuclear breakout, with the timeline steadily shrinking. 

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