With the world’s eyes on Russia’s vicious war on Ukraine, American negotiators in Vienna have seized the opportunity to make dramatic concessions to the Islamic Republic of Iran in a last-ditch effort to resurrect the 2015 Obama administration Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran deal.
Negotiations to revive the Iran deal have been ongoing since April 2021, with reports over recent weeks that negotiators are close. Unsurprisingly, Iran has hewed to its usual negotiating tactics, with officials racing from Vienna back to Tehran to “check in” with their leadership, only to return with yet more demands for concessions. As a result, the deal that is almost (though not quite) done promises to be little more than a barrage of major concessions in return for the rump JCPOA that begins to expire next year and will fully expire in 2030.
The details of the discussions are elusive. First, the Biden administration has refused to share any documents with either Democrats or Republicans in Congress, so legislators are largely in the dark about the machinations going on in Austria’s capital. Second, the United States is not negotiating “directly” with Iran (though many believe such discussions are going on sub-rosa), but instead at a table with the five other parties to the original JCPOA—France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China. They then convey the U.S. position to the Iranians, who “respond” in kind. This has left Russia—yes, Russia— in the catbird seat, and administration officials have privately confessed that it is Moscow that is in charge of the entire show. Putin’s war in Ukraine has had no impact on the discussions, and insiders report that the issue has not arisen.
On the substance, Iran nerds will recall that the Biden administration, while admittedly eager for a resumption of the Iran deal, at first insisted that reentering the JCPOA would be merely a prelude to a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran that would address not only the deficiencies in the original deal, but add in the problem of Iran’s ever-more-lethal missile program, its support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and human rights issues inside Iran. This notion has apparently been set aside; and while Team Biden has not yet admitted that “longer and stronger” will not happen, that will be manifest when it becomes clear that Biden’s main negotiator, Rob Malley, has traded away not some but almost all of Washington’s leverage against the Tehran regime merely to reinstate the expiring JCPOA.
Like any such set of negotiations, the devil is in the details. On the JCPOA itself, the weaknesses are well-documented, and even deal godfather Barack Obama has admitted that as the years pass, Iran’s breakout time will have “shrunk almost down to zero.” While the original agreement, inked in 2015, purported to push back Iranian nuclear breakout to one year, Biden administration officials allow that a return will only push back breakout to six months.
Then there are the sunset clauses that caused so much angst, even among deal supporters who recognized that the passage of time would erode the JCPOA’s effect. Some provisions have already sunsetted, including a ban on conventional weapons sales (2020) and visa bans on key Iranian officials (2020). In 2023, missile-related sanctions and bans will end; in 2024, certain advanced centrifuge restrictions will begin to sunset; in 2025, previous U.N. Security Council nuclear related resolutions will lapse, as will the so-called “snapback” mechanism meant to disincentivize Iranian violations of the deal. The following six years will see the expiration of all remaining restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, including the mass deployment of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, plutonium reprocessing (another pathway to nuclear materiel for a weapon) and caps on enrichment levels and stockpiling. Or, to put it more bluntly, in less than a decade under the 2015 JCPOA, Iran will be able to have a completely unrestricted nuclear program capable of producing an arsenal of nuclear weapons within weeks; and the United States and other JCPOA signatories will be legally constrained from responding to Iranian nuclear activities with sanctions.
This was all known to the Biden administration, hence its emphasis on “longer and stronger.” Unfortunately, the president’s negotiators, in their desperation for any sort of a deal, have abandoned all hopes for more restrictive terms. Indeed, that desperation has caused surprising—almost shocking—defections from the negotiating team. In late January, Richard Nephew, the deputy special envoy for Iran, quit, taking two other negotiators with him. The Wall Street Journal reported that the defections resulted from serious disagreements over generous concessions being made to Tehran. (Nephew has since quit the State Department.)
For those who know Nephew as an uber-dove while negotiating the 2015 Iran talks, the resignation was deeply worrisome.
Another blow came in late February as restive Capitol Hill Democrats, displeased with the administration’s secretiveness and fearful of both being bypassed and of a terrible deal, came out of the closet. In a fiery floor speech, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez came close to ranting: “As someone who has followed Iran’s nuclear ambition for the better part of three decades, I am here today to raise concerns about the current round of negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and Iran’s dangerously and rapidly escalating nuclear program that has put it on the brink of having enough material for a nuclear weapon,” he said. “I ask why we would try to simply go back to the JCPOA, a deal that was not sufficient in the first place—and still doesn’t address some of the most serious national security concerns we have?”
Menendez’s outburst stemmed from two problems, the first an incessant drip drip of reported concessions to Tehran on sanctions relief, and the second the clear intent of the Biden administration to violate the terms of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Review Act, an act that reflected substantial bipartisan congressional dissatisfaction with the original JCPOA and required that any agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program—including amendments or follow-on agreements to the JCPOA—be submitted to Congress for review and approval. The White House has already signaled to Congress that whatever is inked in Vienna will not be “new,” and is therefore not subject to congressional review.
As the negotiations enter the endgame this week, that drip drip of leaks about the nature of U.S. sanctions relief to Tehran has become a flood. In what can only be described as an extraordinary twitter thread detailing exact concessions, former State Department Iran hand Gabriel Noronha listed the giveaways, including:
Rescinding Executive Order (E.O. 13876) that imposes sanctions on the supreme leader’s office (and more than 100 individuals responsible for nuclear weapons, support for terrorism, human rights violations, and the like).
Lifting sanctions on IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan and Mohsen Rezaei, who were respectively responsible for or involved in the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241 Americans and the 1994 Argentina AMIA Israeli community center bombing that killed 85 (ditto Ali Akbar Velayati, who was charged in Argentina).
Lifting sanctions on the supreme leader’s bonyads, or “charities,” that are slush funds for everything from corruption to murder at home and abroad.
Lifting sanctions on additional bonyads that finance the activities of the Basij, the paramilitary regime enforcement groups responsible for attacks and murders against students, foreigners, and any other perceived threats to the regime.
Lifting sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps).
Lifting sanctions on most Iranian banks, including the central bank of Iran, including sanctions imposed for reasons other than the nuclear program.
The list goes on at some additional length, but the breadth of the relief to Iran is almost incredible. What will be left of U.S. measures to deter Iranian adventurism in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Iraq and beyond, should this deal go ahead as described (and State Department and congressional staff confirm many of the details privately) will be almost negligible.
In 2015, a majority, but not the required two-thirds majority of Congress, opposed the JCPOA. It’s likely that Biden will be able to whip the necessary votes to ensure Congress cannot stymie his plans to do business with Iran. But mere days after a State of the Union in which the president railed against the evils of Vladimir Putin and extolled the unity of the West in standing up to his assaults on democracy, it is a painful irony that in concert with, one could almost say at the behest of, Putin’s foreign ministry, that same Joe Biden will rehabilitate the world’s most dangerous terrorist regime.