The Iran Nuclear Deal Isn’t Dead

Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

In one of the most cherished scenes of that 1980s classic, The Princess Bride, Billy Crystal’s “Miracle Max” scolds Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya for prematurely declaring that the “Man in Black” is dead.  

“It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead,” Miracle Max explains. “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” 

Such appears to be the case with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In early November, a video caught President Joe Biden telling someone at a campaign rope line that the JCPOA was dead. Administration officials spent months leading journalists to the same conclusion, claiming their focus was on holding Tehran accountable for supplying Russia with armed drones to terrorize Ukraine and for its brutal repression of Iranian women. 

But it turns out that the JCPOA is only mostly dead—with Biden’s State Department doing all it can to keep it partly alive. Last Friday night, the administration officially notified Congress that it would renew a six-month suspension of U.S. sanctions targeting Russian, Chinese, and other foreign support to Iran’s nuclear program. Suspending those sanctions is a key requirement of the JCPOA. The message: Biden is ready to restore a nuclear deal as soon as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says yes—even if that deal benefits Russia and China while helping them deepen their strategic relationship with Iran. 

The fundamental failing of the 2015 agreement was its legitimization of Iran’s illicitly built nuclear infrastructure and capabilities without first requiring a complete and verifiable accounting of the regime’s past work on nuclear weapons. Thus Iran was able to keep its Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment facilities and continue low-level enrichment on Iranian soil without even admitting it had violated its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). These concessions allowed Iran to keep its pathways to nuclear weapons intact, advance its technical knowhow through research and development, and preserve its option to restart higher-level enrichment at any time. 

Take, for example, the Fordow facility near the Iranian city of Qom,  which Iran had kept secret until exposed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in 2009. A peaceful civil nuclear energy program does not require secret domestic enrichment since nuclear fuel for reactors can be imported with proper nonproliferation safeguards in place. All the more so, an enrichment facility buried underneath a mountain can have only one objective in mind. Iran temporarily halted enrichment at Fordow under the JCPOA. But rather than require the facility’s irreversible dismantling, the deal allowed Iran to keep more than 1,000 centrifuges at the site, and invited Russia to partner on radioisotope production. TVEL Fuel Company, a subsidiary of Russia’s Rosatom state nuclear power company, oversaw the project.

Russia halted its work at Fordow after Iran resumed uranium enrichment in late 2019—a response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign—and the U.S. threatened sanctions against TVEL. The Biden administration’s decision to issue a sanctions waiver covering this work, therefore, is a symbolic declaration that the U.S. stands ready to resume the old deal —apparently ignoring the lesson learned these past three years that Iran can threaten the world at any moment with enrichment at Fordow unless and until the facility is destroyed. 

The same can be said for other nuclear projects covered by Biden’s sanctions waiver. The JCPOA allowed Iran to enrich uranium at low levels at its Natanz enrichment plant on the condition it would send excess material to Russia in exchange for a Russian supply of natural uranium. Iran, of course, no longer swaps out its excess, instead amassing enough enriched uranium to make  four or five nuclear bombs—including uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, just a stone’s throw away from weapons grade. The Biden administration’s decision to issue a waiver for this JCPOA-authorized activity signals a willingness to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium on its own soil under a future nuclear agreement—with Russia making money and taking charge of Iran’s stockpile in the process—despite a near-guarantee that Iran would use the ever-present threat of expanded enrichment to extort the United States in the future. 

Russia benefits from other waivers, too, including authorization to provide Iran with small quantities of highly enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor and continued support to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. The administration made clear that its waiver no longer extended to Russian construction of two additional nuclear plants in Bushehr—but questions remain whether such work would eventually be allowed in a future deal. 

One final part of the waiver covers Chinese efforts to help Iran modernize the Arak heavy water reactor—ostensibly to mitigate the threat of Iran pursuing a plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons. Here again, the JCPOA failed to require the irreversible destruction of the reactor and Iran kept its options open by slow-walking the modernization. Despite one top Iranian official boasting that the regime hid critical reactor components from nuclear negotiators and stands ready to move forward with a plutonium-producing reactor at a moment of its choosing, the Biden administration appears willing to continue the farce—even if it comes with expanded Chinese-Iranian nuclear cooperation. 

None of this should come as a surprise to close observers. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley reportedly met three times in recent weeks with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Qatar’s foreign minister declared he was carrying secret messages from the United States during a recent visit to Iran.  

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell discussed a nuclear deal with Iran’s foreign minister in Amman late last year—and reaffirmed his commitment to a deal just this week. JCPOA supporters in Washington are quietly plotting a legislative strategy to give the Biden administration political cover to pursue a deal amid protests inside Iran and Tehran’s complicity in Russian war crimes. Borrell and the British Foreign Office are pushing back on proposals in Brussels and London to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization despite ongoing plots to kill Iranian dissidents on European soil.

The United States, the United Kingdom, France, or Germany could kill off the JCPOA for good at any moment by simply sending a letter to the Security Council requesting a snapback of U.N. sanctions on Iran. Yet they quite intentionally choose not to do so. They also choose not to formally declare Iran in noncompliance with the NPT at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) despite Iran’s refusal to cooperate with a four-year-long investigation into undeclared nuclear sites and materials. Even the head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, this week said that he wants to go to Iran to help facilitate a nuclear agreement.

So while the conventional wisdom in Washington today remains that the JCPOA is dead, no one should be going through its clothes looking for loose change. The Biden administration’s renewed endorsement of the deal’s strategic underpinnings means the deal is still partly alive. 

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