Why Biden Will Try to Rejoin the Iran Deal—and Why He Shouldn’t

There are two Irans. The first is the real Islamic Republic—a regime that since its birth has sought to export its revolution, achieve regional hegemony, and bend the world to its will. The other is the Iran of imagination. This Iran’s existence rests on a few kernels of truth—the regime is unpopular, no firm decision has been made to develop and deploy nuclear weapons—and another set of assumptions that are little more than fantasy, the projections of naïve policymakers persuaded of their conceits. The Iran fantasists will return to power in Washington, D.C., on January 20. Consider their reasoning.

The return to the deal.
In an interview a little more than a week ago, Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan explained “President-elect Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal, that is to say it reduces its stockpile, it takes down some of its centrifuges and other measures so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in. But that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation.” Well, okay. But Iran is now deep in violation of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran deal), including enriching uranium above levels permitted, installing centrifuge cascades, and refusing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Then there’s the fact that the leadership of the Islamic Republic has said they’re not going to adhere to the letter of the JCPOA just like that. Instead, they’ve demanded cash and reparations. Who will stare whom down? 

Real Iran is not coming back into the deal, even for a bunch of cash. Real Iran wants more than that, and as to the question of who has more stamina—Team Biden or Team Ayatollah, the answer should be clear. Some inside the proto-Biden administration believe Iran is upping the ante in order to improve its negotiating position as Biden enters office. That is correct, but it betrays a truth that the Biden folk have yet to admit: There will be negotiations to try to get Iran back to the JCPOA. Negotiations involve give and take … on both sides. What exactly will Biden give? Sanctions relief? Tehran has already pocketed that. What else is there? Cash. Policy changes that accept Iran’s de facto domination of Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and perhaps, Iraq? Diplomatic recognition? Those are big gives to get Iran back to the table to discuss returning to what was a lousy deal to begin with.

That “follow on negotiation.”
Here’s Sullivan again: “Our view is that ballistic missiles and Iran’s ballistic missile program has to be on the table as part of that follow-on negotiation. We also believe that there can be conversations that go beyond just the permanent five members of the Security Council, the P5+1.” (The other parties to the JCPOA are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany.) Does Sullivan have any reason to believe that the government of Iran is interested in discussing its ballistic missile program? Far from it. Indeed, the reverse is true.: While the JCPOA covers only nukes, several side agreements ratified by the U.N. Security Council touched on Iran’s acquisition of conventional weapons (that ban expired last October) and missile systems (a toothless resolution calls on, but does not require Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”) There have been repeated violations of even that resolution, which conditionally expires in 2023. Does the incoming national security adviser have any reason to believe Iran would sit down with more parties—think Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others—to chat drawing down its missile program? For real?

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