As the “will they or won’t they” speculation around a potential U.S. return to the JCPOA—colloquially known as the Iran deal—reaches a fever pitch, it’s impossible not to be rocketed back in time to 2015. As then, deal supporters and deal opponents are ratcheting up their absolutist doomsday rhetoric about what will happen if the JCPOA is or is not rejoined. As then, a steady stream of Israeli government and security officials is flowing from Jerusalem to Washington, trying to influence the administration through a mix of public warnings, private lobbying, and a host of reminders that Israel will not consider itself to be bound by any agreement, JCPOA or otherwise, between Iran and world powers. As then, American Jewish organizations are frantically trying to determine what their positions will be on the JCPOA and how they will help or hinder the administration’s efforts to return to the deal, as if this is the most pressing issue for Jewish life in the U.S. and Israel’s future existence. And most reminiscent of 2015, the JCPOA is being treated as a starkly black and white issue, where the only point of agreement on both sides of the divide is that there is one right answer.
Unfortunately for simplicity’s sake, there isn’t one right answer, no matter how much people believe it so. There are good arguments for reentering the JCPOA and good arguments for staying out, and most people who paint this as an easy issue with an easy answer aren’t worth the attention you are paying them. As complicated as the JCPOA issue was in 2015, it is exponentially more so now in the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement and the cascade of effects that caused, new regional developments, changes in leadership in the U.S., Iran, and Israel, and the passage of time that has altered the way the deal’s sunset clauses have to be viewed. In other words, the ironclad certainty with which the JCPOA’s proponents advocate for it and opponents inveigh against it is misplaced in both instances, as is the apocalyptic level of hysteria about the consequences of President Biden’s next moves.
Here are some reasons why reentering the JCPOA might be a good idea. Thanks to Iran’s multiple violations of the JCPOA that started one year after Trump’s withdrawal and the reimposition of all U.S. sanctions that the Iran deal had lifted, Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpiles have increased, and its research and development and installation of advanced centrifuges have raced ahead of the limits that the JCPOA imposed. This means that Iran’s breakout time should it decide to race for a bomb is now likely a few weeks, with no meaningful controls or early warning in order to prevent a breakout. If the logic of the JCPOA was to prevent a nuclear Iran, then it’s worth reentering the deal in order to push that breakout time back, even if it only buys a couple of months. As things currently stand, there would not be enough opportunity to marshal sanctions or a military response if Iran decided tomorrow to build a bomb, whereas two months is still an uncomfortably small window but better than what the U.S., Israel, or others currently face.
Lifting sanctions and greenlighting international firms to operate in Iran will give the regime access to billions of dollars that will fund all sorts of nefarious activities around the Middle East. But as nearly every Israeli official not named Binyamin Netanyahu has at this point conceded, pulling out of the JCPOA was a mistake since some restrictions are better than no restrictions if your primary aim is to lock down Iran’s nuclear program. Remaining out of the deal guarantees that Iran will build even more advanced centrifuges, harden its existing nuclear facilities and build more impregnable ones, and become a de facto nuclear state. Reentering the deal is the only way to get some restrictions back in place and not only stop the clock on Iranian nuclearization but stop the clock on the regional nuclear proliferation that is an anticipated response to a nuclear Iran. While acknowledging the drawbacks of providing Iran with an enormous influx of cash, some limits on Iran are better than no limits on Iran, particularly after seeing the progress they have made in the three years of breach that Trump provided them.
Here are some reasons why reentering the JCPOA might be a bad idea. Treating the JCPOA as if it was in suspended animation requires the assumption that the world was in suspended animation as well, which it wasn’t. The benefits of the JCPOA are not nearly as robust as they were seven years ago given how much progress Iran has made in the interim, and that makes for an altered cost-benefit analysis on the question of lifting sanctions. It was one thing to end Iran’s economic isolation in return for a breakout time of a year, quite another to do so in return for a breakout time that will likely be less than one quarter of that. Iran has made big strides in nuclear technology in particular, which also makes limiting things like uranium enrichment not as significant, as the harder part is acquiring the know-how and being able to test that knowledge.
The JCPOA’s terms also make less sense today, leaving aside the question of how much farther along Iran is than it was in 2015. The JCPOA provided immediate sanctions relief in return for restrictions and verification measures that were a minimum of eight years in some cases but were more commonly 15 years. If the U.S. reenters the deal, Iran still gets immediate sanctions relief once the restrictions and verification measures are reimposed, but the sunset clauses do not reset; their end dates remain the same as if the U.S. had never left the deal and as if Iran had not breached the deal’s restrictions once the U.S. pulled out. If the benefits that Iran receives are going to be what the initial deal fully envisioned, then it makes sense that the benefits that the rest of the world receives should similarly be what the initial deal fully envisioned.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore that Iran’s malign activities and presence throughout the region have only ramped up. Since the JCPOA was initially negotiated and signed, Iran and its proxies have a larger presence in Syria and western Iraq, have attempted to attack Israel with ballistic missiles and UAVs, have successfully struck Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and have harassed shipping in the Persian Gulf with even greater vigor and frequency. While rejoining the JCPOA will temporarily address Iran’s nuclear program in a limited way, it will enable greater Iranian power projection throughout the Middle East, putting American partners at risk and placing larger conventional security burdens on the U.S. and other states. It risks destabilizing the region in order to buy a couple of months on the nuclear front.
Obviously, one set of these arguments will be more persuasive than the other depending on your worldview and politics. But the point here is that it’s not that difficult to make compelling arguments on both sides of the equation, which should indicate that the all-or-nothing nature of the Iran deal debate in the U.S. is far more about political positioning than it is about policy wisdom. The mistake that both sides make is that the JCPOA cannot be treated as the solution or the exacerbator for all regional problems. If the U.S. reenters the deal, it will not solve the problem of Iran, bring Iran into the American orbit, or let the U.S. pivot away from the region. If the U.S. stays out, it will not lead to the inevitable collapse of the Iranian regime, force Iran to crawl back to the table and negotiate a new deal on terms far less favorable to it, or pave the way for a joint American-Israeli campaign to strike Iranian nuclear sites. The high hopes that each side has depend on an array of developments that range from unlikely to impossible. What happens next is going to be disappointing for anyone who wants to see Iran remain a non-nuclear power and wants to see less regional tension, no matter how the JCPOA situation is resolved.
At the risk of being a broken record, the JCPOA was and remains a bet about time. That means that the aftermath of the JCPOA—whether or not it is rejoined—will be as impactful, if not more so, than the deal itself. Whether the U.S. and/or Israel will establish a credible military threat; how states in the Middle East will limit Iran’s conventional military capabilities and particularly make advances in air defense coordination; if the U.S. does the necessary work of building domestic political will and diplomatic support for a coalition to confront Iran militarily and economically should it breach its requirements or move to break out; and what is done with the time that is bought by reentering the deal or the time that is running out by killing the deal for good are all going to determine what the region looks like a decade from now. All of this is to say that the JCPOA debate is important, but other aspects of Iran policy are important too and should be able to garner near-unanimous agreement. Rather than treat the JCPOA alone as if it is going to determine the fates of the U.S., Israel, Iran, and Western civilization itself, everyone should take a deep breath, realize that there is no monopoly on wisdom here, and chill out just a tiny bit.