War Stories

The Iran Deal Lives

The latest statement from Iran’s president is a good sign for Biden’s hopes of reviving the Obama-era accord.

Close-up of Hassan Rouhani looking to the side
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a press conference in New York on Sept. 26, 2018. Jim Watson/Getty Images

Good news for the chances of reviving the Iran nuclear deal: President Hassan Rouhani announced on Monday that if the United States returns to the deal, Iran will also return, with no preconditions.

President-elect Joe Biden has consistently said that the U.S. would once again abide by the terms of the 2015 deal—which President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018—if Iran did the same. Many have feared that Trump’s withdrawal has made Iranian officials so distrustful of American intentions that they wouldn’t reenter the deal—or that, at minimum, they would do so only if the U.S. compensated them for revenue lost since Trump reimposed economic sanctions. That would be a political nonstarter for Biden.

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However, Rouhani said that compensation would be something to be worked out over a period of years, not a prerequisite to resuming the accord.

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Last month, after a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated, the Iranian parliament unanimously expressed a desire to withdraw from the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows international inspectors to verify whether signatories are complying with the treaty’s ban on developing nuclear weapons. (Quite apart from the nuclear deal, Iran is a signatory of the NPT and the Additional Protocol.) That move suggested that the country’s hard-line factions—such as the military’s elite Revolutionary Guard, which never liked the nuclear deal—were growing in power ahead of presidential elections in June.

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Rouhani’s statement—which he could not have made without the approval of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—indicates that the country’s ultimate power is willing to give America’s incoming new president another chance.

The Iranians’ motive probably stems, in good part, from economic desperation. Trump’s sanctions—which he also applied to other countries doing business with Iran—have left the country in dire straits. The nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—lifted sanctions in exchange for Iran’s dismantlement of its nuclear apparatus. Until recently, international inspectors attested several times that Iran was abiding by its side of the bargain. A year after Trump reimposed sanctions, Iran started breaking out of the deal, exceeding its limits on the enrichment of uranium, a key ingredient of an atom bomb. (Iranian officials have said they are still in compliance with the deal, since one of its clauses—Paragraph 36—states that a country would have “grounds to cease performing its commitments” if some other countries were not meeting theirs.)

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Some U.S. critics of the deal have said that Biden should exploit Iran’s current weakness by pushing for a more restrictive deal. Some of the accord’s clauses are scheduled to expire in just four years. And it puts no limits on Iran’s support for terrorists or development of ballistic missiles.

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These are valid points, but the most critical clauses don’t expire until 2030 or later, and when he signed the deal, President Barack Obama—along with the negotiators from Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany—calculated that it was more important to focus on stopping Iran’s nuclear program, which was nearing the capability to make an A-bomb. It is even closer to that capability now—potent evidence that Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure” did not work. Therefore, Biden—who, as vice president, was part of Obama’s team that produced the deal—can be expected to push for bringing it back to life, while Iran is on the same page.

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However, Biden will also be pressured—and may genuinely feel the need—to move for a follow-on deal, which could push back some expiration dates and place some sorts of limits on Iran’s missile program and support of terrorism.

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As a sign of this likelihood, Jake Sullivan, who will be Biden’s national security adviser, tweeted Sunday night that Iran’s recent execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam “is another horrifying human rights violation by the Iranian regime,” adding, “We will join our partners in calling out and standing up to Iran’s abuses.” Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state, retweeted the comment with the header “This.”

When Trump withdrew from the deal, he did so against the advice of all his top aides at the time—Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster—as well as leaders in Europe and even several Israeli military and intelligence officials, though not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who encouraged the pullout. Trump had long denounced the deal as “the worst deal ever,” without ever citing any evidence that was accurate. His main motive, it seems, was to demolish the signal diplomatic achievement of his predecessor and top nemesis, Obama.

With Biden’s imminent arrival in the White House, Iran’s leaders are taking advantage of the situation. These leaders are for the most part an abhorrent bunch, but that doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be right. When it comes to the nuclear deal, the U.S and Iran—along with much of the rest of the world—have shared interests. It’s time to act on that fact.

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