By Leila Riazi
President-elect Joe Biden will face significant challenges, both foreign and domestic, upon entering office. One of these is certainly going to be Iran policy. During a Democratic primary debate, then-candidate Biden, along with most of his Democratic colleagues, pledged to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since then, a debate has arisen over whether or not Biden should seek to re-enter the Iran deal or attempt to negotiate a “better deal.” Despite the temptation of a better deal, the Biden administration should prioritize rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.
Some want a better deal because of the flaws they find in the original agreement. One of the biggest complaints is that the JCPOA does not address Iran’s other destabilizing actions in the region, such as their ballistic missile program and funding of terrorist organizations. It is true that the agreement does not do that, but that isn’t necessarily a flaw. The nuclear deal had a very specific goal, preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, and by that measure, it succeeded. Iran’s most dangerous actions are the development of its nuclear program, and this is what the United States should be most concerned in curtailing.
Others have been concerned with “sunset clauses” in the deal which allow limits, like those on uranium enrichment, to expire after 10 or 15 years. Obviously, these expiration dates are not ideal, but this is not a reason to scrap the deal altogether. As much as we may have wished, when the United States signed the deal, it was not in a place to unilaterally make demands and have Iran capitulate to them. It was a negotiation, and both sides made compromises. The deal gave us 10 years to worry about negotiating a new agreement or extending those clauses. We lost some of those years to Trump, but it is not too late to get them back.
Pragmatism dictates that re-joining the nuclear deal is the best choice. Pulling out of the nuclear deal deteriorated the already-tense relationship between Iran and the United States. Iran seems very unwilling to negotiate a new deal. Foreign minister Javad Zarif has indicated that Iran would be unwilling to renegotiate the terms of the deal. Additionally, Iran has signaled that they would not consider returning to compliance with the nuclear deal unless the United States first lifts all sanctions and perhaps even repays Iran for the harm done by those sanctions. The Biden administration will already have a great deal of difficulty getting Iran to budge on that policy, so it seems very unlikely they would be able to go even further and negotiate a new agreement.
There are also positive reasons to rejoin the deal. What comes to mind immediately is the harm that sanctions do to the Iranian people. Whatever an administration may do to try and target sanctions at only certain sectors or officials, there are always downstream effects. American sanctions have led to a great deal of suffering among the Iranian people. The value of the Iranian rial has plummeted, leading to massive inflation and Iranians unable to avoid basic necessities. There have been widespread layoffs, as well as worker strikes protesting unpaid wages. U.S. sanctions have also left Iran especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have hampered the ability of vital medical supplies to enter the country. These sanctions should be lifted for the benefit of the Iranian people. Biden should use the opportunity to take the moral high ground and get a benefit for the United States as well.
Lastly, rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would be a large step towards rebuilding relationships with key European allies. The European signatories of the nuclear deal, the UK, Germany and France, were very unhappy with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal. Trump caused a lot of damage to relationships with allies over the last four years, and it will take a lot of work to repair them, but rejoining our allies in this agreement would be an excellent way of showing that we stand with them while also acting in our own interest.
While the instinct of many might be to push Biden to negotiate a “better deal” with Iran, this is not a practical decision. Rejoining the Iran deal doesn’t mean we can never negotiate with Iran again. Rejoining the JCPOA is a way to stop one of Iran’s most dangerous activities while repairing the damage done by the U.S., and we should jump at that chance.