The past 40 years in U.S.-Iran relations have been riddled with missed opportunities. While the Iranians and Clinton administration failed to initiate serious dialogue after Mohammad Khatami’s election, the George W. Bush administration pocketed Tehran’s assistance after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, put the country in its “axis of evil,” and ignored its offer for a grand bargain. Under the Trump administration, however, we are likely witnessing the greatest missed opportunity in four decades: a failure to capitalize on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal.
The drama over the resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — though it was rejected and withdrawn — underscores how the Trump administration’s imposition of sanctions has undermined moderates and bolstered hardliners. With the Trump administration seeking to collapse the nuclear deal and apparently searching for a casus belli, Tehran has less need of a chief diplomat distinguished by his engagement with the United States. This hardening posture in Iran plays into the hands of hawks on all sides bent on slamming shut the window for negotiations and opening the door to direct confrontation.
Yet there remains a slender path back to the JCPOA and away from war. U.S. policymakers outside the administration — there is little hope about those within it — must speak up about the need to return to the nuclear deal upon Trump’s departure from the White House.
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Fortunately, momentum is building to return the United States to compliance with the deal. Most notably, the Democratic National Committee has adopted a resolution calling on the United States to re-enter the JCPOA, effectively prioritizing U.S.-Iran diplomacy as the party shapes its platform ahead of the 2020 elections. Already, several presidential hopefuls have signaled interest in salvaging the deal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has indicated that she would support returning to the JCPOA if Iran continues to abide by its terms, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar has warned that the United States can’t balk on the agreement.
But many more such commitments are needed to sustain the accord and prevent a march to war. For 2020 candidates, the appeal should be obvious. The last thing they should want to inherit is a pressing nuclear crisis in the Middle East or a messy war with Iran that would necessitate urgent attention and resources.
Even if Trump is voted out of office next year, his successor will face a great deal of work to restore U.S. credibility with both Iran and our former negotiating partners. Iran’s political establishment approached the JCPOA as a test to see if the United States could keep its word on sanctions relief, a test our country failed.
The timeline is tight as well. By January 2021, the United States is likely to have been in material breach of the JCPOA for 32 months, and will have very little leverage to insist on changes to the agreement, let alone some grand bargain addressing all of the international community’s concerns about Iran. The state of the country’s economy, and the humanitarian impact of sanctions leveled in spite of its adherence to its nuclear obligations, will leave Tehran little immediate appetite for further concessions. Europe and other partners to the nuclear accord will similarly require a restoration of confidence before rejoining any U.S.-led coalition regarding Iran.
Iran’s political calendar will also limit what is politically possible in the opening months of 2021. Parliamentary elections will be held next year, followed by presidential elections in May or June 2021 that will dictate how far a future administration can go to resolve remaining sources of tension with Iran. It is highly dubious that a grand bargain could be negotiated before the elections, or that the JCPOA itself could be altered after it took two and a half years of intense negotiations and all of the Rouhani administration’s political capital to hammer out. Placing preconditions on U.S. reentry to the JCPOA could squander the hard-fought gains of the nuclear accord and guarantee that the next president of Iran is a hardliner committed to resisting rather than seeking compromise with the West.
So a new U.S. president should move quickly to restore compliance with the accord by re-establishing waivers for nuclear-related sanctions and ensure that sanctions relief flows as it was originally intended. This would include licensing the sale of civilian aircraft and replacement parts, and encouraging that Boeing and Airbus complete sales to replace Iran’s decrepit aircraft as soon as possible. Moreover, U.S. officials should consult closely with European allies on how to ensure that financial transactions are not unintentionally impeded by U.S. sanctions. This would rectify the profoundly slow relief that soured many Iranians on the benefits of the accord even before Trump exited the JCPOA. Other key steps—including lifting the Muslim ban that has discriminated against Iranians and expanding cross cultural exchanges—will be a critical signal that the U.S. is serious in repairing the damage wrought by Trump.
America’s international partners, whose faith in U.S. global leadership has been deeply shaken by Trump, would applaud such moves. They would also be welcomed by the Iranian people who cheered the conclusion of the nuclear accord and want to live normal lives unburdened by the dangerous geopolitical chess match between the U.S. and Iranian governments.
None of this would prevent the United States from then moving aggressively to negotiate with Iran on a broader spectrum of concerns. Indeed, ensuring that the United States complies with its previously discarded commitments is a prerequisite to facilitating a multilateral diplomatic approach that has represented the only successful playbook on Iran to date.
We may never know if a responsible successor administration could have capitalized on the hard work of the Obama administration and built on the JCPOA. But if a future President is in a position to return to the JCPOA in January 2021, he or she would be well advised to return to the accord. Doing anything else would tempt the inexorable forces in both the United States and Iran that have destroyed any forward political progress for decades.