A road sign to Natanz, Iran, home of a uranium enrichment facility.

A road sign to Natanz, Iran, home of a uranium enrichment facility. DrRave via Getty

With Iran, First Prevent the Nukes

If Tehran gets the Bomb, every other regional problem immediately gets a lot harder.

The road back to the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, is just as bumpy as many expected. On top of the diplomatic challenges, domestic opponents are reupping a critique they levied in 2015: that the deal deals with only Tehran’s nuclear program and not its bad regional behavior. Instead of seeking to return to the deal, these critics say, President Biden should use the “leverage” of Iran’s economic troubles to force it to accept a “better” nuclear deal and address all regional issues of concern — an approach that failed under the previous president. Cutting off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb was the priority in 2015 and should remain the priority today.

It is worth remembering why the JCPOA came to be, and what it does. In 2012, there was mounting concern about American or Israeli military action to prevent Iran from producing enough material to be able to produce a nuclear weapon. The discovery of an underground nuclear site, previously hidden from international inspectors, and the operation of thousands of uranium enrichment centrifuges created a war fever in Washington not seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Having campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama sought another path. He opened back-channel negotiations with Iran that eventually produced a deal that froze and rolled back Iran’s nuclear potential. Instead of being weeks away from producing enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so, Iran agreed to take steps that lengthened this “breakout” time to one year. The year-long window was a political decision by the United States and its European partners, based on the assumption that one year’s notice would be enough to take action to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. 

To ensure that the world would know one year in advance if Iran moved to violate its commitments to never go nuclear, Tehran had to take unprecedented and extraordinary steps. These included the most intrusive and technically advanced set of nuclear inspections ever accepted by any state, administered by the United Nations’ proven nuclear inspection group: the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran also had to eliminate 97 percent of its uranium stocks; mothball thousands of installed enrichment centrifuges; and rip out the core of a new nuclear reactor that could have produced plutonium, an alternate route for making nuclear weapons. It also placed its uranium mining and procurement of special materials used in enrichment under international supervision.

In exchange, Iran received access to billions of dollars of its own money, frozen for decades after the 1979 revolution, and relief from a crippling set of economic sanctions organized by the United States in order to pursue nuclear diplomacy. 

The JCPOA did one thing and did it well: prevent Iran from being able to quickly produce a nuclear weapon. And the deal was based on an unassailable premise: that every regional and many global issues would became harder to solve if Iran possessed enough material to produce a nuclear weapon. 

Arguing for a nuclear-first approach does not mean ignoring regional issues. Armed militia groups and Iran’s expanding ballistic missile program are critical concerns for U.S. forces and U.S. regional partners. President Biden has already shown his willingness to take military action against Iranian-aligned militias even as his administration seeks a return to the JCPOA. But it is wishful and now disproven thinking to believe linking such issues to the nuclear negotiations will produce a “better” deal. Inserting regional issues into nuclear negotiations will only serve to make re-establishing a nuclear deal harder. This would be the worst of all worlds: no nuclear deal and no progress on regional threats. Iranian officials rejected initial calls for EU-sponsored talks with the United States and other JCPOA parties to discuss compliance terms for a U.S. return in part because they fear that they will be trapped in a larger regional discussion when what they want is to determine if the U.S. will live up to its JCPOA obligations. Broader regional issues may be difficult to address even with a restored JCPOA precisely because they are complex and distinct from nuclear challenges focused solely on Iran’s program.

Take armed militia groups supported by Iran in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. While their dependence on and ideological affinity with Iran vary, armed militias have been a constant feature of Iranian regional strategy for decades. Militia groups provide Iran with a way to exert influence and deter attacks by raising the costs for adversaries, while largely avoiding direct attribution. As such, Iran is unlikely to cut ties with such groups even if a robust nuclear agreement offers significant sanctions relief. America may not like this reality, but it is a reality unlikely to change. It may be possible to address Iranian support to some armed groups, like the Houthis in Yemen, that are less critical to Iran’s core security interests – but even there, only if Iran’s Arab neighbors also reduced support to opposing militia forces in de-escalation talks aimed at winding down that war. The idea that Iran would agree to cut such ties up front as part of a nuclear agreement is simply unrealistic and makes the perfect and unachievable deal the enemy of a good deal that achieves a valuable strategic outcome.

Moreover, the assertion that continued economic pressure on Iran will lead to reduced support for armed groups, or that a nuclear deal will increase militia attacks, is not backed by recent experience. Iran’s support for militias and attacks against Western interests were widespread both during the period of economic pressure during the Obama administration before the nuclear agreement as well as during the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign after the administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. Such attacks actually subsided in theatres like Iraq during the period when the nuclear agreement was in place, though Iran’s support for such groups continued. In other words, militia activity has become a persistent feature of the regional landscape with or without a nuclear deal. Addressing this challenge will ultimately require tackling the domestic instability and governance challenges within the countries in which these militias operate. This is not a challenge that an arms control agreement can take on. These deeply rooted issues pre-date the JCPOA and will nearly certainly outlast it.

Another regional issue that some believe should be addressed within a nuclear accord is missile proliferation. There is an obvious logic to addressing missiles, certainly as a delivery vehicle, in the nuclear context. However, missile proliferation is a serious problem that extends beyond Iran, not just in terms of their growing numbers but also their increasing accuracy and range. There is an ongoing missile arms race in the Middle East that includes not only Iran but also Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Turkey and others. Thus, any discussion of the missile threat will need to be undertaken as a regional—not a bilateral—effort. The United States should welcome such discussion in consultation with regional partners, and can be a next step if and when the JCPOA is put back in place. Such a dialogue might start in the Gulf as a parallel discussion to the nuclear talks. Iran may show more flexibility on missiles if its regional neighbors are part of the dialogue, at least in some limited areas like range limits or testing moratoria. Such talks won’t be easy given Iran also views its missiles as a critical capability that offsets the superior conventional capabilities of Arab Gulf states, Israel and the United States. But the prospects of getting such a discussion started will be far greater if they occur outside the nuclear negotiations and within a regional context.

Those who believe any deal with Iran must be comprehensive and complete may be right in identifying the challenges of the region, but are wrong in their recommendations for how to fix them. If the United States could not dictate to Iran during a period of maximum pressure, it is reasonable to assume that Iran would be unwilling to succumb to U.S. demands on its non-nuclear activities now. Getting to yes, step by step, is a proven tactic that at a minimum can prevent a nuclear Iran—a pretty good floor from which to build.

Dalia Dassa Kaye is a 2020-2021 Wilson Center Scholar. 

Jon Wolfsthal is senior advisor at Global Zero and a former Senior Director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation.