Choosing the Least Bad Option: Restoring the Iran Nuclear Agreement

by John Whitehead

The United States and Iran have been engaged in negotiations for over a year in an attempt to reach a new agreement meant to curb Iranian nuclear activities. While the final agreement is yet to be determined, it will likely be imperfect. Even an imperfect deal is worth supporting, however, if it delays another nation in building nuclear weapons.

The current negotiations are intended to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated in 2015 between Iran and a coalition of nations consisting of the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. Under the JCPOA, Iran accepted temporary limits on its nuclear-related capabilities, including its ability to enrich uranium and how much enriched uranium it could possess. Because enrichment is the process by which uranium is refined into a form suitable for use in nuclear weapons, this was a significant concession. Iran also accepted monitoring and inspections of its nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, the United States and European Union (EU) agreed to lift various economic sanctions and restrictions imposed on Iran.

As a means to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the JCPOA was far from ideal. The limitations on Iran’s uranium enrichment would expire in 10-15 years. After that point, Iran could theoretically begin enriching uranium with the aim of producing nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the JCPOA offered the hope of, at the very least, pausing for a decade or more another nation’s development of such weapons.

The JCPOA started to come apart in May 2018, when the Trump administration decided to withdraw the United States from the agreement and reimposed US sanctions on Iran. A year after the US withdrawal, the Iranians responded by gradually disregarding various JCPOA limitations, including on uranium enrichment and stockpiling. The Iranians have maintained, however, that they would undo these violations of the JCPOA if sanctions are lifted.

The Biden administration, in collaboration with the EU, has been seeking a revived version of the JCPOA. In August, the parties seemed to be approaching acceptance of an EU proposal for a new agreement. Diplomatic wrangling has continued, though. One sticking point is Iran’s request that the IAEA drop an investigation into uranium found at previously undisclosed locations.

Only time will tell if the United States, Iran, and the other parties can restore the JCPOA. Even if restored, such an agreement will likely face opposition from the US Congress and Israel. The agreement will presumably still provide only temporary limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities and likely will have other flaws as well.

Nevertheless, peace advocates should hope that some form of JCPOA can be revived. Even temporary restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities are worthwhile if they delay another nation from developing nuclear weapons. (Also, some future diplomatic breakthrough might be possible in another 10-15 years.)

Yet another nation joining the ranks of the nuclear powers would have severe consequences for peace in the world. More nuclear weapons multiply the chances that these weapons will be used, whether in aggression, retaliation, or by accident. The dangers are especially great in the Middle East, where increased tensions and confrontation are likely between a possibly nuclear-armed Iran and the already nuclear-armed Israel.

Further, Iran developing nuclear weapons may encourage other nations to do so. In a narrow sense, an Iranian nuclear arsenal may prompt other nations in the region (Saudi Arabia, for example) that, like Israel, are hostile to Iran to pursue their own nuclear arsenals. In a broader sense, the continued expansion of nations with nuclear weapons weakens the global political taboo against such weapons that agreements such as the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty tries to strengthen. The more nations that develop nuclear weapons, the less significant it might seem for yet more nations to do so.

A revived JCPOA is especially worthwhile in the absence of an alternative option. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA failed to produce a better arrangement and encouraged Iranian uranium enrichment. Using military force to stop Iran’s nuclear activities would just begin another destructive conflict in the Middle East. A revived JCPOA is the least bad option available.

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