One of the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing President Joe Biden is restraining Iran’s nuclear program, which has accelerated since former President Donald Trump’s unwarranted withdrawal from the nuclear deal that rolled back Iran’s nuclear potential. Also growing are: Iran’s destabilizing regional activity, its support for terrorism and its ballistic missile program.
Mr. Biden and a growing group of nuclear weapons policy experts understand that the first step toward addressing the wide range of challenges Iran poses to the region and beyond is to foster diplomacy and curtail Iran’s nuclear development by rejoining the accord, which was concluded in 2015. But a recent letter from a group of Senators to Mr. Biden undercuts the ability of the Biden administration to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the deal, which is critical to prevent a nuclear crisis in the Middle East. The March 25 letter, was signed by 43 senators: 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland
The letter, co-led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, undercuts the Biden administration’s compliance-for-compliance approach to diplomacy with Iran aimed to restore the nuclear deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Implicitly, they argue that the Biden administration should extend the failed Trump administration policy of trying to leverage economic pressure on Iran to “reach an agreement that prevents Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and meaningfully constrains its destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.”
The nuclear deal, a product of years of negotiations, succeeded in limiting Iran’s civilian nuclear program by verifiably capping its enriched uranium, subjecting it to stringent international monitoring and prohibiting a number of activities that could be adapted for a nuclear weapons program. Iran was already forbidden from ever developing a nuclear bomb as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but the nuclear deal added a permanent, unprecedented level of assurance that Iran’s program remains peaceful. Until Mr. Trump unilaterally pulled out of the agreement and reimposed sanctions the United States had committed to waive under the deal, Iran was in full compliance with the many restrictions on its nuclear activities, including its uranium enrichment program.
Republican critics of the JCPOA, believe that the United States should ignore the merits of the existing deal and try, as Mr. Trump tried and failed, to negotiate a “better” deal that restricts not only Iran’s nuclear program, but its arms exports, missile program, and support for militias hostile to the United States in the region.
While Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for malicious activity in the region undeniably warrants U.S. attention, the letter walks away from President Biden’s statements as a candidate and the 2020 Democratic Party platform. The reality is that restoring the existing nuclear deal is the best and only way to address the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program and create space for future talks.
Senator Cardin is right to consider working across the aisle to address concerns about Iran’s ballistic missiles and activities in the region. However, the Menendez-Graham letter is misguided and was released at a time when Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, should be backing U.S. efforts to return to the existing deal and constrain Iran’s nuclear program, which has grown significantly over the last two years.
If the United States and Iran fail to reach agreement on a pathway toward a simultaneous return to compliance with the deal soon, Iran’s nuclear program may accelerate past a point where diplomacy remains a tenable option. Already Iran’s breaches to the deal’s limits have afforded its scientists technical know-how on certain nuclear processes that can be adapted for a weapons program, and that cannot be unlearned. Iran has not professed intent to develop nuclear weapons, but its program is advancing in both size and sophistication in a way that concerns U.S. allies in the region.
As of mid-April, talks are underway toward restoration of the deal. But an April 11 sabotage attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility threatened to derail diplomacy, and Iran has promised to further ratchet up its enriched uranium production in response. Time is of the essence to preserve the deal. Without concrete steps to curtail Iran’s nuclear activities under the JCPOA, the risk of conflict between the United States, Iran, and its neighbors in the Middle East will grow.
As Biden administration officials have repeatedly stated, the JCPOA is not the end goal for U.S. diplomacy with Iran — but its restoration is an unavoidable precondition to a follow-on agreement limiting Iran’s dangerous activities. Democratic Senators should not undercut Mr. Biden’s efforts to persuade Iran to get back into the JCPOA or jeopardize the domestic political support necessary for meaningful diplomacy with Iran.
Thomas M. Countryman (Twitter: @TMCountryman) is chairman of the Arms Control Association and the former assistant secretary of state for International Security and Nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.