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Nuclear Weapons

Can the Iran Deal be Saved?

by Jasmine Owens

The Iran Deal, formally titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is currently on life support. The world is holding its breath to see if the deal can be salvaged once a new U.S. administration takes office in January 2021.

Since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran Deal in 2018, the agreement has existed in a state of limbo. The U.S. quickly reimposed sanctions that were lifted by the deal. Iran responded by increasing its amounts of enriched uranium, and now has more than 2,440 kg of enriched uranium, which is twelve times the limit outlined in the deal. The rest of the countries in the agreementChina, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germanyare attempting to salvage what is left of the historic agreement.

Challenges to Overcome

The Biden administration will face many difficult hurdles to overcome if they are to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal. For one, they will have to address nearly 1,500 unilateral sanctions the Trump administration has imposed since 2018. This massive initiative, what the Trump administration calls its “maximum pressure” campaign, was implemented to pressure Iran into negotiating a new deal that would include other U.S. security concerns like Iran’s ballistic missile program. Many of these sanctions were imposed for human rights violations, terrorism, or missile activityall permissible under the Iran Deal. However, these sanctions have only caused Iran to dig in its heels further, reducing its compliance with the agreement. The incoming Biden Administration may be faced with demands to alleviate sanctions, even ones permissible under the Iran Deal.

Trump holds up signed executive order

President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal on May 8, 2018.

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

This issue is compounded by the 27 November assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top nuclear scientist of the former clandestine Iranian nuclear weapons program. Iran has blamed Israel for the attack while Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its alleged role. While Iran has yet to retaliate, its parliament has taken matters into their own hands. A new law was just passed by Iran’s parliament that will increase Iran’s uranium enrichment, construct two new nuclear facilities that will bolster its nuclear program, and expel inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) responsible for monitoring its nuclear activities and facilities. This is especially worrisome, as IAEA inspectors are key to understanding Iran’s compliance with the agreement.

nuclear inspectors

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors (2nd-3rd L) and Iranian technicians disconnect the connections between the twin centrifuge cascades that enriched uranium to 20% at the Natanz nuclear facility on January 20, 2014.

KAZEM GHANE/IRNA/AFP via Getty Images

To make the situation even more complicated, the U.S. may not be the only country with a contentious election. Iran has its own presidential election in June 2021. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, supports the Iran Nuclear Deal. He has indicated that the deal can be restored easily if the U.S. wishes to rejoin. He has also made it clear that his administration does not support the recent parliamentary law, and his Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has assured that the law is reversible. However, President Rouhani is unable to run for reelection due to term limits. There will likely be moderates who run in the election, but some experts fear that with low voter turnout expected, the next Iranian president will be a hardliner who opposes the deal.

man sits in front of Iranian flag

Newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani smiles during a televised speech in the capital Tehran on May 20, 2017. Iranians have chosen the "path of engagement with the world" and rejected extremism, President Hassan Rouhani said following his resounding re-election victory.

ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Another concern is the current state of Middle-East politics. In August and September 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain respectively signed normalization agreements with Israel, opening up diplomatic relations and further isolating Iran in the region. And, the U.S. has been ramping up its sales of advanced weapons to Iran’s regional adversaries. These recent developments, coupled with the myriad other challenges that have arisen, will likely push Iran closer to a nuclear weapon, and faster, if the deal falls apart in 2021. 

All Hope is Not Lost

Are there a plethora of challenges to overcome in order to restore the Iran Nuclear Deal to its original status? Yes. Does this mean the deal is a lost cause? No. President-elect Biden is eager to return to the deal. President Rouhani is interested in improving relations with the U.S. and maintaining the agreement. There is still the chance that a moderate who supports the longevity of the deal can win the Iranian elections.

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While returning to the Iran Nuclear Deal is complicated, it’s not impossible. The Biden administration must pull out all the stops if it is to prevent Iran from becoming the tenth nuclear weapons state. The stakes are too high to give up now. Returning to the deal and attempting to alleviate tensions with Iran is the best alternative to war, which is the likely outcome if the U.S. continues its current plan of isolating and crippling Iran.

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