One sure sign a deal is done is the pile of coulda-shoulda-wouldas left on the negotiating table by both sides. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, usually shortened to the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran, ended with both sides feeling that many issues had gone unaddressed or gone wrong. But both the United States and Iran and France, Germany, Russia, China and the UK all agreed it was the best deal they could get.
And it was working. Iran took centrifuges off-line, shipped nuclear fuel out of the country, disabled their plutonium reactor and accepted a stringent regime of international monitoring and inspection.
Until Donald Trump blew it up in 2018, there were no signs the JCPOA was failing in either of its goals — setting back by a generation Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and bringing Iran back into the world of normal economic and social relations.
So why not give the Iran deal the Paris Climate Change Agreement, World Health Organization treatment — reversing Trump stupidities in an instant? Which is pretty much what Joe Biden the candidate had promised to do.
But, it is not what President Biden has done. Why? Well, here was Wendy Sherman, Biden’s nominee to be second in command at the State Department testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sherman was the lead U.S. negotiator on the nuclear deal, and like almost everyone on the Biden team including the president, has defended it strongly. But she told the Committee, she and her boss knew — there was no going back: “2021 is not 2015, when the deal was agreed, nor 2016, when it was implemented,” she said. “The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change.” In other words she and the Biden foreign policy team are promising they will only sign on to a new deal.
Critics are calling this American gamesmanship meant to impose on Iran a diplomatic field on which the goalposts have moved. The result, they fear, could kill the negotiations and lock in Trump foreign policy tactics of bullying and sanctions. But backers of the Biden strategy say convincing Iran to expand the agreement, rein in its regional ambitions and its contributions to proxy warfare in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is the only way to get an enduring agreement and to realize the negotiations’ ultimate goal — normalizing (and demilitarizing) Iran’s position in its region and the world.
Joseph Cirincione is a distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute and a national security analyst and author with over 35 years of experience working these issues in Washington, D.C. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. He served previously as president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress and director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other positions. He worked for over nine years on the professional staff of the Armed Services Committee and the Government Operations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is adjunct faculty at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He appears frequently on television, radio and in the media and is the author of over eight hundred articles and reports on defense and national security.