While Washington officials are considering reverting to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, much of the debate has centered on whether the U.S. government will lose leverage. Some experts and officials argue that if the Biden administration agrees to the deal – also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the United States will waste the leverage built up in recent years by former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy known – rejoin.
While US sanctions have challenged the Iranian economy and restricted Iran’s access to finance, they have failed to change Tehran’s behavior regarding its nuclear program. Indeed, Iran has not made any additional concessions. Instead, it has pursued its own leverage-building strategy by increasing its nuclear, missile program and regional activities. Not only is Iran closer to the ability to build a bomb, but the political discourse of key officials on whether to cross that threshold has shifted.
Leverage only makes sense if it can be used effectively to achieve desired policy outcomes. Continuing to leverage just to inflict pain or pressure is not an effective or sustainable negotiating strategy. This creates a vicious circle of pursuing perfect business that doesn’t exist and ignoring opportunities for incremental progress as Iran nears nuclear capability. By reviving the nuclear deal, the US government will not waste leverage on sanctions, but if it plays its cards wisely it could improve its position on follow-up negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities.
In response to the maximum pressure exerted, Tehran tried to increase its own leverage. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stepped up its military operations in the Persian Gulf and targeted sea trade routes through the Strait of Hormuz to signal its ability to harm the interests of the United States and its allies. The most recent example was when the IRGC seized a South Korean flag ship in early January, most likely in response to the $ 7 billion Iranian funds frozen under US sanctions.
Iran has stepped up its nuclear activities to bring the ability to build a nuclear weapon closer if it so wishes. Iranian officials announced in January that they would expand their nuclear program by resuming uranium enrichment to 20 percent levels, well above the low limit of 3.67 percent set in the 2015 agreement. To minimize the impact of US sanctions and leverage, Iran has focused on investing in resistance economy infrastructure to diversify the economy so that it is inward-looking and less dependent on foreign trade, especially with the West. Iran is still a long way from collapsing. Rather, economic recovery is forecast for the country in 2021.
The United States should quickly try to get back to the deal cleanly with a compliance-for-compliance approach, as this can hold back the rapidly growing Iranian nuclear program. This move would not undermine US leverage, but rather increase it. This would allow the United States to stop the ticking clock on Iran’s nuclear progress, mitigate the possibility of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel or the United States, and restore multilateral diplomatic efforts. More importantly, a return to the agreement would allow more time for follow-up agreements on regional issues and other issues. These issues are vital to the security interests of the United States and its regional partners, and Tehran is unlikely to have discussions on these issues unless the JCPOA is restored.
An important part of the US leverage is sanction relief. With both sides pledging to comply, lifting sanctions against Iran will not give Tehran an overnight economic boost strong enough to halt further negotiations or fund its destabilizing regional activities, as some fear. Non-JCPOA-related sanctions remain in place, and even if the JCPOA-related sanctions are lifted on paper, the practical side of operationalizing trade and transactions will not be quick. Iran would only begin a slow process of economic recovery. But the relief will give the United States the upper hand at the negotiating table, trading more immediate economic incentives for additional concessions.
Should Iran violate the agreement, the US government can re-impose sanctions not only with the support of Europe, but possibly also from China and Russia. These other parties to the original deal all have a common interest: They prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. The common interest of global non-proliferation created this coalition in the first place. If Iran crosses the red line of its capabilities, these countries have an inherent interest in exerting pressure to pursue their own non-proliferation goals, and a multilateral response to violations is much more likely with a US return to the deal than with Washington outside .
The risk of new sanctions being imposed is greater today than it was four years ago. While the maximum pressure strategy did not lead to the desired political results for Washington, it showed the power of the unilateral US sanctions despite international opposition. Most Iranians have realized the dire consequences of isolation in the face of US sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under pressure from both hard factions and growing public dissatisfaction with the country’s economic challenges. He must at least ensure the beginning of a process to revive the JCPOA in the coming weeks. There is a growing perception among Tehran’s political elite that the best strategy for getting the United States to end the campaign with maximum pressure is to give it a choice between an unresolved confrontation that escalates into war and a nuclear-weapons-ready Iran put.
The assumption is that Tehran can use Washington’s reluctance to engage in military confrontations to advance its political agenda – and can do so by pushing the boundaries of its nuclear program and regional activities to a point where the U.S. Government must vote Acceptance of an Iran with nuclear weapons capability and a military strike against Iran – both are anathema to the Biden government.
Leaders in Tehran believe that the unattractiveness of the alternatives may lead Washington to conclude that time is not on its side to continue its pressurizing campaign through sanctions and that action must be taken quickly to revive the deal.
Iran’s brinkmanship could lead to a military confrontation over its nuclear program as Israel threatens. Iranian hardliners are overconfident about their nuclear leverage and the long-term sustainability of the resistance economy. The Iranian resistance economy is facing major challenges: Internal dissatisfaction with the pace of economic growth, which is turning into political pressure, is increasing. With Iran struggling to cope with the pandemic, the “pre-purchase” of nearly 17 million COVID-19 vaccines from vaccine-sharing facility COVAX was reportedly delayed due to US financial sanctions.
However, maintaining this stance will come with significant costs of domestic dissatisfaction and delayed economic development. The expansion of nuclear and military activities could also jeopardize political support for Russia and China. By sticking to what it perceives to be leverage, Iran risks missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach an agreement with a U.S. government that has signaled its readiness to work diplomatically with Iran and in a unique position is to achieve this.
In order for the Rouhani government to convince the hardliners to reverse the steps of nuclear progress and return to respecting the deal, the process of returning to the deal must begin within the next few weeks. If there is no clear prospect of reviving the deal, the Rouhani government can take more drastic measures, such as halting international nuclear inspections to show strength to political opponents ahead of the June presidential election, which Rouhani will lose if he does so Deal not again. The inspections are already to be scaled back if the US does not return to the deal by February 21st, to signal the time pressure on the government in Tehran.
A return to the deal would not jeopardize US leverage. it would strengthen it for future negotiations. If you continue to focus on maintaining leverage and applying pressure just to cause pain, you will continue to get the same results, namely lack of progress on key policy objectives. In the meantime, it will miss the opportunity for diplomatic contacts that could curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
By reverting to the deal, the United States would both retain the leverage it has built by demonstrating the devastating economic impact of its unilateral sanctions, and leverage that leverage through continued diplomacy and multilateral efforts to achieve more desirable policy outcomes. Restoring the deal would also put the Biden government in a much stronger position to negotiate a follow-up agreement that will address other issues and concerns such as the Iranian missile program and destabilizing activities abroad in a regional forum.
Four decades of sanctions and the history of US and European negotiations with Iran show that it has only eased pressure by doubling its nuclear program and its regional representatives. It has only accepted and kept clearly defined and desirable concessions through an agreed framework like the 2015 deal. After four years of not forcing Iran to change policies for the better, it is time for Washington to rethink how levers can be used effectively.
The analyzes and conclusions presented here are based on individual research and do not necessarily reflect the guidelines or perspectives of the National Defense University, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.