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Iran nuclear deal

Is negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program worth it?

Reza Behrouz and Amin Sophiamehr

Published: Updated:

US President-elect Joe Biden has stated his intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal, if Tehran fully complies with the agreement, saying that if Tehran complies, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in reinstated, sanctions will be lifted.

In 2015 when the deal was penned, the pact may have appeared on the surface as a diplomatic triumph, but with 2021 on the horizon, it lacks merit and its purpose is unclear.

Proponents of the JCPOA claim that an agreement with Iran was only possible because the signing nations focused on a common objective: prolong Iran’s nuclear breakout time. It is a single-issue platform, designed as the initial step for a trust-building process, with potential for future talks on other critical matters, including the regime’s ballistic missiles program and destabilizing activities in the region.

But Iran had its own set of expectations with respect to the deal. The regime viewed the JCPOA as a tactical distraction from its battles on other fronts, and their behavior became more bellicose in the Middle East after it was signed. For the regime's leaders, the deal was not the initial step, but the final frontier. Immediately after signing the JCPOA, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asserted that it would be the last time Islamic Republic officials would meet with the Americans. The nuclear issue was the only matter that Iranian regime officials would engage on with the West.

Indeed, the regime became more belligerent following the accord. Soon after the JCPOA was signed, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tested a ballistic missile bearing an inscription in Hebrew that read “Israel must be obliterated.” The regime also increased financial and arms support for its terror proxies in the Middle East.

Given its inherent flaws, what is Biden’s rationale for returning to the deal?

Biden believes nuclear weapons, in the hands of a hostile regime such as Iran, pose a direct national security threat to the US and its allies in the region, especially Israel. If he is truly concerned about Israel’s security and wants to reach an agreement with Iran to protect Israel from a possible nuclear attack, it is important to at least hear what the Israelis think of this strategy.

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Israeli politicians have mixed views regarding the validity and practicality of a nuclear accord with Iran, though they all seemingly agree that the regime must not possess nuclear weapons. However, the main Israeli concern is perhaps Iran’s precision missile program, which Israel perceives as a more immediate threat than a nuclear bomb. This concern is shared by most Arab US allies.

Therefore, failing to address Iran’s missile program alongside – or even before nuclear talks – would constitute a diplomatic failure. Excluding Israel and Arab allies from the negotiation proceedings also constitutes such a failure.

The Europeans have fervently pushed for the US to return to the deal, and Biden has said he will work with European allies toward a multilateral accord that prevents or delays the regime’s access to a nuclear bomb. It is unclear why the Europeans are so eagerly pushing for a return to the JCPOA. Again, the “protection of allies” logic, especially regarding Israel, is abortive. The Europeans are also not listening to the Israelis or Arab states.

France, for instance, is concerned that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of Iran’s proxies, including Hezbollah. Yet the French government hesitates to designate these factions as terrorist organizations, even though the US has designated them as such years ago, and increasingly European countries are following suit.

Furthermore, if the Europeans fear nuclear aggression by Iran on their continent, they should be equally concerned about the regime’s arsenal of long-range, precision, and nuclear-capable missiles, which can reach Europe and the continental US. The regime’s possession of a nuclear bomb is meaningless if it lacks the means and the apparatus to launch one.

Then there are China and Russia, which are both JCPOA signatories. Primarily, they would lose their strategic superiority over the regime if it becomes nuclear. But it is curious why these two countries are members of the campaign against Iran’s nuclear proliferation when neither is a target of the regime. They are both eager to sell arms to the regime, recognize Hezbollah as a legitimate political organization, and have close relations with Iran.

Human rights need to be a priority

Iran’s record with human rights abuses seem to never be on the agenda for negotiation. Biden is likely to try to tackle the nuclear issue immediately upon assuming office, and then he will most likely build on that agreement, working toward further negotiations with Iran on various other issues, including human rights. This is congruent to the Obama administration policy of “kicking the can down the road.”

Obama and Biden did not include human rights in the 2015 JCPOA platform, but it is not too late for Biden to attend to this crucial matter. However, renewal of the JCPOA is not the correct pathway. As Khamenei stated, the regime is unlikely to negotiate on other issues. From another angle, the regime’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who claims to be a “human rights professor,” has denied human rights violations in Iran. If Iran’s top diplomat denies the existence of a problem, how could negotiations or diplomacy be remotely effective in resolving it?

Why negotiate?

With JCPOA signatories ignoring critical issues, and where the regime considers them nonnegotiable, it is unclear what exactly Biden plans to accomplish after resuscitating the near-defunct nuclear deal.

Considering all arguments, the real question is why negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue at all?

Any agreement reached between Iran and the Biden administration will be – like the JCPOA – fragmented unless ratified by the Senate as a treaty. It will be very difficult for Biden to convince two-thirds of the Senate that the JCPOA as a treaty would have any meaningful impact on US or Middle East security.

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Iran would be re-entering negotiations from a position of utter weakness. By touting its nuclear program as leverage, the regime has effectively placed all its eggs in one basket. Zarif and his team of lobbyists in the US claim Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, while in the same breath, they insist on “reaching a deal.” Regime apologists in Europe and the US also claim Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program nearly two decades ago. If the assertions that the regime has ceased the military component of its nuclear program, and that the entire project is for peaceful purposes are true, why does Zarif threaten to accelerate it if US sanctions are not lifted?

All this perhaps indicates that Iran’s nuclear program might be less significant than portrayed, and it is being inflated to distract the international community from more vital issues such as the regime’s ballistic missile program, support for proxy groups from Iraq to Lebanon, and human rights violations.

The regime leveraged the same strategy going into negotiations: to depict the nuclear issue so critical that other important matters pertaining to the regime’s criminal conduct are kept off the table. It is the only leverage Iran has, and Biden should recognize its inadequacies. The US should not be deceived by the regime’s smoke screen. Biden should resist being rushed into signing an accord that is of little benefit to the US and doomed to fall apart in short order.

A joint comprehensive plan of action should be exactly that – comprehensive.

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Reza Behrouz is an Iranian-American physician based in Texas, USA, and a member of the advisory board for Iranian Americans for Liberty.

Amin Sophiamehr is an Iranian-American scholar in political philosophy at Indiana University.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.