Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has promised that, if elected, he will return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (also known as the "JCPOA"). While many Democrats have endorsed this initiative, progressive groups place restoration of the JCPOA at the forefront of their foreign policy recommendations to the Biden campaign.
A prospective Biden administration would encounter a series of obstacles in its path to reconstituting the deal. As Special Representative Brian Hook stated in an interview with CNBC, by the time President Donald Trump is finished with his term, "there's not going to be much of [a deal] left to join for those who aspire to that outcome."
Let us review the interplay of factors that will render the accord obsolete by the time Biden would hypothetically take office.
The Trump administration is seeking an extension to the arms embargo against the Islamic Republic. If it fails to secure an extension, the U.S. will then force the reimposition of U.N. sanctions on the regime via the "snapback" mechanism. The U.S. retains the right to initiate snapback despite withdrawal from the JCPOA because it was one of the original "participant states." The snapback measure will in effect deliver the coup de grâce to the JCPOA.
Israel, for its part, is seemingly on a mission to deprive the regime of the leverage it could use to re-enter negotiations. Multiple explosions have been reported in Iran in the past weeks, including one at a missile production complex near Parchin and another at the Natanz nuclear facility. Asked for his thoughts on the explosions, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi reiterated his country's policy on preventing the Iranian regime from having nuclear weapons. "We take actions that are better left unsaid," he added.
This statement is not necessarily evidence of Israel's direct involvement, but does not rule it out either. The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida cited an unnamed senior source as saying Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jets hit the missile base, while a cyber-attack caused the explosion at the Natanz facility. Islamic Republic officials suspect that the explosion in Natanz may have been caused by a cyber-attack. They have also acknowledged that the explosion has set back Iran's nuclear program by months. If these explosions are indeed a coordinated effort by Israel to paralyze the regime's nuclear and missile programs, Iran will no longer possess any form of leverage to bring to the negotiating table.
Another factor is the upcoming presidential elections in Iran, in spring 2021. With widespread corruption, economic turmoil and unfulfilled promises under President Hassan Rouhani, not to mention the malign incompetence in managing the COVID-19 contagion, voter turnout will likely be low (as it was during the February 2020 legislative elections). Furthermore, in order to solidify his power and influence, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is likely to do one of two things. He could abolish presidential elections and the president's office entirely and, instead, install a puppet prime minister. This way, Khamenei can consolidate his autocracy while maintaining a semblance of a republic. The other possibility is for Khamenei to compel the "election" of a president who is fully loyal to his ideological camp.
In either scenario, a radical Islamist is likely to become the head of Iran's "elected" body; one who could reject any form of dialogue with the U.S., or a nuclear deal altogether. The new hardline parliament is already against any prospective deal that involves negotiations with the U.S., and would subsequently back this "elected" official's rigid posture against the West. As a result, the regime would probably refuse any further engagements with the U.S. to discuss its nuclear program.
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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad ZarifNOEL CELIS - POOL/GETTY IMAGES
Even if there are future negotiations for renewing the JCPOA, the regime could conceivably demand additional concessions, including compensation for the capital lost during the period the U.S. was disengaged from the deal. Should Biden remove all sanctions on the regime shortly after taking office, the U.S. would lose all negotiating advantage and could be forced to concede to Iran's demands in order to secure a new deal. This would be a monumental defeat for the U.S. The Islamic Republic, according to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, believes the JCPOA was "forced" upon the U.S. A new deal with further concessions made by the U.S. will be a unilateral win for the Islamic Republic.
The agreement cannot be reconstituted in its original form. The global arena of politics has undergone a revolution since the U.S. exited the deal under President Trump. Several crucial issues that were non-negotiable for the Islamic Republic under the original accord are now unavoidable. These include the regime's ballistic missile program, support of proxy Shia militia throughout the Middle East, and human rights violations. The regime's conduct following the enactment of the JCPOA is a testament to why these issues cannot be ignored. While pursuing a single-issue deal is ill-advised and would constitute unsound diplomacy, reaching a multi-faceted agreement with the Islamic Republic on these grounds is improbable. The regime will neither negotiate nor give up on matters that define its very existence.
Lastly, assuming an agreement is forged between the Biden administration and the Islamic Republic, without undergoing congressional ratification to become a treaty, it could ultimately collapse under Biden's successor. It happened to the JCPOA under Trump. On the flip side, a binding treaty with an untrustworthy regime that is the world's biggest state sponsor of terror has its obvious inherent risks and ramifications.
The Democrats' expression of desire to return to the JCPOA seems more like political posturing than it does genuine strategic concern for a nuclear-capable regime. It is not only that they believe the deal was President Obama and their party's foreign policy triumph, but they advocate for its renewal because departure from it was purely a Trumpian initiative. None of the Democratic politicians, including Biden himself, appear to fully realize that renewing the JCPOA is next to impossible in 2021. No phoenix will rise from the ashes of what was once a house of cards that so easily unraveled.
Dr. Reza Behrouz is an Iranian-American physician and medical researcher in Texas.
Dr. Shervan Fashandi is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and banking expert based in New York. He serves on the board of directors for Iranian Americans for Liberty.
The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.