The Biden administration continues to push the myth that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal, was a success in restraining Iran’s nuclear program. In the words of State Department spokesman Ned Price, it provided a “permanent . . . mechanism to ensure that Iran is never able or allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Secretary Antony Blinken recently reiterated this view, blaming Iran’s nuclear progress on the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the deal:
Before the previous administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA . . . Iran’s nuclear program was in a box. Iran was abiding by its commitments under the agreement. Its nuclear program was the most rigorously monitored and verified in history. The breakout time needed for Iran to acquire enough fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon had been extended to more than a year. In short, the JCPOA was working.
These statements are deceptive at best, designed to justify the administration’s failed, imprudent overtures to Tehran.
The truth is that the JCPOA was not designed to be a “permanent . . . mechanism.” It included multiple sunset clauses that ensured sanctions would expire at steady intervals until 2031. Even Iran’s commitment to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring and verification under the JCPOA would expire by 2040.
In short, even if Tehran had abided by the agreement, the JCPOA would not have prevented Iran from pursuing a nuclear program down the road. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran would have eventually been permitted to produce highly enriched uranium, use advanced centrifuges, and conduct other activities necessary for it to produce a nuclear weapon.
Former President Obama even acknowledged that, toward the end of the timeline enshrined in the JCPOA, Iran could use “advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly. And at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” Thus, the shorter breakout times about which Secretary Blinken expresses concern would at best have been delayed, rather than prevented, by the deal.
When pressed about the non-permanent nature of the JCPOA, Price pointed vaguely to other “international instruments” that would have “permanently and verifiably constrained Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Presumably, he was referring to the Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran ratified in 1970 and then violated repeatedly, leading the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on it.
During his confirmation hearings, Secretary Blinken implicitly acknowledged the limitations of the JCPOA by promising to secure a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal. Why would you need a longer deal if the JCPOA were “permanent”? Why would you need a stronger deal if the JCPOA were the “most rigorously monitored and verified [agreement] in history”?
To support his contention that the JCPOA was working before the Trump administration abandoned it, Blinken points to international inspections and experts who asserted that Iran’s breakout time was slowed by the agreement. But these assessments are based on incomplete information, because Iran has never granted inspectors from the IAEA unimpeded access. On the contrary, Iran regularly interferes with IAEA inspectors, delaying access and declaring certain locations, especially military facilities, off limits. Without full, transparent access, it is impossible to verify Iran’s compliance.
Furthermore, materials spirited out of Iran by Israeli intelligence operatives in 2018 revealed that Tehran never disclosed its nuclear work under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or its nuclear-weapons program (known internally in Iran as the Amad plan) as required under the JCPOA. This is in addition to other Iranian violations of the deal committed back when the U.S. remained party to it.
In other words, beyond the JCPOA’s numerous shortcomings, such as its failure to address the Iranian ballistic-missile program, there were significant questions about Iran’s strategic intentions and compliance with the deal well before the Trump administration left the agreement.
If Iran hid its nuclear work before, why would you believe that it will not do so going forward? If Iran could hide the information from the international community and the IAEA before, why can’t it do so again?
The fact is that the JCPOA is inadequate. The best that could be said of it is that it slowed the development of Iran’s nuclear program, or at least the development of the program’s known elements. But in return for that temporary slowdown, it gave Tehran a front-loaded package of financial benefits—resources that have subsequently been used to support regional terrorism and domestic repression.
And if the best that could be said of the JCPOA is that it slowed down the development of Iran’s nuclear program, then it was a failure by President Biden’s own standards: Biden has vowed to never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, even as he presses on with an effort to revive the JCPOA that directly undermines that objective.
The dubious value of the deal diminishes by the day. By design, the agreement traded temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for permanent benefits to the regime. Sanctions were loosened, allowing Iran to access billions in funds and solicit foreign investment. A schedule was set to terminate U.N. sanctions: restrictions on conventional-weapons trade expired in 2020; sanctions on Iran’s ballistic-missile program would have ended in 2023, and all other U.N. sanctions would have expired in 2025. So even if the Biden administration were to succeed in reviving the JCPOA, the deal would only have a shelf life of a few years.
Naturally, then, Blinken promised to seek a longer, stronger deal during his confirmation. But Iran has no desire to bind itself further with such a deal. All evidence indicates that Iran has played the Biden administration for fools over the past two years, getting limited sanctions relief and running out the clock.
What do I mean by “running out the clock”? Well, under the JCPOA, the ability to reimpose U.N. sanctions is set to expire in 2025. And once that happens, good luck getting the Security Council to adopt new resolutions sanctioning Iran even if it openly pursues a nuclear program: Because Iran is supplying Russia with drones for its war on Ukraine, Russia—a permanent member of the Security Council—would inevitably veto any such attempt.
To achieve President Biden’s stated goal—preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon—the U.S. must chart a different course. The JCPOA was never a solution to the Iranian nuclear conundrum, and if Iran’s nuclear ambitions are to be deterred, the U.S. must acknowledge the deal’s failure.
Time is running out. Through its support of terrorism and efforts to destabilize the Middle East, Iran poses a major threat to U.S. interests in the region. The U.S. must work with allied JCPOA parties to reimpose the U.N. sanctions now, while it still has the chance. It must work with its allies to reapply harsh pressure and sanctions to Iran as a complement to the internal pressure the regime faces from the protest movement that has sprung up across the country in recent months.
At the same time, the U.S. must prepare contingency plans to set back Iran’s nuclear program by force if necessary. While diplomacy is the preferred option, endless negotiations are no solution. Iran has made clear its hostility to the U.S. and its desire to destroy Israel. The threat it poses must be taken seriously, not minimized with wishful thinking and laughable efforts to spin the JCPOA’s failure as a success.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review