Here’s what you need to know about Iran and its nuclear program:
- The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear accord, was a bad deal.
- When the US withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran had about 200 kilograms of enriched uranium, near the maximum allowed by the accord.
- Today Iran has about 3,000 kilograms of enriched uranium, including up to 17.6 kilograms of 20% enrichment. They’re beginning to step it up to 60%. (Nuclear weapons require 90% enrichment.)
The conclusion from these figures:
- It wasn’t the accord that drove Iran to multiply its nuclear stockpile.
- It was the US withdrawal from the accord.
This was, indeed, a bad deal. It left loopholes: It excluded heavy water, a component of some types of reactors used to produce nuclear weapons. It left some sites uninspected. It did not cover ballistic missiles. It did not stop Iran’s subversive activities in the region.
What it did, however, was create a 10-year window of opportunity to persuade Iran to change its policies, abandon its nuclear aspirations, and rejoin the world.
For nearly two years, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran complied with the terms of the accord.
Critics charged that the IAEA is a useless organization that couldn’t count the toes on one foot, much less the nukes in Iran. But the US itself, under then-President Donald Trump, certified Iran’s compliance with the terms of the accord in April and July 2017, before President Trump pulled the plug on the deal in May 2018 anyway.
But since it was a bad deal, why not kill it?
Anyone who has ever negotiated an agreement will tell you that the result is a “bad deal.” That’s if it’s judged against the maximum desires and demands of one side over the other. In other words, not a deal, but surrender.
Assessing the accord  after I read it  in 2015 (and I’ve read many in 50+ years as a journalist), I determined that it was the most restrictive deal I’d ever seen that did not involve a nation vanquished on the battlefield.
- Iran does not pose a serious threat to Israel because it’s well aware of Israel’s second-strike capability.
- Torpedoing the deal leads to a self-fulfilling “I told you so” scenario that literally blows up in our faces.
- There is no guarantee – just the opposite – that a new regime in Iran would be pro-American, pro-Israel, or pro-Western.
Here’s a quote from the 2015 Iran accord:
“Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons. … For 15 years, Iran will not engage in producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys, or conducting R&D on plutonium or uranium (or their alloys) metallurgy, or casting, forming, or machining plutonium or uranium metal.”
There are pages and pages of specific restrictions.
An actual deal should be judged by its results. And according to the parameters set by the JCPOA and verified by the IAEA and a hostile US, it was working the way it was supposed to work.
The loopholes were significant and the lack of attention to Iran’s missiles and subversive activities was a critical shortcoming. What would be the best way to deal with those issues?
- Scrap the accord and start over?
- Convene a new round of negotiations to build on the existing deal?
And what about the idea that Iran is evil, can’t be trusted, and will go ahead with its nuclear weapons program no matter what agreement it signs?
Yes, what about that? The world, led by Israel, tried to stop Iran’s nuclear program with threats, sanctions, and military measures for more than two decades. The result was a failure as far as the nuclear program was concerned but success in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. There, a deal was hammered out.
And according to the numbers above, it worked pretty well. Canceling it, in contrast, led Iran to multiply its nuclear efforts, as a way to either obtain nuclear weapons or force concessions in the next round of negotiations.
One of the hardest things for the human mind to do is scrap a long-held set of failed, obsolete beliefs and replace it with a new set. Yet that is what is needed here. Decades of pressure of all kinds ruined Iran’s economy but had little impact on the regime and its behavior. A negotiated agreement, imperfect though it was, did. Those are the facts.
Can negotiations and deals rein Iran in? There is no way of knowing. We didn’t try. We quickly reverted to military threats and sanctions instead. But if we’ve learned any lessons from the last five decades, it is that military-centric strong-arm policies don’t work. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam are just a few examples.
The sensible approach to stop Iran’s nuclear program is a carrot instead of another ineffective stick: Negotiate a return to an accord, new and improved if possible.
It won’t be easy to persuade anyone to trust an American signature on a future agreement, since one was abrogated less than two years after the US signed it. But an agreement offering carrots to both sides is the only hope for success.