After four years of diplomatic and economic hammering on Iran’s illicit nuclear-weapons program by the Trump administration, President-elect Joe Biden has made clear that he intends to re-engage with the Islamic Republic.
According to some reports, Biden intends to bring the United States back, with no preconditions, to the failed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—President Barack Obama’s Iran deal signed in July 2015.
What remains unclear is how Biden intends to deal with Iran’s cheating on the original JCPOA, plus five momentous years that have transpired since 2015, or with the demands that Iran is already making that the United States pay it reparations as punishment.
President Donald Trump famously withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, calling the agreement “horrible” and saying the United States would “work with our allies to find a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms. This was a position welcomed by many American allies in the region, like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Nonetheless, Biden has indicated on a number of occasions his eagerness to renew the JCPOA.
“If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” then-candidate Biden wrote in September. “With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
In fact, it is precisely the long list of “other issues of concern” that Biden should place ahead of any return to negotiations over the Iranian nuclear-weapons program because at the moment the Islamic Republic is a massive force of instability, bloodshed and treachery in the region.
One of the reasons the JCPOA failed is that it only addressed the nuclear-weapons issue—and then only temporarily—and failed to deal with Iran’s problematic role in the region and beyond, especially its hegemonic ambitions. Let’s start with Iran’s imperialist agenda.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the ruling ayatollahs have embarked on an ideology of gharbzadegi, which is the concept that all foreign ideas and Western culture are a plague that needs to be eradicated. While the Iranian regime has claimed to oppose colonialism, it has simultaneously created an empire of influence and physical presence throughout the region by importing its radical Shi’ite worldview, largely through proxies. Its repressive might has been felt widely in the region—through violence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that has cost millions of lives.
In addition, Iran’s sophisticated weapons systems have wreaked destruction throughout the region. While there is an official weapons embargo on Iran, its arms are regularly sent to its proxies, usually terrorist groups, like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. They have also been used further afield—in attacks against Saudi oil refineries, as well as in Africa and Latin America, with illicit economic activity, smuggling illegal material, espionage and the training of armed subversive groups.
In other words, to focus only on Iran’s acquisition of nuclear-weapons capability, as the JCPOA did, misses a larger problem: Nuclear arms are only Iran’s means to a nefarious end. This capability is being developed to help it gain a firmer grip over regional opponents, threaten enemies and strong-arm allies.
In fact, Iran’s presence is felt in every single conflict in the region, and the JCPOA failed to stop—let alone address—the bloodshed.
For Biden and his team, Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the “maximum pressure” campaign placed on Iran presents a prime opportunity. If Team Biden wants to make a better deal with Iran, it needs to seize the negotiating advantage Trump has left them and acknowledge the region’s new realities.
First, the Iranians have not held up their end of the bargain, halting neither nuclear research nor weapons development. Furthermore, Iran’s imperialist hunger was only whetted by the JCPOA sanctions relief, the billions of dollars in payments it received from the West, and the preferential seat it received at the top table of global diplomacy.
Second, the Biden administration needs to recognize that the Iranian regime has historically responded not to kindness, but to intense leverage. The relatively small window when U.S. troops were on the ground en masse in Iraq and Afghanistan also coincided with the slowest pace and even the stalling of Iran’s nuclear program. Trump’s sanctions have also had an effect, bringing the fragile Iranian economy to its knees. Biden needs to use all of the tools at his command and sustain maximum pressure in order to ensure more preferable concessions from the Iranians.
Above all, Biden’s negotiations goal—should the Iranians even agree to sit down with him—cannot be friendship, but rather aim resolutely to satisfy core U.S. interests. After all, the United States and its allies face serious threats and we now hold the cards.
If the United States returns to the JCPOA, Iran must agree to a complete, total and permanent halt to its nuclear weapons program, even the reversal of all non-civilian or dual-use elements of nuclear technology. The next U.S. administration should also ensure that the Islamic Republic halts its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015), which calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such long-range missile technology.
Finally, Iran must cease colonization of its neighbors and other forms of invasive terror. It must cease its funding for foreign terrorists, stop its involvement in regional conflicts and end the violent export of extremist Shi’ite revolutionary ideology.
If Biden can achieve these reasonable points, the region will indeed become a safer place. We will see greater peace and reconciliation between many groups, such as warring parties in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as the warming of relations we are witnessing between Israel and Arab Gulf nations.
Achieving these goals would be worthy of Biden’s efforts. Merely slowing down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons—as the original JCPOA attempted to do—would be more than a waste of time. It would inject greater alarm and heightened danger into the already precarious Middle East.
James Sinkinson is President of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.