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Experts urge swift return to Iran nuclear deal

In a letter to Biden, more than four dozen Iran observers say time to revive the JCPOA is limited.

A group of more than 50 international relations and Middle East experts have signed onto a letter urging President-elect Joe Biden to swiftly return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

President Donald Trump had broken with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, replacing it with an economic and military pressure campaign aimed at the Iranian government. The Trump administration insists that the goal is a better deal, although former administration officials say that the true objective was to bring down the Iranian government.

Biden has vowed to return to the nuclear deal, arguing that maximum pressure has failed and returning to the JCPOA is the first step to a wider diplomatic solution with Iran. But he may face serious domestic political obstacles in returning to diplomacy with Iran.

“The U.S. and Iran moved to the precipice of war twice, Iran expanded its nuclear leverage to counter America’s sanctions and the Iranian people were crushed between U.S. sanctions and their own government’s repression,” says the letter, which was led by the National Iranian American Council. “This self-inflicted wound set the U.S. on a destructive path with no easy offramp.”

It proposes “immediate action to revive diplomatic channels,” including revoking Trump’s 2018 executive order to leave the deal, calling a meeting of the other world powers involved in the deal, and providing Iran with coronavirus-related sanctions relief.

Several people affiliated with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft signed the NIAC letter, including president Andrew Bacevich, executive vice president Trita Parsi, deputy director for research and policy Stephen Wertheim, and distinguished fellow Joseph Cirincione.

Other notable signatories include Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street; Mark Fitzpatrick, former acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation; and Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

American hawks and Middle Eastern governments have argued that Biden should hold off on returning to the deal and continue with pressure for the time being.

“Rather than squander the leverage built up by Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign for no higher purpose than restoring a flawed arms-control agreement, Biden should exploit that leverage (and Iran’s desperate economic straits) to negotiate a better deal,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior counselor John Hannah wrote in a December 2020 article for Foreign Policy.

FDD chief executive Mark Dubowitz vowed in August 2020 that the Republican Party and Israel would “lobby against” the nuclear deal alongside his own organization. Israeli officials have been campaigning against a return to the JCPOA in recent weeks, and Iran’s top nuclear scientist was assassinated in an Israeli operation a little over a month ago.

Iranian officials themselves have said that they are not interested in negotiations without a return to the original 2015 deal. And experts are concerned that the pressure campaign could actually make an agreement harder as time goes on.

Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence officer and signatory on the NIAC letter, pushed back against the claim that Biden should use Trump’s sanctions as leverage, writing in Responsible Statecraft last month that Iranian leadership may lose interest in a deal if they “see their country being punished no matter what it does.”

“Rather than see your negotiating position further erode, you should take immediate action to revive diplomatic channels,” the NIAC letter states. “Undoubtedly, reviving diplomacy will be difficult, but there is likely to be a time-bound window to save the JCPOA.”

The NIAC letter warns that continuing the pressure campaign could “risk allowing the window to negotiate with Iran to close entirely,” particularly if Iran throws off additional nuclear safeguards or if a hardline administration takes power in Tehran.

Iranian authorities announced on Monday that they would begin enriching uranium to 20 percent purity in accordance with a law passed by parliament. The move brings Iran within reach of producing weapons-grade uranium, but Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphasized that it was “fully reversible” if all parties return to compliance with the JCPOA.

Under the JCPOA, the United States and five other world powers had agreed to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. Trump re-imposed U.S. sanctions in 2018, severely damaging the Iranian economy and provoking Iran to ramp up its nuclear research.

The United States and Iran have also been engaged in an escalating series of covert operations and armed confrontations around the Middle East.

Tensions came to a head in July 2019, when Iranian air defense forces shot down a U.S. drone and Trump ordered airstrikes in retaliation, only to cancel the order. Another near-war broke out in January 2020, when U.S. forces assassinated Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iranian forces responded with a ballistic missile attack on a U.S. airbase.

U.S. forces have been building up in the region again as the Trump administration warns of unspecified Iranian threats.

The NIAC letter is reminiscent of a September 2002 open letter in the New York Times warning against the imminent invasion of Iraq, signed by 33 international relations experts.

Several signatories of the 2002 letter — Columbia University professor Robert Jervis, Harvard University professor Stephen Walt, and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer — also signed the NIAC letter.

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