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How re-entering the Iran nuclear deal can help restore US alliances

Europe blames both Tehran and Washington for the tension regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

President Biden has consistently stated that rejoining the nuclear deal with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — is in the U.S. national security interest. A fully implemented JCPOA remains the best way to keep Iran from possessing enough material to produce nuclear weapons and to maintain highly intrusive inspections to determine whether Iran moves to violate its nuclear commitments. A renewed JCPOA is also the only way to effectively pursue Iran’s other dangerous behavior, including regional instability and advanced weaponry.  After four years of JCPOA critics having full and free rein to find an alternative, none has been credibly offered or pursued.

Restoring the JCPOA not only helps prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, but it’s also now an essential part of one of President Biden’s top priorities — repairing U.S. alliances and American credibility.  

The United States’ closest allies — including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — as well as the European Union are also parties to the JCPOA and want to see America fully rejoin the agreement it helped create. They have watched with frustration and confusion as the United States under President Trump denigrated and eventually violated the agreement. These countries understandably expect the United States to live up to its commitments to Europe, and more broadly. Their very security is premised on America being able to do so, as is ours.  

It is dangerous enough that Donald Trump left Iran perhaps only a few months away from a nuclear weapon threshold. But he also left the U.S.’s core strategy for its defense — the interlocking collective security arrangements built around NATO and our allies in East Asia — severely damaged. Repairing these alliances will require broad and consistent efforts, and are also motivating factors in President Biden’s efforts to bring the United States back into compliance with its JCPOA obligations.

Supporters and critics of the JCPOA are again making their arguments for and against the deal.  JCPOA proponents are again noting the deal’s terms and strengths, while critics are again complaining that the deal does not do more beyond the nuclear file. These battle lines are familiar to anyone who paid attention to the original effort to negotiate and implement the deal in 2015. And ultimately any justification to re-enter the JCPOA must stand on its own merits, but there are other factors that should be taken into account.

But the deal’s critics — who applauded Trump’s persistent but unsuccessful efforts to terminate the JCPOA and to place “maximum pressure” on Iran — want to ignore Trump’s other actions on the global stage (not to mention his efforts to undermine democracy at home and other domestic transgressions). 

But the damage wrought by Trump’s reactionary moves are clear for all to see. The reality is that U.S. allies now doubt Washington’s commitments more than at any time perhaps since the 1970s. The United States is more isolated from its European allies over Iran than at any time since the early 2000s, when the United States embarked on a regime change war in Iraq and many in Washington at that time advocated doing the same in Iran and North Korea. 

In addition to imposing sanctions on Iran in violation of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA and without legal cause, President Trump sanctioned U.S. allies over Iran and sought to abuse legal rights under U.N. Security Council resolutions. Even if one believes that the United States has some additional leverage over Iran because of the impact of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy has had on Iran’s economy, it remains illogical to believe that such leverage can somehow be used  without doing further damage to our allies in Europe, whom we need not only to successfully constrain Iran’s nuclear potential but also to take further action should those efforts falter.

In fact, it makes more sense for the United States to put more pressure on Iran by quickly living up to its commitments under the JCPOA than by again holding out for some wishful but unobtainable “better deal.”

Washington’s European allies are united in their concern about Iran’s nuclear potential and also in wanting to see the United States live up to its commitments in the JCPOA, just as they are united in wanting America to again reinforce the depth of its security commitment to its allies.  The fact that the terms of the Iran deal were enshrined in United National Security Council resolutions — something these governments sincerely care about as supporters of international law — is another factor in wanting to see the United States return to compliance with the deal.  

But underlying the arguments for both the JCPOA’s constraints and benefits, and the support for the U.N. as a relevant factor in global affairs, Europeans want to know if the United States can be believed again. For four years, the U.S. president actively cast doubt on what President Biden has called America’s “sacred commitment” to live up to its Article V obligations to stand with allies if they are attacked. Yet what President Biden sees as sacred, his predecessor saw as a “protection racket.” Without restoring confidence in America’s ability to keep its word, maintaining NATO becomes even harder.

Logically, if there were a viable alternative to the JCPOA to both constrain Iran and restore American credibility, perhaps President Biden could pursue it without doing damage to NATO. But the JCPOA must stand on its own merits, a standard that explains the wide and sustained support the deal has among experts concerned about the ramifications of Iran developing nuclear weapons.  

But we have also seen two presidents — George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump — run similar strategies on Iran. Both presidents left office with Iran months away from being able to produce enough nuclear material for a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so. Both started their terms with Iran’s nuclear potential contained, and left with it almost unbound. And both punished our European partners for believing that diplomacy could achieve something that economic pressure and military threats could not, leaving our closest friends and allies scarred and doubting America’s leadership anew.  

The reality is that in 2008 and in 2020, America’s allies considered Washington as much as Tehran to blame for the tension and conflict over Iran’s nuclear future. That Europeans can debate whether Iran — caught red handed in violating its nuclear commitments two decades ago and a major state supporter of instability and violence in the region — or the United States — which helped liberate the continent from fascism in 1945 and communism in 1989, and has stood with them for generations — shows just how much damage the Bush and Trump administrations have done to American credibility in Europe.  

The reality — now proven two times over — is that the only viable way to contain the potential of a nuclear Iran runs through diplomacy, backed by an effective and united global alliance. 

Constraining Iran’s other dangerous behavior is a widely and rightly supported goal, but the road to doing so now, as it did in 2015, runs through the JCPOA, not around it. Continued negotiations to limit other dangerous activities, or heighten pressure on Iran should those efforts fail, all rely on the belief that the United States is ready and able to take yes for an answer. The path to restoring America’s pre-eminent security blanket — its alliances — does as well.

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