Early 20th-century arms control treaties ended without achieving their purpose of avoiding future wars. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, signed by the Allies of World War I with Germany, was designed to curtail Berlin’s rearmament. The Washington Naval Treaty, signed in 1922, sought to prevent an arms race by limiting the construction of naval ships. By the mid-1930s, Japan and Germany had renounced those treaties and the Allies found themselves on the way to fighting the Second World War. With a new U.S. president in office, we will soon learn whether or not the 21st-century effort to curtail Iran’s plan to build nuclear weapons will suffer a similar fate.
In 2015, President Barack Obama announced that an agreement had been reached with Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the U.S. side included the P5+1 nations (five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council plus Germany), together with the European Union. Although the Senate approved the JCPOA, critical elements of the deal were kept hidden. Only later was it learned that the agreement was filled with holes benefitting Tehran. In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew from the deal because Iran was violating JCPOA terms, and he subsequently imposed severe economic sanctions on Tehran.
Among the JCPOA holes were failures to address the following:
- Iran’s nuclear arms cooperation with North Korea that circumvented the JCPOA’s stated purpose
- Iran’s intercontinental missile program
- Iran’s role as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism
- Iran’s many documented human rights violations
- Iran’s denying UN inspectors access to military installations to check for nuclear weapons violations
- Iran’s aggression in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere
- And finally, the JCPOA included a sunset clause that stipulated that, at a future date, Iran would be free of all its obligations not to develop a nuclear arsenal.
Despite all these failings, President Biden has been encouraged by 150 members of Congress to rejoin the JCPOA. Such encouragement was rather superfluous since he had already said, “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. 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. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
There are several problems with President Biden’s statement.
First, although the mullahs will surely embrace a U.S. return to the JCPOA, they will vigorously press for the U.S. to do so “as is.” That is, without plugging the holes. They will maintain that anything short of that will be a deal-breaker.
Second, using a return to the old JCPOA as a “starting point” would mean Biden must lift sanctions. Doing that would be disastrous for American negotiating leverage because it would revitalize a death spiral economy that is creating conditions that put the mullahs under heavy pressure to agree to a reasonable deal. As Biden’s mentor, Obama, has acknowledged, the threat of sanctions was necessary to get Iran to agree to even the existing flawed deal. What hope could Biden have of negotiating an improved JCPOA if he caves on the existing sanctions as a starting point?
Third, during the old JCPOA negotiations the mullahs received millions of dollars from the U.S. for simply showing up to talk. They will surely demand that the cash spigot be turned on again. They have already hinted they will seek compensation for damages to their economy caused by Trump’s sanctions.
Biden must certainly understand that simply rejoining the JCPOA and embracing Obama’s deal as his own will not curtail Iran’s plan to develop nuclear weapons. A new and vastly improved JCPOA is needed. The mullahs may kick and scream but Biden must utilize the fact that their options are limited. Iran’s economic sponge has been squeezed dry to the point of domestic rioting and sabotage. The country is a powder keg that is very likely to explode if the economic screws continue to be turned.
Knowing that the mullahs desperately need the U.S. to return to the JCPOA and lift sanctions, one would assume they would court Biden as the chances, obviously, of getting a good deal are better with the new president than they were with the previous one. However, their recent aggressive actions suggest they have little interest in courtship.
Their acts include:
- Seizing a South Korean oil tanker in Persian Gulf international waters
- Announcing on January 4th that they were beginning to enrich uranium to 20% purity -approaching weapons-grade.
Perhaps the fear of reprisal is fading. Or, perhaps they believe Biden wants a deal more than they do. Whatever the reason, it does not auger well for successful negotiations.
The arms control treaties of the early 20th century were failures because they relied on the good faith of despotic regimes. To negotiate a deal with the despotic mullahs with a chance of deterring their pursuit of nuclear weapons, President Biden must look forward to “JCPOA future” and not backward to “JCPOA past.”