When it Comes to the Iran Nuclear Deal, What’s a Moderate Democrat to Do?
President Joe Biden has put Democrats who opposed, or at least have concerns about, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in a bind: he appears to share some of their concerns but wants to rejoin the deal anyway. Reservations about this approach led a bipartisan group of 43 senators to write Biden recently urging him to pursue a new deal, not the JCPOA. However, with Biden pushing the JCPOA as the best means for stopping Iran’s accelerating nuclear program, Democrats who care about preventing a nuclear Iran might feel out of options — particularly as nuclear negotiations with Iran begin this week. They shouldn’t.
Moderate Democrats like Senators Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin joined a bipartisan majority voting to disapprove of the deal in 2015. The concerns then were that the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program were too lax — with most expiring within 10-15 years, thereafter permitting an almost unlimited uranium enrichment program — and non-existent regarding other dangerous Iranian activities, such as development of ballistic missiles.
Those worries are only more pronounced today. Already some of the JCPOA’s provisions — like its embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran — have expired. Others will lapse shortly. That is why even Democrats who originally supported the deal, like Senator Cory Booker, acknowledge “we cannot turn back the clock” and are reluctant to return to it.
Biden seems to agree. Last year he made an “unshakeable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” pledging to “strengthen and extend the [JCPOA’s] provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
Yet, to get to this stronger, longer, better deal, Biden proposed first returning to the JCPOA and only then pursuing “follow-on negotiations.” He fears running out of time.
Administration officials warn that following serial violation of the JCPOA, enriching ever more uranium, to ever higher levels, with ever more sophisticated centrifuges, Iran now has the ability now to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in as little as three months, down from an estimated year under JCPOA restrictions. Biden presents rejoining the JCPOA as the only way to stop this ticking clock before it’s too late, arguing, “the last goddamn thing we need in that part of the world is a buildup of nuclear capability.” In other words, preventing a nuclear Iran requires first accepting a deal that moderate Democrats rightly criticize for failing to achieve that goal in the first place.
There are three major problems with this argument.
First, to return to the JCPOA is to be stuck with the JCPOA. If he lifts sanctions in exchange for Iranian abiding by nuclear restrictions expiring in just five years, Biden would be left with neither leverage nor inducements with which to negotiate a new deal. The JCPOA might possibly delay a nuclear Iran, but it would certainly enable it.
Second, rejoining the JCPOA means trusting Iran to abide by a deal it hasn’t honored. Tehran failed to reveal the full extent of its nuclear weapons research and has stymied international inspectors from visiting suspected military nuclear sites. Thus, the JCPOA is likely to buy far less time than Biden expects.
Third, the only proven way to stall Iran’s nuclear advances is not the JCPOA but through the tactical application, or credible threat, of force. In 2012, for example, Iran almost had enough 20 percent enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, yet it stopped short of that critical threshold after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a literal red line at the United Nations General Assembly. Even earlier, beginning in 2007, a joint U.S.-Israeli cyber-operation, Stuxnet, disrupted and damaged many of Iran’s centrifuges, delaying its nuclear program. Since then, additional sabotage and covert activities have further hampered Iran’s advances.
The obverse is also true: in the absence of a threat or with an abundance of diplomatic enthusiasm, Iran accelerates its nuclear progress.
Biden expressed his determination to reenter the JCPOA, appointed senior officials who negotiated the JCPOA and have shown undue understanding for the Tehran regime and reportedly is now willing to grant some sanctions relief before Iran fully complies with the JCPOA, in contravention of his own pledge. Iran has responded with nuclear escalation and proxy attacks on U.S. forces and partners. These are not the actions of a good-faith partner in diplomacy but of an adversary seeking to extract maximum advantage.
Iran’s nuclear clock must be stopped. Yet, Biden’s attempts to take two-steps backward into the JCPOA would inevitably, as moderate Democrats suspect, only speed up the ticking. There is a better way to buy time: a credible military threat against, or sabotage of, Iran’s nuclear program. If Biden isn’t prepared to do that, then the United States should give Israel the tools and freedom of action it needs to do so.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Blaise Misztal is JINSA’s vice president for Policy.
Originally published in The Hill