National Security & Defense

How Biden Could Truly ‘Fix’ the Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sits for an interview with Reuters in New York, N.Y., April 24, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The new president must ignore Tehran’s absurd demands and set some preconditions of his own for resuming talks.

According to press reports, Iranian officials have given the Biden administration seven preconditions to meet before Tehran will join new talks on resuming compliance with the provisions of the deeply flawed 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA.

These preconditions appear to be a ploy to bully Biden administration officials, who are desperate to rejoin the JCPOA, into entering an agreement that is even worse. Biden’s team should refuse to play along. Instead of being cowed into submission, it should announce its own preconditions for reaching a nuclear deal that fully addresses the JCPOA’s failings and the whole range of threats posed by Iran while also providing a way for the Islamic Republic to enter the community of nations.

Biden officials claim the president wants to return the U.S. to the JCPOA, which President Trump exited, once Iran comes into compliance with its terms. After that happens, he hopes to begin talks on a better and broader agreement. There are three problems with this position.

First, Iran has never been in compliance with the JCPOA. Israel proved massive Iranian violations of the agreement in 2018, when it revealed documents stolen from Iran’s “nuclear archive.”

Second, even if Iran had been complying with the JCPOA, the deal would still be fatally flawed, since it allowed Iran to continue nuclear-weapons-related work — including uranium enrichment — for as long as it remained in effect. We know from plentiful past experience that Iran will often use holes in such agreements to advance parts of its nuclear-weapons-program that they don’t cover, such as warhead-design work. And we know from both previous IAEA reports and the Israeli-retrieved archives that such warhead-design work has been done since the JCPOA was signed, and never fully accounted for as the deal requires.

Finally, Iranian officials have made clear that they will never agree to negotiate the kind of follow-up, improved nuclear agreement Biden seeks.

As a former CIA analyst, I’ve written extensively on the JCPOA and argued that it is so severely flawed as to be unfixable. But given the Biden administration’s determination to rejoin the JCPOA and improve it, I believe it is time for me and other critics to provide some creative proposals on how the deal might be altered such that it truly protected international and American security interests.

Before I explain preconditions the Biden administration must insist on to bring about a legitimate agreement with Iran, I want to first outline and address Iran’s list of terms for resuming nuclear talks with the U.S.:

  • Iran refuses to agree to a partial lifting of U.S. sanctions before it resumes complying with the terms of the JCPOA;
  • Iran demands that disagreements concerning the JCPOA be resolved under the agreement by those party to it, a demand that is likely related to Tehran’s insistence that it be compensated for the sanctions President Trump hit it with;
  • Iran refuses to put non-nuclear issues such as its missile program and its activities in the Middle East on the table in new JCPOA talks;
  • Iran refuses to add new signatories such as Israel and the Gulf states to the JCPOA;
  • Iran refuses to discuss issues concerning other regional states in the talks;
  • Iran wants separate regional-arms-control talks to take place at the U.N., and apparently wants them to include Israel’s nuclear and missile programs;
  • Iran rejects a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, and insists on a U.N.-led referendum of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis on “land” issues.

These absurd demands and threats go well beyond what Biden officials have proposed for reopening nuclear talks, and should be rejected outright. Moreover, they prove why the Biden administration should not make any concessions to Iran — especially on security issues — in exchange for restarting the JCPOA or attempting to improve it.

Instead, President Biden should announce the following five preconditions for resuming talks. Iran would be required to agree to all of these preconditions before the U.S. came to the bargaining table or lifted sanctions:

  1. Iran must take serious and unequivocal steps to assure the world it has abandoned its nuclear-weapons program. These must include: permanently halting all uranium enrichment; permanently halting the development of uranium-enrichment centrifuges and dismantling existing centrifuges; ceasing the pursuit of a heavy-water reactor and the production of heavy water; sending Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country; permitting IAEA inspectors “anytime, any place” access to all possible nuclear-weapons-related sites; abandoning all uranium-metal- and plutonium-related experiments and activities; and fully answering all IAEA questions about prior nuclear-weapons-related work. All of these preconditions reflect the positions of pre-Obama American administrations. Many were even supported by the Obama administration, only to be surrendered during the original JCPOA talks. The Biden administration should keep the pressure — and all U.S. sanctions — on Iran until it agrees to close the loopholes that allowed it to continue nuclear-weapons-related research under the JCPOA and assures the world that it has permanently halted its nuclear-weapons program.
  1. The JCPOA’s short “sunset provisions” must be scrapped to make the agreement permanent. One major JCPOA provision expired in 2020; others expire in 2023 and 2025. (This is a significant flaw in the deal, but fixing it will be meaningless unless the above changes to the JCPOA — especially the ban on uranium enrichment — are implemented.)
  2. Any agreement must neutralize the whole range of threats Iran poses to regional and international security, including its ballistic-missile program, its support for terrorism, its meddling in Middle East disputes, and its funding and provision of arms to proxy groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
  3. Any revised deal must include buy-in from other states in the region. The JCPOA was an unusual agreement because those states most directly threatened by Iran’s nuclear program and belligerent behavior were excluded from the negotiations and did not become signatories. French President Emmanuel Macron recognized the danger of repeating this mistake when he said on January 29 that any new talks with Iran must include Saudi Arabia. Although Biden officials have pledged to consult with regional allies regarding a U.S. re-entry into the nuclear deal, they must go further to ensure that any new or revised deal with Iran addresses such states’ security concerns.
  4. Submit any new or revised deal with Iran to the U.S. Senate to be ratified as a treaty. As John Bolton and John Yoo explained in a recent National Review piece, although the JCPOA is in fact a treaty that was ratified by the Iranian Parliament, the Obama administration refused to call it a treaty, because under Article II of the U.S. Constitution treaties must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate, and there was little chance of garnering 67 senators’ support. This cynical maneuver alienated Republicans and significantly limited popular enthusiasm for the deal. Allowing the Senate to perform its constitutional responsibility by ratifying a strong and responsible treaty on Iran’s nuclear program and related issues would help avoid the same mistake this time around.

Reaching a legitimate agreement with Iran that addresses the threats posed by its nuclear and missile programs as well as its support of terrorism and meddling in regional disputes will be difficult. The steps outlined above should be the bedrock for any new or revised deal. The Biden administration must recognize that there are no shortcuts to a good agreement with Iran and be willing to walk away if Tehran will not agree to the above preconditions. The U.S. can always keep the Trump administration’s successful Maximum Pressure strategy, with its strong sanctions, in place until Iranian leaders are prepared to negotiate in good faith.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.

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