by Miceál O’Hurley
Editorial Opinion (Dublin) – Former President Donald J. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the painstakingly achieved Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), when he neither negotiated a ‘better deal’ as promised nor achieved his alternate goal of coercing Iran to unilaterally comply with his wishes, attained no discernable advantage. It was a mistake.
When Trump re-imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran he re-invigourated the regime’s hardliners in the lead-up to this year’s elections, dealing a severe blow to Iranian moderates. His decision to expand the sanctions to include those in the international community that did business with Iran all but declared the demise of American multilateralism, much to the displeasure of her long-time international partners.
Trump’s brand of what passed for ‘diplomacy’ only exacerbated a problem well on its way to being resolved. Re-imposing sanctions only worsened already severe humanitarian suffering made all the worse by a pandemic. As with all of Trump’s foreign relations policies he created an enduring impression that the days of American greatness, well earned by the Marshall Plan and over a century of promoting democratic values had given way to it being an unreliable partner. As the Irish Times writer Fintan O’Toole so eloquently observed in April 2020, “The United States has stirred many feelings around the world: love, hatred, fear, envy. But we have never felt pity for the US, until now.”
To be sure, President Joe Biden has done much to signal his intention to return America to its former prestige. Rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, joining the Russian Federation in extending the New START Treaty, acting to reassure America’s NATO allies and quickly implementing other multilateral initiatives was a good and decisive start. However, Biden has so far failed to rejoin the JCPOA which his National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, helped negotiate. The United States is keenly aware Iran is scheduled to implement statutory restrictions to reduce the number of United Nations inspectors in only nine more days. If Biden fails to have the United States to rejoin the JCPOA by that 21 February statutory deadline chances of restarting the JCPOA will be made exponentially more difficult. Inevitably, Iran would be expected to harden its position.
The calculus is clear for both sides. Both sides of this equation needs the JCPOA to work, as do its European partners.
As Iran’s relatively moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, will not be standing for re-election in June, there is a sense of urgency beyond the deadline. With Trump having bolstered the position of hardliners, and fully cognisant the United States likely violated international law by the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil, an insult that is still un-avenged, Iran’s internal politics are decidedly turning further to the extreme. All the more, the assassination of Iran’s premier nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, gunned down in broad daylight in Tehran in November 2020, further deeply wounded the psyche of the Iranian people. All this militates for Iran’s intransigent stance that that the United States, who set-off this fiasco, act first to restore the status quo the JCPOA inaugurated.
The United States’ new Secretary of State, the gifted Anthony Blinken, continues to echo Biden’s demand that Iran return to full compliance and stop the development of advanced centrifuges in their enrichment process, as the JCPOA requires and reduce uranium enrichment from its current level of +20% to the specified 3.67% limit. This is the precondition set by the Biden Administration before the United States rejoins the JCPOA.
This is a gross miscalculation that seems tone deaf to the reality that it was Trump who whimsically blew-up the hard-won deal that was working and serves as a reminder that Trump essentially made the same demand of Iran to no effect. Trump, who was not one known for letting facts get in the way of his arguments, persisted that Iran was violating the JCPOA, despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifying compliance, repeatedly. Biden should not make the same mistake.
Biden is far smarter than Trump and knows better than to repeat his errors. Sullivan and Blinken are both skillful and knowledgeable enough to avoid the folly of their predecessors, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo who believed their cult-like adherence to gunboat diplomacy and economic strangulation would prevail upon Iran. Such misplaced policies ignored the reality that Iran’s regime sustained itself for more than 40-years, even at times facing more stringent American pressures. Surprisingly, Biden, Sullivan and Blinken continue to walk in Trump’s footsteps in demanding Iran capitulate to their demands to abide by the JCPOA when the United States is no longer even a signatory, much to the world’s dismay.
This past Sunday, on CBS, Biden was asked, “Will the U.S. lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table?” The President answered, “No.” Blinken has echoed that answer, adding, “… if Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing and then we would work with our allies and partners to try to build a longer and stronger agreement and also bring in some of these other issues like Iran’s missile programs, like its destabilizing actions in the region.” The Biden Administration seems to ignore the United States’ culpability for the crisis in the face of the window rapidly closing to rejoin the deal without further hurdles being placed before the parties. There is a more acute problem, however, the amount of nuclear fissile material Iran is producing grows daily, a reality that compels immediate action.
Now is the time for the United States to abandon a bargaining position based largely on hubris, admit Trump’s error and rejoin the JCPOA as a demonstration of Biden’s commitment to return to multilateralism. No move would more assuredly reduce regional and international stability while rebuilding America’s credibility, reliability and reputation on the world stage as a fair player committed to the principles of law than rejoining the JCPOA.
This is not to say that in rejoining the JCPOA the United States will automatically be assured of Iran’s compliance. Iran has been equally stubborn in its bargaining position by insisting that Biden act first, all while exceeding the limits established by the JCPOA. At times, Iran has even demanded reparations for the costs and harm done by the United States’ withdrawal from the deal, a non-starter conversation by all accounts before the United States even rejoins the deal. Iran must be equally realistic and offer real assurances, supported by verifiable actions, that it too will return to JCPOA compliance.
So, where does this leave matters? It is a basic principle of contract law that when a contract cannot be performed the parties should be returned to their original position. Both the United States and Iran should embrace this principle with each unilaterally returning to the JCPOA, in full compliance, without further delay. The obstacle seems to be who moves first.
Conflict resolution specialists, as I have been for over 30-years, routinely employ a ‘concurrent action’ resolution scenario which often acts as a ‘face-saving measure’ giving both sides fodder for claiming victory to their constituencies. Biden could easily commit the United States to rejoining the JCPOA and lifting sanctions upon the simultaneous, verifiable return of Iran’s compliance with the deal. The beauty of such a scenario is Biden can rightfully insist he is cleaning-up Trump’s mess (which has the benefit of being true) while still holding Iran’s feat-to-the-fire. Equally so, Iran can be satisfied the United States moved first, satisfying their own hardliners by claiming a clear moral victory while seeing the sanctions lifted for verifiable, equitable compliance. It is therefore incumbent upon both the United States and Iran to move beyond the ego-based demand that each side act first by each party proving their commitment by concurrent action. It is within Biden’s gift to make this possible.
Sadly, albeit necessary, nobody should be satisfied by a return to the status quo the JCPOA provided. It was far from a perfect agreement. The JCPOA may have been the best deal achievable when it was signed, but it contained many half-measures and left much unaddressed. The deal was a combination of provisions that had sunset clauses, some of which expire between 2025-2030, as well as some permanent provisions. It must be improved upon, but reinstating it remains a predicate to implementation before improvement.
In the final analysis, Iran and the United States must change their perspective of each other. Four decades of recriminations, hurled dispersions such as ‘The Great Satan’ and sanctions that wound living condition to the brink of inhumanity are equally beneath the dignity of each nation. Undeniably, the Iran and the United States are bound to remain in opposition to one another for ideological reasons. Yet history and geography require that both countries adopt relations not un-analogous to those embraced by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States can, and must, resolve to seeing each other as adversaries albeit requiring each other’s cooperation for reasons of order and peace which are their own rewards.
Biden is faced with choosing between achieving the goals of the JCPOA then using it as a springboard to address issues like ballistic missiles, regional security and resolving the Yemen conflict where the United States and Iran are locked in a proxy war or seeing his domestic and international agendas mired in conflict. To date, Biden has moved swiftly and deftly to stamp his seal on American domestic and foreign policy through Executive authority. Rejoining the Paris Accord will do much good in the long-run, where the United States presence was welcomed without opposition. However, rejoining the JCPOA has presented obstacles. Biden has yet to prove he can successfully confront a real and pressing challenge that has the potential to consume disproportionate amounts of his time and resources and is in everyone’s interest. The time is pregnant with possibilities and only requires him to act decisively.
Biden must take the first step and rejoin the JCPOA, albeit conditioning the lifting of sanctions on concurrent, verifiable compliance. He must do so without further delay. If Iran is in earnest about their desire to see the JCPOA survive, they will embrace this opportunity.
Dr. Miceál O’Hurley formerly served as Counsel in the United States Congress and has been a conflict resolution practitioner for over 30-years. Previously, he served as a Defense & Security Analyst appearing on television, radio and print. Miceál receiving his training and education at institutions, amongst others, including Yale Law School, the University of Windsor College of Law, the University of Leiden, the National Research University School of Higher Economics (Moscow), Irish Peace institute at the University of Limerick, the University of London – Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy and the United States Institute for Peace. He is the Diplomatic Editor of Diplomat Ireland and Diplomat Northern Ireland. Opinions expressed are his own.