I’ve talked a great deal about the ongoing sanctions campaign by the United States against Iran — arguably more than anyone should. Nevertheless, I believe there is a good reason for talking about the sanctions so much: They are one of the longest sustained campaigns of immiseration against any country, outside of wartime, in the last century.
As I stated in my column in January, they have wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy and severely hampered its ability to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in April, as the academic semester draws to a close, I’d like to turn away from the humanitarian devastation these sanctions have wrought and instead turn to the diplomatic devastation. Specifically, I would like to examine how President Joe Biden’s refusal to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal unless Iran’s government meets ridiculous preconditions is a massive error that could haunt him for the rest of his presidency.
First, a little background. The current sanctions on Iran were put into place in 2018 as part of former President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially referred to as the “Iran nuclear deal.” Our side of that deal was agreeing not to re-impose sanctions in exchange for Iran not developing nuclear weapons. Since the Iran nuclear deal was widely seen as one of former President Barack Obama’s key foreign policy achievements, it was natural that then-candidate Biden would support rejoining it. And, to his credit, he technically hasn’t broken that promise. That is because, even during the campaign, he stated that the U.S. would only rejoin the deal “if Iran returns to strict compliance,” which they have not done yet.
However, Iran has a good reason not to make the first step toward compliance. We broke compliance first, not them. In fact, not only did they not resume building nuclear weapons until after we abandoned the deal, they did not resume building nuclear weapons until last November, two and a half years later. And they only did so after their top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in an ambush that Iran alleges was coordinated by the Israeli government. By any reasonable standards of deal-making, it is incumbent on the party that originally broke the deal to take the first steps toward restoring it — therefore, the U.S. should initiate the return to compliance.
Even if Biden were to reverse course today and repeal sanctions, it may be too late. Iran has a presidential election this summer, and incumbent President Hassan Rouhani — the moderate who signed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 — cannot run again because he is term-limited. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s breaking of the Iran deal is widely perceived to have given an advantage to the conservative, or “principlist” side, which has always opposed the nuclear deal. After all, the principlists’ position in 2015 — that the U.S. was not trustworthy — has been well borne-out by our breaking of the deal. So, even if we were to return to the deal, it is not likely that the next Iranian government will trust us to maintain that compliance between administrations.
Additionally, while Trump is largely to blame for breaking the deal in the first place and creating that mistrust, Biden’s refusal to drop his preconditions sends an even worse message: that neither U.S. party can be trusted to honestly and fairly maintain the deal. Biden could have earned the reputation as the president that at least tried to repair our broken relationship with Iran. Instead, he will likely go down as the president that solidified our diplomacy’s ruinous fate.
Moreover, regardless of if Iran chooses to go back to upholding its end of the deal, we should go back to upholding ours. First, it’s the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint. Even if Iranians choose to elect a government that wants to build nuclear weapons, that is still not a just reason to continue to starve their people. Think tanks funded by large defense corporations, which benefit from presenting Iran as a threat, do not believe that Iran would use these weapons offensively, so essentially we are causing immense pain to the Iranian people to deny them the capacity to defend themselves.
But, more relevantly to our diplomatic interests, returning to compliance with no immediate reward would show Iranians that the principlist view of America is wrong and that we have the potential to be an honest and trustworthy deal maker. And while it is highly unlikely that the next Republican president would maintain compliance with the deal, especially if Iran doesn’t immediately stop building weapons, being an honest actor half the time still sends a better message to Iran, and to the world, than never being one at all.
Brandon Cowit is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.