US Waives Iran Sanctions as Deal Nears

The Biden administration is close to repairing the damage Trump caused.

Reuters (“U.S. restores sanctions waiver to Iran with nuclear talks in final phase“):

President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday restored sanctions waivers to Iran to allow international nuclear cooperation projects, as indirect American-Iranian talks on reviving the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran enter the final stretch.

The waivers had allowed Russian, Chinese and European companies to carry out non-proliferation work to effectively make it harder for Iranian nuclear sites to be used for weapons development. The waivers were rescinded by the United States in 2019 and 2020 under former President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the nuclear agreement.

The indirect talks are aimed at having the United States return to the agreement and Iran resume compliance. The agreement was reached under former President Barack Obama, and Biden has pledged to try to bring the United States back to it.

The State Department has sent a report signed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Congress explaining that restoring the waivers will help the talks in Vienna on returning to the deal reached between Iran and a group of countries including China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the United States. The agreement is formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“The waiver with respect to these activities is designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA and lay the groundwork for Iran’s return to performance of its JCPOA commitments,” according to the report, a copy of which seen by Reuters.

“It is also designed to serve U.S. non-proliferation and nuclear safety interests and constrain Iran’s nuclear activities. It is being issued as a matter of policy discretion with these objectives in mind, and not pursuant to a commitment or as part of a quid pro quo,” the report said.

JCPOA was emblematic of much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy: a success that was made to seem like a failure because of poor messaging. Restoring it will undo perhaps the Trump administration’s biggest blunder—which is saying something.

My longstanding position has been that a nuclear Iran is inevitable. It’s a rich country with enormous human capital surrounded by hostile nations. The notion that we’re going to prevent them indefinitely from getting 1940s technology is absurd.

The Obama team was in a no-win situation. It had relatively little leverage to force Iran to concessions, particularly in terms of the invasive inspections regime needed to verify compliance. It was under a much tighter deadline, needing to get a deal done well ahead of the 2016 election.

To compound matters, it foolishly—but for perfectly understandable reasons—over-promised publicly on what the deal could achieve. Realistically, the best that could be hoped for is what it got: kicking the can down the road a few years, with meaningful inspections, in exchange for sanctions relief. Under political pressure from the GOP but also the progressive wing of its own party, it also promised to get concessions on human rights, state sponsorship of terrorism, and other issues that simply weren’t going to happen.

Further, the fact that they had any leverage at all was owing to skillful and painstaking diplomacy at getting meaningful sanctions in place. The Bush 43 administration had failed because its bluster about an Axis of Evil and refusal to negotiate with the mullahs gave our European allies an excuse not to join in. Obama, who was rightly ridiculed from all sides by his promise of “unconditional” talks with Iran early in the 2008 campaign, ultimately conducted meaningful, conditional talks that went nowhere, persuading allies that diplomacy had been tried and needed buttressing with economic leverage.

Critics of JCPOA, mostly from the right, seized on the failure to achieve progress on terrorism and human rights. That was fair. Cynically, though, they also hammered sanctions relief as a “giveaway” to the Iranians. But the whole point of sanctions, the maintenance of which was far more painful to our European allies than us, was to end then in exchange for a deal.

It appears we’re close to getting back to the status quo of 2015. Presumably, though, the regime is closer now than it was when Trump pulled out of the deal to the inevitable possession of nuclear weapons.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Iran, Iranian Nuclear Program, Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    My longstanding position has been that a nuclear Iran is inevitable. It’s a rich country with enormous human capital surrounded by hostile nations. The notion that we’re going to prevent them indefinitely from getting 1940s technology is absurd.

    My longstanding position has been that a nuclear Sweden is inevitable. It’s a rich country with enormous human capital. The notion that we’re going to prevent them indefinitely from gettin 1940s technology is absurd.

    And the same can be said for many nations, including South Africa (which had six nuclear weapons and gave them up), Switzerland, Japan. Like them, Iran has been capable of making nuclear weapons since at least 2003. But they haven’t. That’s a choice on the part of the leaders.

    With the JCPOA, the Iranian leaders were in a position not to build bombs. The point of the JCPOA was to change the leaders’ calculus, and it worked.

    It’s not a matter of knowledge or technical capability, but rather that the leaders decide that nuclear weapons aren’t worth it. There are big downsides to being a nuclear nation too.

    We won’t go back to the status quo of 2015. We are closer to JCPOA deadlines, which may not be changed as the US rejoins the JCPOA. Trump did enormous and irreparable damage.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    JCPOA addressed the greatest concern of the US, stop or delay nuclear proliferation. Human rights, terrorism, missile development and Iranian adventurism throughout the mid east are all important, but non are an existential threat to the US’s ability to project power in the region. The rest are problems to be managed. Something that the Israeli’s have come to recognize after Trump pulled out.

    Essentially, Obama took the deal that was achievable, that it addressed our greatest (and Europe’s, Russia’s and China’s) concern was a win-win. To accomplish JCPOA it is unfortunate that we needed to expend our potential leverage, but as the trumpian follies of pressuring Iran after withdrawing from the agreement showed, the only realistic deal was what was achieved by JCPOA as Iran is not going to roll over on everything.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Changing my quote while taking out a rather important qualifier, ” surrounded by hostile nations,” is disingenuous. Sweden could have been part of the nuclear club in the 1950s but had every incentive not to since it was de facto under the US/NATO nuclear umbrella. Iran’s leadership is well aware of the potential downsides of nuclearization but has also seen that being a possessor nation confers a certain immunity.

    It’s true that South Africa gave up its nukes with no real downside. The same isn’t true of Ukraine and, arguably Gaddafi’s Libya (in is case, a mere program, not actual possession).

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    a success that was made to seem like a failure because of poor messaging.

    Murc’s law in action.

    In yesterday’s Forum I linked to a James Fallows piece about framing in the news media. He raised four ways media harmfully frame stories:
    – Almost all FOX stories are, “They’re out to get you.”
    – Media treat everything as primarily about politics.
    – Media grade Republicans on a curve.
    – What works is boring.
    All four are in play here. “OK, after years of tedious negotiation Obama saved the world from Iranian nukes. Boring. Got any good tweets from Trump for the front page?” Short of targeted assasinations, how were the Dems supposed to stop FOX from demonizing Obama and the Iranians , and stop Hawley, Trump, et al from sabotaging national security for political gain?

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: This just isn’t that. The administration, including President Obama himself, repeatedly made public promises about the deal they were unable to keep. That made what was in my view—as someone who voted against him in both instances—about as good a deal as we could get given that we were in a hurry and the Iranians weren’t seem like a loss. Where Republicans were disingenuous was in their critique of the removal of the sanctions.

  6. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @James Joyner: My point was that many nations could build nuclear weapons and choose not to do so because of the numerous downsides and some upsides. My point was also that Iran could have “sprinted to the bomb,” as so many of its detractors say, back in 2003 and didn’t. There were reasons for that that we would do well to study.

    The Ukraine thing – I’m getting tired of explaining it, so here’s a tweet stream that does that.
    https://twitter.com/CherylRofer/status/1485277262589091840

    Short version: Ukraine never was able to use those nukes. And if you want to argue they could have kept them, think about Russia’s reaction to Ukraine having nukes. Big nope – you would have seen an invasion back in the mid-90s.

    A nuke program like Iran’s is leverage in itself. It’s not necessary for Iran to have the bombs, unless things go badly south. Just the threat of making them.

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    It may be paywalled, but The New Yorker had a good article on this by Robin Wright.

    The so-called “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a bomb has plummeted, from more than a year to as little as three weeks. “It’s really short, and unacceptably short,” a senior Administration official said. “Every day they spin centrifuges, and, for every day they stockpile uranium, the breakout time continues to shrink.”

    That idiot sociopath Trump said he knew better how to handle the Iranians, but he let them get a lot closer to a weapon. Why isn’t this a major story? For which see @gVOR08:

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  8. Andy says:

    To add to Cheryl’s excellent comments, I would just point out that deals like the JPCOA are not intended to directly stop a country from developing nukes. As Cheryl notes, that is really a political choice, not a technical decision.

    What the JPCOA and other inspections regimes are primarily designed to do is to prevent a country from secretly developing nukes. In other words, they are intended to provide a warning if a country makes the political decision to build bombs and give other countries and international organizations the opportunity to take action before the country can actually build and deploy a weapon.

    And when countries agree to such monitoring, it is a strong sign that political leaders are not interested in pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.

    Secondly, Iran is not surrounded by hostile nations. It’s important to remember that Iran ended its covert effort in 2003 – that date is not a coincidence. Iran was working on a bomb prior to that because of the threat of Saddam’s Iraq. We ended that strategic threat in 2003 and the strategic rationale for nukes largely went away. Iran started cooperating regarding its program soon after.

    The JCPOA is only a tool – the primary focus needs to be on ensuring Iran never believes the upsides of trying to build an arsenal overcome the downsides and the international community having the ability to detect a bomb-making effort increases the downsides. At the other end of that continuum, we should not seek to put Iran in a position where they think building nukes is is necessary and worth the costs.

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  9. Cheryl Rofer says:

    What the JPCOA and other inspections regimes are primarily designed to do is to prevent a country from secretly developing nukes.

    Vipin Narang has written an excellent book that talks about the different modes of nonproliferation and why it’s important to bring countries out from that secret regime. I recommend it highly: Seeking the Bomb: Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    If Iran decides to actually start building nukes, Israel may well take unilateral action, and I would not rule out first use of nukes – they’re pretty damn serious about Iran not having WMDs.

    Even if unmolested by Israel, Iran would certainly face a nuclear arms race with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and given that SA is likely to have American technical support and would perhaps be allowed to purchase American ballistic missiles, it’s hard to see the long-term positives for Iran.

  11. Gustopher says:

    To compound matters, it foolishly—but for perfectly understandable reasons—over-promised publicly on what the deal could achieve. Realistically, the best that could be hoped for is what it got: kicking the can down the road a few years, with meaningful inspections, in exchange for sanctions relief.

    The plan was to get the Iranians to commit to something realistic, that both sides could live with, and then repeat the process as the deal was coming to an end. Like managing a disease rather than curing it.

    It was always presented as such.

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  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    and would perhaps be allowed to purchase American ballistic missiles

    Saudi Arabia already has dozens of ballistic missiles bought from China:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Saudi_Strategic_Missile_Force

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Critics of JCPOA, mostly from the right, seized on the failure to achieve progress on terrorism and human rights. That was fair.”

    Or at least would be if the right cared about terrorism and (particularly) human rights as anything other than a cudgel to beat their opponents with.

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