The pressure is on for European negotiators and, particularly, the Biden administration to reach a deal that restarts the Iran nuclear agreement scuttled unilaterally by former President Donald Trump. A hard-line new president is poised to take control in Tehran, and his pariah status in the United States for past human rights abuses promises to complicate the negotiating picture even more than it already is. Americans of all political stripes should care deeply how these negotiations play out because of the exceedingly high stakes: Failure to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically could lead to yet another Middle East war of catastrophic dimensions.
The deal reached in 2015 between Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany was far from perfect, but it happened because of a remarkable show of unity by the world’s major powers to halt Iran’s lurch toward nuclear bomb-making capability.
Heavy economic sanctions, enforced by both Moscow and Beijing, coupled with delicate diplomacy yielded a deal that dramatically slowed Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to bomb-grade quality.
When Trump scuttled the deal in 2018, the international sanctions fell apart, and Iran resumed its enrichment program free from many of the previously observed restrictions and monitoring regimes.
Trump withdrew, in part, because the agreement did not restrict Iran’s ability to deploy powerful ballistic missiles or halt its support of radical militias in the region.
Diplomatic efforts could have and should have proceeded to limit Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region, but that was never going to happen as long as the United States couldn’t be trusted to abide by the agreement it had already reached with Iran. The world was a far safer place with Iran abiding by the terms of the 2015 accord.
Israel, a major impediment to a renegotiated deal, is adjusting to the election ouster of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an outspoken critic of the 2015 accord.
His conservative successor, Naftali Bennett, also opposes a new deal but appears to be in a far weaker position to influence the negotiating process now in progress.
Iran’s president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hard-line Shiite cleric and head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary. He’s a skeptic of renewing the nuclear talks and rejects any notion of placing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Luckily, Raisi doesn’t have the final say. Ultimate power resides in the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who already has given his stamp of approval for the current talks to proceed.
History shows that such windows of opportunity rarely last long.
A comprehensive deal that covers all the concerns Trump laid out simply won’t materialize under current circumstances. Nevertheless, stopping Iran’s nuclear program from developing further remains the top priority. If diplomacy fails, the use of military force looms as the only other option — a hornet’s nest that even Trump dared not stir.