As officials in Washington consider returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, much of the debate has centered on whether the U.S. government will lose leverage. Some experts and officials argue that if the Biden administration rejoins the deal—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the United States will squander the leverage built in recent years through former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy.
While U.S. sanctions have caused Iran’s economy major challenges and limited Iran’s access to financial resources, they have not succeeded in changing Tehran’s behavior regarding its nuclear program. Indeed, Iran has not offered additional concessions. Instead, it has engaged in its own leverage-building strategy by ramping up its nuclear activities, missile program, and regional activities. Iran is not only closer to having the capacity to build a bomb, but even the political discourse of key officials on whether to cross that threshold has been shifting.
Leverage is only meaningful if it can be effectively used to produce desired policy outcomes. Continuing to build leverage merely for the sake of inflicting pain or adding pressure is neither an effective nor sustainable negotiating strategy. It leads to a vicious cycle of chasing a perfect deal that does not exist and ignoring the opportunities for incremental progress as Iran inches closer to a nuclear weapons capability. By reviving the nuclear accord, the U.S. government will not squander any sanctions leverage, but if it plays its cards wisely, it could enhance its position for follow-on negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities.
In response to the maximum pressure effort, Tehran sought to increase its own leverage. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has ramped up its naval military operations in the Persian Gulf, targeting maritime trade routes through the Strait of Hormuz to signal its ability to harm U.S. interests and those of its allies. The most recent example was in early January when the IRGC seized a South Korean-flagged vessel most likely in reaction to the $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in compliance with U.S. sanctions.
Iran has increased its nuclear activities to bring it closer to having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so. Iranian officials indicated in January that they would expand their nuclear program by resuming uranium enrichment to a 20 percent level, which is much higher than the low-level 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 deal. Furthermore, to minimize the impact of sanctions and U.S. leverage, Iran has focused on investing in a resistance economy infrastructure to diversify the economy in ways that it will be more inward-looking and less reliant on foreign trade, particularly with the West. Today, Iran is nowhere near the brink of collapse. The country, rather, is projected to see an economic recovery in 2021.
The United States should swiftly attempt a clean return to the deal with a compliance-for-compliance approach because it can stop Iran’s quickly-growing nuclear program in its tracks. This move would not undermine U.S. leverage but rather enhance it. It would allow the United States to stop the ticking clock on Iran’s nuclear advancements, mitigate the possibility of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel or the United States, and restore multilateral diplomatic efforts. More importantly, returning to the deal would allow more time for follow-on agreements on regional issues and other areas of contention. These issues are critical to the security interests of the United States and its regional partners, and Tehran is unlikely to engage in any talks on these issues unless the JCPOA is restored.
An important component of U.S. leverage is sanctions relief. With both sides committed to compliance, lifting sanctions on Iran will not give Tehran an overnight economic boost strong enough to disincentivize further negotiations or to fund its destabilizing regional activities as some fear. Non-JCPOA-related sanctions will remain in place, and even with the JCPOA-related sanctions lifted on paper, the practical side of operationalizing trade and transactions will not be swift. Iran would only begin a slow process of economic recovery. But relief will give the United States the upper hand at the negotiating table, exchanging more immediate economic incentives for additional concessions.
Should Iran violate the deal, the U.S. government can reimpose sanctions not only with the support of Europe but also potentially from China and Russia. These other parties to the original deal all share a common interest: preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability. The common interest of global nonproliferation is what created this coalition in the first place. If Iran crosses the red line on its capabilities, these countries have an inherent interest in applying pressure to pursue their own nonproliferation objectives, and a multilateral response to any violation is much more likely with a U.S. return to the deal than if Washington stays out.
The threat of reimposing sanctions is stronger today than it was four years ago. While the maximum pressure strategy failed to produce Washington’s desired policy outcomes, it showcased the power of U.S. unilateral sanctions despite international opposition. The dire consequences of isolation when facing U.S. sanctions have become crystal clear to most Iranians.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under pressure both from hard-line factions and due to growing public dissatisfaction with the country’s economic challenges. He needs to secure at least the start of a process to revive the JCPOA in the coming weeks. There is a growing perception among Tehran’s political elite that the best strategy to push the United States to end the maximum pressure campaign is to present it with the choice between an unresolved confrontation escalating to war and a nuclear-capable Iran.
The assumption is that Tehran can take advantage of Washington’s reluctance to engage in military confrontation to advance its political agenda—and that it can do so by pushing the limits on its nuclear program and regional activities to a point where the U.S. government has to choose between accepting an Iran with a nuclear weapons capability and a military strike against Iran—both of which are anathema to the Biden administration.
Leaders in Tehran assume that the unattractiveness of the alternatives can make Washington conclude that time is not on its side to continue its pressure campaign through sanctions and will need to take action quickly to revive the agreement.
Iran’s brinkmanship could invite military confrontation over its nuclear program as Israel is threatening. Iranian hard-liners are overly confident about their nuclear leverage and the long-term sustainability of the resistance economy. Iran’s resistance economy faces serious challenges: There is increasing internal dissatisfaction with the pace of economic growth that is turning into political pressure. As Iran struggles to manage the pandemic, its “pre-purchase” of nearly 17 million COVID-19 vaccines from the vaccine-sharing facility COVAX had reportedly been delayed due to U.S. financial sanctions.
But maintaining this stance will come at a dire cost of domestic dissatisfaction and delayed economic development. Expanding nuclear and military activities could also endanger the political support still provided by Russia and China. Thus, by hanging on to what it perceives as leverage, Iran risks squandering a unique opportunity to reach an agreement with a U.S. administration that has signaled its willingness to engage diplomatically with Iran and is in a unique position to deliver on that.
For the Rouhani administration to be able to convince the hard-liners to reverse the steps on nuclear advancement and return to compliance with the agreement, it will need to kick-start the process of returning to the deal within the next few weeks. If there is no clear prospect of reviving the accord, then the Rouhani administration may take more drastic measures, such as halting international nuclear inspections, in a show of strength to political opponents prior to the presidential elections in June, which Rouhani will lose if he doesn’t revive the deal. Already, inspections are set to be scaled back if the United States does not return to the deal by Feb. 21 in order to signal the time pressure on the government in Tehran.
A return to the deal would not jeopardize U.S. leverage; it would bolster it for future negotiations. Continuing to focus on holding on to leverage and adding pressure simply to inflict pain will continue to lead to the same results—namely, a lack of progress on key policy objectives. Meanwhile, it will squander the opportunity for diplomatic outreach that could rein in Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
By returning to the deal, the United States would both retain the leverage it has built by demonstrating the devastating economic effects of its unilateral sanctions and use its leverage through sustained diplomacy and multilateral efforts to produce more desirable policy outcomes. Restoring the deal would also put the Biden administration in a much stronger position moving forward to negotiate a follow-on agreement that addresses other issues and concerns, such as Iran’s missile program and destabilizing activities abroad in a regional forum.
Four decades of sanctions and the history of U.S. and European negotiations with Iran indicate that it has only pushed back on pressure by doubling down on its nuclear program and regional proxies. It has only accepted and complied with clearly defined and desirable concessions through an agreed framework such as the 2015 deal. After four years of failure to coerce Iran into changing any policies for the better, it is time for Washington to rethink how to employ leverage effectively.
The analysis and conclusions presented here are based on individual research and do not necessarily represent the policies or perspectives of National Defense University, the U.S. Defense Department, or the U.S. government.