Let’s Be Honest About the Iran Nuclear Deal

There are several politically inconvenient realities its detractors and defenders should consider.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Raisi stands at a podium featuring an atomic energy symbol in front of a backdrop that reads, in English, "Nuclear Technology"
Raisi stands at a podium featuring an atomic energy symbol in front of a backdrop that reads, in English, "Nuclear Technology"
In a handout photo from his office, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi makes a speech during his visit to an exhibition organized by the Atomic Energy Agency in Tehran on April 9. Iranian presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Don’t compare me to the Almighty,” U.S. President Joe Biden is fond of quoting his father as saying. “Compare me to the alternative.” In a parallel universe, that would be good advice for anyone who has ever been in government wrestling with excruciatingly difficult policy choices. But here in our universe, a pernicious polarization prevails, turning just about every issue into a morality play pitting the forces of good against evil and often crowding out more sensible and realistic options.

Take the soon-(or never)-to-be-concluded revised Iran nuclear agreement. To its critics, such as U.S. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, it’s Satan’s finger on earth and will empower and enrich an evil regime; to its defenders, like U.S. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, it will make the United States, the Middle East, and the world a safer place.

The debate about the prospective deal is already a nasty one, and if the deal is ever concluded, it will become even more toxic. We should judge any proposed new nuclear deal not against what a perfect deal would look like (i.e., the Almighty) but against the alternative (no deal). Sadly, like everything else in Washington these days, the debate is likely to be deeply personal. Rob Malley, the U.S. envoy leading the negotiations, has already been subjected to any number of grossly unfair personal attacks. (Full disclosure: Malley is a close friend of mine.) And these are almost certain to intensify.

“Don’t compare me to the Almighty,” U.S. President Joe Biden is fond of quoting his father as saying. “Compare me to the alternative.” In a parallel universe, that would be good advice for anyone who has ever been in government wrestling with excruciatingly difficult policy choices. But here in our universe, a pernicious polarization prevails, turning just about every issue into a morality play pitting the forces of good against evil and often crowding out more sensible and realistic options.

Take the soon-(or never)-to-be-concluded revised Iran nuclear agreement. To its critics, such as U.S. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, it’s Satan’s finger on earth and will empower and enrich an evil regime; to its defenders, like U.S. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, it will make the United States, the Middle East, and the world a safer place.

The debate about the prospective deal is already a nasty one, and if the deal is ever concluded, it will become even more toxic. We should judge any proposed new nuclear deal not against what a perfect deal would look like (i.e., the Almighty) but against the alternative (no deal). Sadly, like everything else in Washington these days, the debate is likely to be deeply personal. Rob Malley, the U.S. envoy leading the negotiations, has already been subjected to any number of grossly unfair personal attacks. (Full disclosure: Malley is a close friend of mine.) And these are almost certain to intensify.

As the debate over the wisdom and efficacy of the accord continues, here are several politically inconvenient observations for both its detractors and its defenders to consider.


Any new accord will have serious downsides, and we should be honest about those shortcomings. Far from being “longer and stronger” than the original 2015 deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), as the Biden administration perhaps unrealistically had hoped, any new accord is going to be on the shorter and weaker side simply because, during the last four years since the Trump administration walked out of the deal, Iran has amassed a great deal of nuclear knowledge and capacity, much of it unmonitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Key provisions of the original accord that restricted uranium enrichment and use of advanced centrifuges will now expire sooner. In short, since U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced significantly.

The Institute for Science and International Security reported this month that “Iran is learning important lessons in breaking out to nuclear weapons, including by experimenting with skipping typical enrichment steps as it enriches up to 60 percent uranium-235, and building and testing equipment to feed 20 percent enriched uranium and withdraw [highly enriched uranium].” And the IAEA expressed concern that Iran’s decision to cease JCPOA verification and monitoring measures has been detrimental to the agency’s ability to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. It said that going forward, in the event of a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA, Iran would need to provide declarations, data, and access identified by the agency to reestablish a baseline and enable the IAEA to fulfill its monitoring and verification mandate under the JCPOA.

Another serious downside is that a return to the JCPOA will allow Iran to access its frozen assets and, more importantly, to sell its oil in a market whose inflated prices will constitute a financial windfall, though perhaps not as great as some might imagine. And although the 2015 nuclear agreement was never designed to cover Iran’s malign regional activities (and had it tried, it would never have been concluded), that money will help Iran use its Shiite proxies to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen, as well as to friendly Sunni groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

Indeed, Iran has long sought, with varying degrees of success, to expand its revolutionary and militant activities in a Shiite arc that encompasses four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Sanaa. And while returning to the JCPOA will restrain the nuclear aspect of Iran’s quest for influence—at least until the end of this decade—the removal of sanctions will help Iran advance in the regional arena.

As my Carnegie Endowment for International Peace colleague Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert, argues, Iran may not be 10 feet tall, but power is often relative. “No country in the Middle East has Iran’s combination of geographic size, human capital, ancient history, and vast natural resources. But instead of leveraging these endowments to become a global economic power or to promote its national interests, the Islamic Republic has built its foreign policy on the twin pillars of confronting the United States and Israel.” As long as the current Iranian regime is in power, Sadjadpour writes, this is unlikely to change.

Finally, a new deal would not by itself prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon eventually. Like its predecessor, JCPOA 2.0 would be a transactional—not a transformational—agreement. As Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in his recent article for Foreign Policy, it would not solve the problem of Iran’s nuclear program or extinguish Tehran’s option of weaponizing. As the original deal’s critics are only too ready to point out, by 2031 a key set of restrictions against enriching uranium and using advanced centrifuges sunsets.

Nor was the JCPOA intended (or able) to set the stage to transform relations between the United States and Iran. It is, at its very best, an instrumental set of arrangements (perhaps analogous to an arms control accord) to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in order both to prevent an Israel-Iran confrontation that could trigger a regional war and to make a U.S. military strike against Iran unnecessary.

Indeed, perversely, if a new accord were reached, Iran’s supreme leader and elements within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could feel the need to ramp up their destabilizing activities to demonstrate that they had not been domesticated by the Great Satan, the United States.


If Republicans don’t like JCPOA 2.0, they should lay it at Trump’s doorstep—not Biden’s. The original 2015 JCPOA was a flawed but functional accord that imposed serious restraints and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, closely monitored by the IAEA.

The Trump administration’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the JCPOA was based on two assumptions that proved flawed: first, that Iran would not—in response to crushing sanctions—ramp up its nuclear program and, second, that Iran would, over time, make concessions to get a better agreement.

Defenders of the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign argue that had it lasted longer, had the United States at the same time prepared a credible military option, and had the international community joined in a more determined effort on sanctions, the results might have been different—a counterfactual that is impossible to prove.

But one thing quickly became unmistakably clear: If maximum pressure was designed to contain Iran’s nuclear program, it was a galactic failure. In every category, from breakout time—how long it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon—to surpassing its enrichment cap under the 2015 deal, to building up its enriched uranium stockpile, to the loss of the IAEA’s ability to monitor and verify Iran’s nuclear activities, Iran’s program galloped ahead (to borrow a phrase from the IAEA chief).

By the end of 2022, Iran—according to some, already a “de-facto threshold nuclear state”—will be closer than ever to assembling some of the key ingredients and technologies required to weaponize, should it make a decision to do so.

For Biden, meanwhile, one war at a time is plenty. If there ever were an example of an issue where pursuit of a national interest might cost a president politically, it has to be the Iran nuclear agreement. Rarely has any foreign-policy agreement been more despised than the JCPOA, and few outside Washington’s national security and foreign-policy establishment will be breaking open the Champagne bottles should a new accord be reached.

Republicans in Congress and more than a few Democrats are fundamentally opposed and have made that opposition felt with numerous letters and resolutions. In May, a bipartisan supermajority in the Senate, including 16 Democrats, backed a nonbinding resolution warning the White House of the downsides of returning to the JCPOA.

JCPOA 1.0 met harsh opposition in Congress, and the 2.0 version will fare no better. And it’s easy to see why. Animosity toward Iran may be at an all-time high—and with good reason. The alleged IRGC plot to assassinate former National Security Advisor John Bolton and the alleged targeting of other former Trump administration officials; the harassment of Iranian dissidents in the United States; and the attack on writer Salman Rushdie, which the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated was Rushdie’s fault, have raised legitimate questions about why the administration is still negotiating with Tehran. The regime’s recent brutal crackdown on protesters following the death in custody of a young Iranian Kurdish woman has only added to the anti-Iran animus.

The answer, of course, is one that has shaped U.S. policy toward Iran in recent years: Iran is a very bad actor, but it would be much worse should it acquire nuclear weapons.

“The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is Iran with nuclear weapons,” Biden said in July. Driving that concern is the very real danger that the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program, if left unchecked, unrestrained, and unmonitored, might provoke an Israeli strike, sparking a regional war and drawing the United States and the Gulf states in. The last thing the Biden administration needs, especially amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, is a Middle East flare-up that could trigger falling financial markets and rising oil prices.

It’s clear that Biden is prepared to take the domestic political heat to preempt what his administration fears could be a more dangerous hot conflict in an already unstable region.


Iran is a very bad actor, and the Iran nuclear deal 2.0 won’t likely go down as one of the great moments in U.S. diplomacy. But to paraphrase former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the JCPOA is the worst option, except when compared with all the others.

Some argue for more sanctions; others contend that only the preparation of a credible U.S. military option will persuade Iran to come to the negotiating table and/or deter it from pushing ahead and developing a nuclear weapon. Still others are quite sanguine that Iran is too risk averse to ramp up its nuclear program and cross Israeli or U.S. redlines and court a military strike. And then there are those who believe that only a dedicated policy of regime change to produce a more moderate Iran will end its quest for nuclear weapons, its destabilizing regional activities, and its support of terrorism.

But none of these options provides a solution to the problem facing the Biden administration now: how to restrain, constrain, and monitor Iran’s nuclear program and prevent an inexorable slide to the very real possibility of a regional blowup. Given the impasse in negotiations, a return to the JCPOA might not be possible, but if it is, the administration should continue to pursue it so long as there’s a credible chance of reaching an accord.

A verifiable JCPOA agreement would prevent Iran from becoming a true nuclear threshold state for at least eight years and provide time and space to develop options to perhaps extend the accord, to focus on checking Iran’s regional activities, and to create sufficient military deterrence to dissuade Iran from ramping up its nuclear program once key provisions began to expire.

It’s neither pretty nor perfect. But in the cruel and unforgiving world of making policy, where the options usually run from bad to worse, it’s by far the best of a very bad lot.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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