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There is no ‘third way’ for Iran diplomacy

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The Iranian flag is seen in this June 10, 2021, file photo.

President Joe Biden declared on June 28 that Iran will “never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.” Earlier that morning, Biden launched airstrikes for a second time against Iranian-aligned militia groups in Iraq and Syria. The strikes came just days after a temporary agreement between Iran and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog fell apart, leaving international inspectors tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear sites in the dark.

This increasingly volatile situation will only continue to spiral further out of control without a return to diplomacy, which remains the only viable way for Biden to fulfill his vow to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. Without a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal, Biden faces the risk of a nuclear crisis that could quickly escalate to a devastating war. There is no “third way.”

In the airstrike’s shadow, the parties to the nuclear deal are expected to convene in Vienna once again for a seventh round of talks aimed at reviving the 2015 accord. While reports indicate that an agreement could be within reach, a U.S. official acknowledged that talks can’t continue “indefinitely.” Three years after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. exit from the deal, we are now approaching a decisive moment for U.S.-Iran diplomacy, with major long-term implications for the future of the Middle East.

At this pivotal crossroads, it’s never been more important for Democrats in Congress to stand behind the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the JCPOA is widely supported by the public and strongly endorsed in the Democratic Party platform, there is a small but influential contingent of Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who have argued that Biden should hold out for a “better deal” that addresses a long list of other, non-nuclear issues, including Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for armed non-state actors around the region, and human rights abuses.

These are legitimate concerns. But as the recent escalation of tensions make clear, this “all or nothing” approach is more likely to result in no deal at all, leaving an unacceptable, looming threat of war. While everyone would like to see a “longer and stronger” agreement, the only way to achieve one is to move quickly to revive the nuclear deal, restore a degree of trust between Washington and Tehran, and build on that progress to pursue more ambitious regional diplomacy.

The JCPOA is not, and was never intended to be, a catch-all agreement that resolves every issue of contention between the United States and Iran. The deal narrowly seeks to block any potential path to an Iranian nuclear weapon, a historic diplomatic achievement in itself. By all accounts, the deal was working exactly as intended until Trump’s withdrawal. Iran remained in full compliance with its obligations even a year after America’s exit.

But in response to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions, Iran has gradually taken steps outside of the terms of the JCPOA, shortening its “breakout time” to build a potential nuclear weapon and walking back its commitment to robust inspections. This is just one of many consequences of Trump’s disastrous “maximum pressure” approach, which has brought the two countries terrifyingly close to the brink of all-out war and caused needless suffering for ordinary Iranian civilians, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While congressional Democrats were highly critical of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, Menendez’s “better deal” approach does not substantially break from the grim status quo. Even if well intentioned, this approach does not take into account the domestic political realities within Iran and the overriding importance of constraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Even though sanctions have taken a serious toll on the Iranian civilians , Iranian leaders are committed to weathering the storm and resisting American pressure. Far from turning the Iranian public against its government, sanctions have further fanned the flames of anti-US sentiment in Iran, culminating in the recent election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to replace Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a reformer who championed the JCPOA.

The gambit to use sanctions to leverage further Iranian concessions didn’t work under Trump and won’t work under Biden. Democrats must ensure the nuclear deal — perhaps the seminal foreign policy achievement of the Obama-Biden administration — is not allowed to collapse, and with it all hopes for near-term diplomacy between the United States and Iran.

Bryan Bowman is a Middle East policy program assistant at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. As a member of FCNL’s 2020-2021 class of Young Fellows, he is working to advance a more progressive U.S. foreign policy based on restraint, diplomacy, and peace.

Tags Bob Menendez Donald Trump Iranian sanctions JCPOA Joe Biden nuclear deal

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