A US return to JCPOA would be a dangerous choice

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), achieved in 2015 between Iran and the world powers, was neither a “second Holocaust” nor “a diplomatic success worthy of the Nobel Prize.” Like Pharaoh’s biblical dream, the agreement heralded “seven good years” to be followed by “seven very bad years.”

The JCPOA had some immediate benefits, mainly in the rollback of the Iranian nuclear program and the 10-year slowdown, but also dangerous drawbacks: it enables Iran to continue developing its enrichment technology, and in the longer term, the “sunset” clause grants full legitimacy to Iran’s unlimited nuclear program and places a nuclear weapon within Iran’s immediate access from the moment Tehran decides to breakout to the bomb.

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Other significant shortcomings of the agreement include the limited supervision of undeclared sites and military sites, disregard for Iran’s activity on the PMD (possible military dimensions) of the program, lack of reference to the development of ballistic missiles, and Iran’s malign activity in the region.

In 2015, I was opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address the U.S. Congress on the proposed agreement, and thought it would be better to reach a “parallel agreement” between Israel and the United States on how to deal jointly with the problematic implications of the agreement, in the medium and long term, in areas of intelligence, diplomacy and operations. I agreed that the first seven years of the agreement would be relatively good, but stressed our obligation to strategize for the “seven bad years,” when the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire without any pre-requisite that the radical regime abandon its extremism.

When discussions arose on the possibility of the Trump administration withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Institute for National Security Studies, which I head, advised against withdrawal but proposed significant steps, in cooperation with Europe, to amend the agreement and negotiate critical changes before the restrictions on Iran ended.

The four years that have elapsed since the JCPOA was implemented have shown that key assumptions made by supporters of the agreement were wrong. Iran was not open to dialogue on non-nuclear matters even before the United States withdrew from the agreement, and has not only failed to moderate its hostile conduct but has even intensified it. Billions of dollars that were unfrozen following the agreement have enabled Iran to support Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, the Hezbollah terror organization and the Houthis in Yemen, and to deploy military personnel and equipment that threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. This week, the Trump administration took the unusual step of designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

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The regime also has not eased up its unrelenting repression of the Iranian people, and it continues to commit extensive human rights violations. The ballistic missile tests that breach United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 and the Iranian nuclear archive that was exposed by the Mossad are proof that Iran lied about its PMD even after the JCPOA was signed.

The recent threats from Iranian leaders to start enrichment at high levels soon demonstrate that “the agreement did not hermetically block Iran’s nuclear progress” — in fact, the opposite: it enabled it to develop nuclear technologies while pursuing aggressive and dangerous activity in the region and continuing to call for “death to Israel” and “death to America.”

Today we know that Iran is developing two mutually reinforcing strategic efforts — nuclear and conventional. Iran seeks a nuclear umbrella to facilitate its conventional aggressive activity while it pushes for regional hegemony, and simultaneously works to position conventional forces and precision missiles in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, to deter Israel and the United States from taking action against its nuclear project. Iran works constantly to undermine the stability of the pragmatic states, through subversion and proxy warfare.

The question of whether it was smart for the United States to withdraw from the JCPOA is up for historical debate, but now is a moot point. However, the call to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement in its current form is a dangerous suggestion. In 2021, we will be approaching the end of the “good years,” and the possibility that a murderous regime that seeks to destroy Israel and establish regional hegemony in the Middle East will receive international approval to reach the nuclear threshold is a nightmare scenario that must be prevented.

As someone who, in 1981 and in 2007, helped terminate two nuclear programs in the Middle East without precipitating war, I know that the “deal or war” framing is a false dichotomy and, therefore, the prediction that leaving the JCPOA will lead to war was detached from the strategic and military reality of the Middle East.

Iran does not rule the roost; it is a very vulnerable country that is rushing toward a direct clash with Israel and the United States. Paradoxically, a clear unwillingness to use force actually encourages Iranian aggression, while clear-eyed willingness to use it will cause the danger of war to recede.

The United States definitely should not go back to the JCPOA, which will only maximize the deal’s shortcomings at the worst timing; it should seek a new agreement, a JCPOA 2.0 addressing all problematic issues — above all, the “sunset” phase that must be extended to at least 30 years and made conditional on a real and verifiable change in Iran’s conduct. Other changes should include more penetrating and effective supervision, and a full investigation of the program’s PMD.

Concomitantly, a Security Council resolution is needed to address the issues of ballistic missiles, terror and malign Iranian interventions throughout the Middle East. To that end, it is necessary to continue the pressure on Iran from all directions, create a broad international coalition, and clarify in reliable and convincing fashion that not only are all options against Iran “on the table,” they also are ready to use and the will to do so is real.

Amos Yadlin is the former head of Israel’s defense intelligence and currently is executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Follow him on Twitter @YadlinAmos.