After Biden's Afghanistan blunder, is the Iran nuclear deal finally dead?

After Biden's Afghanistan blunder, is the Iran nuclear deal finally dead?
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U.S and Iranian negotiators took a break earlier this summer after six rounds of indirect talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While Washington has made it clear that it is willing to make significant concessions to Tehran, so far this has not been reciprocated. And there is little to suggest that this will change now that the country’s recently elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, and his newly appointed foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have been sworn in.

In the aftermath of the fall of Afghanistan, the Biden administration is similarly unlikely to make many concessions that will make it appear weak or incompetent. In short, while anything is possible, it now seems unlikely that the Vienna talks will result in the new JCPOA-plus that the Biden administration set out to negotiate.

But for a moment let’s assume that they do succeed and that a deal is struck in Vienna. What strategic benefits could be expected to flow from a JCPOA 2.0?

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First of all, it needs to be said that it is highly unlikely that any deal acceptable to Iran would mitigate in any meaningful way Tehran’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran has demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to developing such weapons, and has made considerable progress toward that end.

And there is little to suggest that it will either sign away the capabilities it possesses or foreswear efforts to continue down the nuclear path in the future. Perhaps, if the payoff were sufficiently large, Iran’s leaders might agree to terms that would extend its breakout time – commonly defined as the time required to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon – by six months or a year. But that is the best that can be hoped for — and the most that U.S. negotiators are currently trying to achieve.

Similarly, it must be said that no deal realistically feasible is likely to substantially blunt Iran’s efforts to achieve regional primacy. The original JCPOA didn’t even try to address this issue. And while the Biden team has stated its preference for a deal that does precisely this, it is unlikely that Tehran will agree to such limits or, if it does, that it would abide by them in the future. 

Even with these shortcomings baked in, however, we shouldn’t automatically conclude that any conceivable JCPOA 2.0 would be meaningless. Far from it. Such an agreement would be a very positive development, for it would accelerate the restoration of a natural balancing dynamic to the Persian Gulf — a dynamic that had been effectively short-circuited by the United States’ heavy-handed engagement in the region for at least the past four decades. 

Before the original JCPOA, U.S. security commitments and guarantees – and the U.S. military presence associated with these commitments and guarantees – largely dampened the natural tendency toward balancing in the region. Why would America’s regional security partners act on their own initiative to balance Iran when the U.S. was willing to do it for them? In effect, the U.S. security umbrella not only encouraged a certain amount of free-riding, it also allowed internal politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab rivalries to short-circuit any effort to form a cohesive bloc to counter Iranian revisionism.

And while the Gulf Cooperation Council may have been a partial exception to this dynamic, this was never sufficient either in scope or focus. Regional states continued to rely on the U.S. for leadership and backing and so were able to avoid the hard choices and investments necessary to check Iran on their own.

The original JCPOA was salutary in this connection because it sent signals – wholly unintended – to the Gulf States that the U.S. was perhaps rethinking its role in the region. In turn, this encouraged the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan and even Israel to continue and even accelerate their already-underway rapprochement with the goal of checking Iran’s bid to expand its power and influence in the region. The result was the Abraham Accords.

This re-ignition of the natural balancing dynamic in the region was at least partly undermined by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and implement a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran. This reassured the members of the emerging Arab-Israeli bloc. And while it didn’t reverse the trend among the Gulf States to normalize relations with Israel, it certainly seems to have stalled it.

The benefit of a JCPOA 2.0 – should U.S. and Iranian negotiators agree to a deal – will not be that it will solve the nuclear proliferation problem. It won’t. Nor will it be to get Tehran to agree to moderate its mischief-making in the region. That’s not going to happen either. Rather, it will be to focus the minds of the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan and Israel even more intently on the need to work together to restrain Iran’s hegemonic aspirations — even to the point of overcoming the last remaining obstacles to Arab-Israeli diplomatic normalization and security cooperation.

Once this happens, the U.S. will be able to reduce its footprint in the region even further, which in turn will allow the natural tendency toward regional balancing to emerge even more fully.

The culminating point of this dynamic would logically be a far more modest U.S. role and presence in the Persian Gulf region, a stable balance of power in and around the Gulf and a secure flow of oil to world markets. And that would be a pretty good place to end up. All that needs to happen in the short run is for a deal – any deal – to be struck in Vienna when talks resume this September. Who knows — perhaps the seventh time will be the charm.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.