The Iran deal is fragile — here's what the Biden administration can do

The Iran deal is fragile — here's what the Biden administration can do
© Getty Images

Despite having withstood the Trump administration’s wrecking ball, the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains fragile. It is beset by both internal flaws and external enemies. 

In the latter category, Iran’s intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi recently let his mask slip by threatening to pursue nuclear weapons: “Our nuclear program is peaceful and the fatwa by the Supreme Leader has forbidden nuclear weapons, but if they push Iran in that direction, then it wouldn’t be Iran’s fault but those who pushed it.” Should Tehran accelerate its drive toward nuclear weapons, the illicit weapons designs, materials and equipment that it amassed under Project AMAD, and maintained under the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND) — contrary to the “nonproliferation fatwa,” if one exists — will allow Iran to move rapidly. 

Moreover, under a law passed in December, Iran will progressively dismantle JCPOA provisions unless and until the United States lifts sanctions. Already, Iran has produced at least 17 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium, broken the limits on low-enriched uranium stocks, expanded advanced centrifuge operations, and restarted enrichment at the Fordow deep underground facility — all in violation of the JCPOA. According to the Majlis law, unless its demands are met, Iran must begin constricting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification missions on Feb. 21.  


On top of all this, and separate from the violations of the JCPOA, for more than a year IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has complained of his “serious concerns” about Iran’s failure to cooperate with agency efforts to investigate evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities. Last month, Grossi warned, “It’s obvious that the situation on the ground has changed, is changing and is going to change even more.” Undeclared nuclear materials and activities are bedrock compliance concerns more serious even than the creep-out of the JCPOA. 

The JCPOA’s inherent flaws also make it fragile. First, most in Congress oppose it. In 2015, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress voted against the deal. Because supermajorities were required to block its entry into force, the JCPOA became the only major nuclear agreement to take effect over the objection of Congress. This is not a stable outcome in a representative democracy. Thwarted from working its will on the nuclear deal itself, in 2016 Congress extended the Iran Sanctions Act for 10 years by lopsided majorities. With further action in subsequent years, Congress seemed to find sanctions to be its “path back to foreign policy relevance.” Ignoring congressional concerns will further undermine support for the JCPOA and spark actions that provoke Iranian retaliation. 

The second JCPOA flaw is that it is premised on an assumption that Iran need not provide a complete and correct declaration of all its relevant nuclear materials and activities. Prior to the deal, the IAEA had amassed considerable evidence of so-called “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program. This was work that made sense only in pursuit of nuclear weapons.  The IAEA’s suspicions were later confirmed by a huge trove of documents removed from Iran by Israeli intelligence, which showed that “Iran’s senior leadership approved a program to manufacture nuclear weapons and carry out an underground nuclear test. This was a coherent, organized, top-down program, not a rogue operation.” The program was apparently halted in 2003, but the weapons designs, materials and equipment that it had amassed were never declared, and presumably remain in Iran today. The JCPOA undercut the IAEA’s efforts to get to the bottom of this work, and the deal “resolved” the matter procedurally, but not substantively.  The problem festers even today. 

The third major flaw of the JCPOA is that it failed to ensure a “meeting of the minds” on key issues. Asked in 2015 about access rights for inspectors, President Obama’s National Security Council official Ben Rhodes promised, “Yes, if we see something that we want to inspect. In the first place we will have anytime, anywhere access [to] the nuclear facilities … the whole supply chain.” (Later, then-Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryLeaked UN climate report underscores growing risk, need for fast action America needs a whole-of-government approach to studying unidentified aerial phenomena Beware language and the art of manipulation MORE denied having heard the term “anytime, anywhere inspections” in connection with the Iran deal.) Iran, however, has no doubt that military sites are off limits. In the meantime, Teheran denied the IAEA access to at least two sites in Iran that it sought to inspect. Similar fundamental disagreements over the requirements of the deal bedevil provisions on the Iranian missile program and the “procurement channel” designed to monitor Iranian purchases of sensitive technology. 

Rebuilding the JCPOA will require skillful diplomacy with Iran, the other parties to the deal, and Congress. It may not be possible. If it is possible, however, it cannot be done by ignoring or whitewashing the JCPOA’s flaws. The Biden administration should start with Congress. It should help to establish and offer to work with a congressional observer group, composed of supporters and opponents of the deal, to address their most pressing concerns. It should promise that, after rejoining the JCPOA, the United States will work from the inside to correct the JCPOA’s flaws (and there are provisions within the agreement for doing so).  


Opponents of the deal should give the administration time and space to seek these improvements, especially as withdrawal from the deal has left Iran much closer to making the bomb than when the Trump administration took office. Both JCPOA supporters and opponents should also quit questioning each other’s motives.   

Next, the administration should work with U.S. allies to make clear that the United States again rejects unilateralism on the Iran matter, and that the deal’s flaws and Iranian compliance must be addressed. Seeking compliance supports, rather than saps, the JCPOA. Moreover, such efforts will make the IAEA more effective because the agency depends critically on backing from member states. 

Once the arrangements for the United States and Iran again implementing the JCPOA are agreed, and the status quo ante January 2017 has been reestablished, the Biden administration should tenaciously pursue Iranian noncompliance issues from within the deal. This will require of Tehran a complete and correct declaration of all relevant materials, equipment, facilities and activities, and IAEA follow-up. 

This work will not be easy. Iran will balk. Compliance will be incomplete and grudging. These are, however, the only means to ensure that the path to an Iranian bomb truly has been blocked. 

William Tobey is a faculty affiliate with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.