JCPOA – Escalation and Pressure or Abandonment of Diplomacy?


by Tom Huf

The prospects for the US to rejoin the JCPOA unilaterally abandoned by President Trump in 2018 have diminished greatly in the past month. Both those on the negotiating team and close observers in the diplomatic community and in Washington think tanks are voicing more caution and pessimism than at any time during the past year.

The announcement a month ago that a workaround may have been negotiated for the last obstacle to the agreement – the removal of the US designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization  – was a brief moment of hope for success.

Shortly after this breakthrough was announced another senior Iranian –Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – was assassinated in front of his home in Tehran. While no official claims have been made, the Israeli press has been claiming that it was again an Israeli initiative.  Prior assassinations over the past four years of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran have been publicly claimed by Israel.  The timing of these attacks has generally coincided with breakthroughs in negotiations between the US and the other parties to the JCPOA – most notably Iran.  This latest assassination has followed the just completed and most comprehensive four-week Israeli military exercise ever mounted.  These have been openly discussed as including the types of warfare that would serve to attack facilities such as Iran’s nuclear and military targets.

That these new non-diplomatic pressures are being applied while negotiations are ongoing undermines the ability to finalize the only means currently available to secure nuclear containment for a period of time while the other issues are addressed. The unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA by Trump and the maximum pressure sanctions against Iran – the most punishing ever applied by the US until the current Russia/ Ukraine sanctions  – have been acknowledged to be a complete failure.  No modification of political behavior has been induced as was predicted by sanctions experts. The only effect has been making consumer costs higher for average and low income civilians in Iran.

Rather than return to the JCPOA by means of an executive order as implied in president Biden’s 2020 campaign speech that would have secured nuclear compliance before trying to negotiate additional arrangements, Biden and the US team embarked upon a failed strategy to seek additional agreements during the current talks. This has dragged on for 16 months and the approach has fallen into the poison pill traps set by the Trump administration and others opposed to the JCPOA under the false premise of making us safer by violating the spirit of the JCPOA and demanding that additional conditions be met.  The success of the JCPOA was its narrow focus on nuclear containment and non-proliferation. Those who have been asking for these negotiations to address all other issues simultaneously have been arguing for application of one-sided new conditions that are in effect an abandonment of diplomacy. 

In his testimony to the Senate Foreign relations Committee on May 25th Robert Malley again said that we have tried and failed with extreme sanctions and now are failing with escalating the complexity of the JCPOA negotiations. The latter focused more on satisfying the US supporters of tougher terms than on reaching a deal.  Now it appears this is failing as well.  

Malley again emphasized that the JCPOA was and still is the only available tool to move forward diplomatically.  Opponents of the deal in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee like Chairman Robert Menendez, while admitting that we are in this position because of the Trump withdrawal, fail to acknowledge that Iran’s escalation of uranium enrichment has been a result, not a cause of the US policy. Pointing to Iran’s current nuclear enrichment as the reason for his opposition to the JCPOA is a circular argument worthy of a famous Lewis Carroll novel.

It is past time for President Biden to change course, commit to closing the deal, and to risk spending some political capital on making the world safer from military escalation and war in the gulf region.  War with Iran spurred by intentional sabotage of diplomacy by a proxy client of the United States, Israel, does not absolve us of blame for failure of the JCPOA. The alternative is military conflict and loss of life greater than the combined toll of the other recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.  

It is also past time for the US to implement a foreign policy in the Middle East based upon long term stability, peace and prosperity for all.  Our history of failed foreign policy is not just the current lack of trust and polarized domestic policy masquerading as principled foreign policy. Long before maximum pressure and unilateral abrogation of a good nuclear agreement the US and Britain exploited Iran’s oil with minimal compensation, deposed Shah Reza in 1941 to have our way with shipment of weapons and supplies to Russia during WWII, installed his more pliant son Shah Mohammed Pahlavi as the new puppet leader, and worked with MI5 and CIA to depose Prime minister Mossadegh in 1952 over the control of their sovereign oil resources.  Ours is a record of disrespect and bullying that has left scars of mistrust that the US simply does what it wants without regard for the culture and needs of our erstwhile friends.  Diplomacy is the art of the possible, not the art of forcing each country to create a government we like.  

Isolating Iran through extreme sanctions and now making it a pariah state while cozying up to Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to isolate Iran even more is a formula for long range conflict.  This new unraveling of our response to MBS’s cold blooded murder of a Saudi/ American citizen and deepening of the Iranophobia that has gripped Washington is a reminder.  Historically, isolation, economic reprisal, and crushing reparations demands lead to conflict. Those placed on Germany after WWI  resulted in the even larger WWII and the holocaust. Let’s do what is right and re-enter the JCPOA now before it is too late.

— Thomas Huf is Senior Program manager for Facilities Planning and Programming at UMass Amherst. Tom served in the Peace Corps in Iran from 1967 until 1971. His involvement with Iran continues as a member of the Advocacy Committee of the Peace Corps Iran Association and as a member of the Atlantic Council and of MAPA’s Middle East Working Group.