Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), spoke to participants in a February 8 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the Biden administration's declared ambition to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the Iranian regime.
The Obama administration entered the JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015, claiming the agreement would permanently "cut off Iran's pathways" to nuclear weapons. Instead of cutting off these pathways, said Dubowitz, the JCPOA "paves them." He reviewed why the JCPOA is a "fatally flawed agreement."
First, sunset restrictions of the JCPOA make even the limited caps on Iranian nuclear activity temporary. Under the agreement, for example, Iran is prohibited from installing advanced centrifuges in its enrichment facilities only until 2023. Advanced centrifuges can more efficiently enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, which means that fewer of them are required to produce fissile material for a bomb, making it easier to conceal the process at clandestine facilities and achieve a "sneakout" path to building a bomb.
Other major restrictions on nuclear activities disappear in 2025 and 2026, which will allow Iran to enrich uranium at higher levels, maintain a larger stockpile of enriched uranium, and rebuild plutonium reprocessing capabilities. The expiration of restrictions will see Iran emerge with an "industrial size nuclear program" better suited to its nuclear weapons ambitions.
In addition to removing UN economic sanctions on Iran, the agreement provided for the lifting of the UN arms embargo in October 2020 and an end to the UN's restrictions on ballistic missile development in 2023. Iran will then face few obstacles to building nuclear-capable missiles that can target U.S. troops, allies and, "eventually the U.S. homeland," Dubowitz warned.
The JCPOA upended the international consensus, consecrated by U.N. Security Council resolutions, against allowing the Iranian regime to "produce fissile material on its soil" for use with either civilian or nuclear weapons programs. Dozens of countries seeking to build civilian nuclear programs have voluntarily agreed to forego enrichment or reprocessing in exchange for U.S. technical assistance, which Dubowitz called the "gold standard" of nuclear non-proliferation. Now there is an "Iran standard" for the world's foremost state-sponsor of terrorism and leading killer of Americans.
With its "maximum pressure" campaign of economic sanctions, assassination of IRGC Qods Force commander Soleimani, and support for Israel's resolute stand against the Iranian regime, the Trump administration used "all instruments of U.S. power" to bring Tehran to heel after withdrawing from the JCPOA. Support for the U.S.-Israeli position from Arab Gulf countries has created an unprecedented united front against Iran.
The Biden administration's intention is to diminish the maximum pressure campaign. Lifting sanctions through a revival of the JCPOA will pour "hundreds of billions of dollars" into the regime and enable it to rearm with conventional weaponry, "supercharge" the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) "malign" support for regional proxies, and rebuild an Iranian economy that has been "crippled under President Trump."
American leverage over Iran hinges on willingness to use "all options on the table."
The Trump administration's economic sanctions are "predicated on non-nuclear malign behavior" and should only be lifted when Iran has ended its aggressive conduct in the region and reconciled itself to "gold standard" non-proliferation constraints, said Dubowitz. American leverage hinges on a commitment to maintain economic sanctions or a willingness to use "all options on the table," including military force against Iran's nuclear program if necessary.
In 2015, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry believed they could "seduce" the Iranians into becoming a "global stakeholder" by realigning America's strategy. The belief that the U.S. can woo adversaries with money and promises to integrate them into the global economy is fundamentally flawed. Communist China and Vladimir Putin's Russia did not moderate their ambitions to challenge U.S. global power as a result of such engagement, nor did Iran's Islamist regime – its regional aggression and support for terrorism increased after 2015.
The Iranian regime "today is economically bankrupt [and] ideologically bankrupt."
Dubowitz believes the Biden administration must give up the "conceit" that U.S. concessions will empower (non-existent) moderates in the Iranian regime and let Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign "run its course." The Iranian regime "today is economically bankrupt, ideologically bankrupt, hated by the majority of its people, [and] hated by the majority of people in the Arab world," he said in conclusion. It is "a regime that with the right amount of pressure would be forced into concessions, and ultimately over time ... like the Soviet Union, will be confined to the ash heap of history like other dictatorships."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.