Reviving the JCPOA is the better alternative — but can it be made sustainable?

Iran's and U.S.' flags are seen printed on paper in this illustration taken January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration


With almost all issues resolved, negotiations to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have gridlocked over the Iranian demand, resisted by the Biden administration, that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be removed from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The issue of IRGC delisting is largely symbolic, with little practical effect on economic pressures facing the organization. But it has outsized political importance in Tehran and Washington, and leaders in both capitals have been unwilling to risk the potential fallout from abandoning their positions. Although European negotiators are reportedly renewing their efforts to find a way to end the impasse, prospects for doing so are uncertain at best, and Biden administration officials have grown increasingly pessimistic that agreement will be reached to return to the JCPOA.

But before pulling the plug on the negotiations, the administration should take a dispassionate look at the implications of not having any nuclear deal in place and compare that outcome to the alternative of reviving the JCPOA. In such a comparison, a restored JCPOA, despite its shortcomings, is the better choice.

A revived JCPOA could verifiably prevent Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear weapon state for at least another eight years and reduce the prospect of a regionwide military confrontation that could embroil the United States and trigger a covert Iranian crash program to acquire nuclear weapons. In the absence of a deal, the United States would be unable to generate sufficient economic pressure to squeeze the resources available to Iran’s destabilizing nuclear, missile, and regional activities or force Tehran to accept a nuclear agreement more restrictive than the JCPOA. And forgoing a return to the JCPOA would give Iran a free hand to ramp up its nuclear program and move dangerously close to the nuclear weapons threshold as early as this year.

A revived deal, however, would surely be the target of intense criticism, both at home and by America’s partners in the Middle East, raising once again the question of its durability in the face of future political developments and presidential transitions. To temper opposition to the deal over time and make it more sustainable, a Biden administration decision to return to the JCPOA would have to be complemented by a resolute regional strategy — one that assertively supports America’s Middle East partners and counters Iran’s efforts to dominate the region, while keeping the door open to diplomacy if Iran is prepared to rein in its regional ambitions and accept durable restrictions that keep it a safe and verifiable distance from the nuclear weapons threshold.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    I greatly appreciate the assistance of Alex Dimsdale and Lori Merritt for editing this policy brief, of Chris Krupinski for providing its layout, and of Suzanne Maloney and Mike O’Hanlon for reviewing drafts of the brief and providing valuable comments.