A high-level meeting of the current signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran deal, began meeting in Vienna on Tuesday in an effort to bring the United States back into the deal and Iran back into full compliance.
Though there remain considerable hurdles to accomplishing either diplomatic objective, the strength of the U.S. military deterrent over Iran assures our safety regardless of the outcome.
The Biden administration’s approach to Iran is a stark contrast to the one employed by Donald Trump, whose administration employed a strategy of “maximum pressure.” This approach made two implicit promises. First, that it would rein in Iran’s pernicious meddling in the affairs of other Middle Eastern countries, and second that it would force Iran to the table for a deal to replace the JCPOA that was more comprehensive and restrictive. Both promises were failures.
Prior to signing the original JCPOA in 2015, Iran had 19,000 centrifuges and had more than 7,500kg of processed uranium at the 3.67% level. At the time Mr. Trump withdrew from the agreement, Iran had only 6,000 centrifuges and less than 300kg of 3.67% uranium hexafluoride in storage. Currently, Iran is reprocessing uranium at the 20% level and the IAEA estimates they have approximately 4,390kg in storage.
U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal prompted a predictable increase in belligerent behavior in the region by Tehran. Another reason maximum pressure failed was an overestimation of the utility of sanctions.
As Dan DePetris detailed in a recent Defense Priorities Explainer, sanctions are overused, rarely succeed, and perversely impose costs on the United States. They dilute U.S. power over time, he wrote, “as states seek alternatives to the U.S.-dominated financial system that exposes them to punishment. They increase tension, impose hardship on civilian populations, and can create long-term hostility.”
The accuracy of his warnings were made clear last month when the U.S. attempt to exclude Iran from Western business dealings pushed them into the eager embrace of China. In late March, the two nations signed a 25-year business deal, including Tehran’s promise to sell China more oil. Even now, as the original JCPOA signatories convene in Austria, Iran is far from the weakened negotiating partner envisioned by maximum pressure.
In advance of the Vienna meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he believed the meeting was designed to get the U.S. to choreograph the “removal of all sanctions,” and then afterward Iran would return to full compliance. State Department spokesman Ned Price, however, said the U.S. position was that the signatories would look first at the “nuclear steps that Iran would need to take” and only later at U.S. actions to relieve sanctions. It remains to be seen which side will prevail in the negotiations, but if anything, it appears four years of maximum pressure has hardened, not weakened, Iranian resolve.
Yet, there are still those in Washington who cling to the belief that maximum pressure actually works and only want to double-down on the failed tactics of the past. What these advocates fail to recognize is that if they get their way and reject any diplomatic outcome in which both sides get something they want — the U.S. a limitation on Iranian nuclear development and Iran the lifting of crippling sanctions — the only remaining solutions involve an increase in the risk of war.
We narrowly avoided war in January 2020 when the U.S. took out an Iranian general and Tehran fired retaliatory missile strikes against an American base in Iraq. Had that strike killed any U.S. troops, the situation could have spiraled out of control, leading to war. Most people in Washington today recognize that the Iraq war of 2003 was an unmitigated disaster. Stumbling into a war in Iran would be substantially worse for America than anything seen in Iraq.
It would be foolish to court a disastrous war, especially when our security is not threatened by Iran, a middling power already balanced by U.S. partners, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. The best course for America, the one that most assures our security and future prosperity, is to recognize our conventional and nuclear deterrent will keep our country safe, and support all diplomatic moves that could lead to a lessening of tensions. The great news for America is that we will be safe regardless of how talks turn out — but the worst possible outcome would be to choose a path that leads to war.
• Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
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