Why is this happening now? Iran has clearly decided to build pressure on the incoming Biden administration, conveying, in effect, that whatever its priorities, it had better deal with the Islamic Republic soon. As if to punctuate their determination to be a problem that must be addressed, the Iranians also seized a South Korean-registered ship in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and application of maximum economic pressure clearly did not succeed in changing Iran’s behavior but certainly did succeed in doing great damage to the Iranian economy. Iran needs sanctions relief and wants the United States to fulfill its obligation under the JCPOA to lift all nuclear-related sanctions.
With President-elect Joe Biden having already said he will seek to rejoin the JCPOA, aren’t the Iranians pushing on an open door? Not really, because the president-elect’s position is compliance for compliance, meaning that we cannot lift sanctions before the Iranians are back in compliance — and by most estimates, it will take the Iranians a few months to do so. (Getting back into compliance is not like flipping a switch; to give just one example, Iran has accumulated more than 2,400 kilograms of enriched uranium, nearly 12 times the amount permitted in the JCPOA, and it will take time to export or dilute it.) In addition, the Iranians are demanding compensation for what the sanctions have cost them and insisting that the United States, not Iran, must act first. Note that the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently emphasized that the West is obliged to lift sanctions immediately, while also declaring that “we are in no rush for the U.S. to return to the JCPOA. This is not the issue for us. … If the sanctions are not lifted, then the U.S. return to the JCPOA might even be to our disadvantage. … Of course, if they return to their commitments, we will return to ours.”
In other words, the onus is on us, and Iran’s provocative actions are designed to get the incoming Biden administration to defuse the problem by giving Iran sanctions relief before anything else is done. While Biden might be open to providing humanitarian and medical supplies, his compliance for compliance signals that sanctions relief is not possible so long as Iran is violating the JCPOA.
One way to break the impasse and make a virtue of necessity would be for the administration to shift the focus from rejoining the nuclear deal following Iran’s return to full compliance to a “less for less” deal: The United States provides limited sanctions relief; Iran scales back where it is not in compliance. For example, in return for halting enrichment to 20 percent, reducing its stockpile of low enriched uranium from more than 2,400 to 1,000 kilograms and for dismantling its cascades of advanced centrifuges, we permit Iran access to some of their frozen overseas accounts.
There would be several benefits to such a “less for less” deal: It would scale back the Iran nuclear program in a way that would extend its breakout time and make it less threatening; it would maintain our overall sanctions regime, thus preserving our leverage; it would buy time to try to achieve the longer-term agreements that the president-elect seeks, which he hopes on the one hand will extend the sunset provisions in the nuclear deal and on the other produce parallel understandings on ballistic missiles and Iran’s regional behavior; it would make it far easier to gain some Republican buy-in given their almost uniform opposition to the JCPOA, even as it would reduce the Iranian nuclear threat Trump is leaving. Finally, it would be more likely to reassure the Israelis, Emiratis and Saudis who fear an early return to the deal, and the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions will give the Iranians little reason to change their threatening regional behavior.
Negotiations are never easy with the Iranians. If, however, the Biden administration wants to produce follow-on negotiations that will require more from the Iranians while also giving them more in terms of economic benefits and not just sanctions relief — something that will require congressional support — it might make sense not to rejoin the nuclear deal. In other words, if we are to get to “more for more,” we need to start with less for less.
Dennis Ross is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute. This article is tied to the Institute’s new presidential transition memo “The Coming Iran Nuclear Talks: Openings and Obstacles.”