This hasn’t been anyone’s year. But for the theocratic Iranian regime, it couldn’t have gone any worse.
It was a year that saw several irreplaceable Iranian assets taken off the field. In January, the notorious Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani was dispatched. Not long afterward, Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was shot dead on a Tehran street, sacrificing the leverage Iran wielded over the infamous terrorist outfit. And in November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the director of the Iranian atomic weapons development operations, was killed. Fakhrizadeh’s death represents the culmination of a covert program that has targeted suspected Iranian nuclear operations across the country—a campaign that produced multiple powerful explosions that took several suspect underground installations out of commission.
All the while, Iran has dealt with one of the earliest and worst outbreaks of COVID-19 on the planet. The outside world doesn’t fully understand the precise scale of the pandemic in Iran. But coupled with the Trump administration’s crippling sanctions on key economic sectors, its negative effects on the Iranian economy has been profound. The World Bank expects Iran’s gross domestic product to decline by 4.5 percent this year, on top of the 6 percent decline Iran endured over the last two years. The Iranian Rial lost half its value over the course of 2020, and inflation has surged to over 30 percent. The government has been forced to gingerly pare back its subsidization of consumer goods, raising prices on staple foods to unsustainably high levels. This is a risky prospect from Tehran’s perspective, as November 2019 produced some of the worst violence and unrest since the 1979 revolution, and all over the withdrawal of gasoline subsidies.
In sum, Iran is operating from a position of weakness, and the United States is well-positioned to press its advantages. But to hear President-elect Joe Biden talk about Iran, America’s top regional priority is to relieve the pressure on Tehran by seeking to revive the moribund JCPOA (aka, the Iran nuclear accords). And although he’s been vague about the terms he would seek in a new deal, the way Biden talks about the prospect suggests they might be even more lenient than the original.
In a telephone interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Biden appeared eager to revive the compact mostly in its original form. He criticized Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, which followed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2017 confession that it could no longer confirm that Iran was fully implementing the agreement. If there is to be any catch, it would be that all parties would have to renegotiate a second JCPOA’s sunset provisions. After that time, Iran would have the international community’s tacit endorsement to pursue a nuclear breakout. And only then, after a second JCPOA had been cemented, would the Biden administration deal with pesky issues like Iran’s ballistic-missile program or its material support for terrorist groups and proxy militias across the Middle East.
But some observers believe Biden has provided himself with an escape hatch. Biden reiterated his insistence that there could only be a new deal so long as “Iran returns to strict compliance.” That caveat provides some relief to those who are apprehensive about the prospect of a JCPOA 2.0. They assumed that Iran could not simply flip a switch and roll back the violations in which it has engaged for several years. This is all just a lot of talk to appease a wing of the Democratic Party that would like to pretend as though the last four years never happened.
Unfortunately, that is wishful thinking. If Iranian compliance was a real sticking point, Biden might have dwelled on—or even mentioned in passing—the kind of inspections regime that would verify such a thing. But he did not.
In the final days of the Obama administration, it was fashionable for the deal’s defenders to dismiss its critics by contending that Iran was in full compliance with the terms of the accords. But those critics did not disagree. Their problem was always that “full compliance” was not difficult to achieve.
Iran provided inspectors access to declared nuclear sites but not military sites where illicit activities were likeliest to occur. A subsequent agreement allowed inspectors the opportunity to access suspect sites but only with at least 24-days-notice—enough to dispose of the evidence of small-scale work on components related to a bomb. But functionally, that 24-day timeline could be reset by Iran, which could stretch the delays out for weeks—ample time to deceive inspectors.
The IAEA routinely insisted that they had ample access to sites like Natanz and Fordow, though the uranium-enriching centrifuges at those sites were only mothballed and could be quickly restored (as they were last year). But inspectors were blocked from accessing sites like the Parchin military complex, where Iran allegedly conducted nuclear explosives and hydrodynamic testing before bulldozing the area and layering it with asphalt. To satisfy observers unnerved by Iran’s intrigues, Tehran was allowed to use its own inspectors to take environmental samples from around Parchin. Shocking though it may be, neither the Iranians nor the IAEA inspectors who checked their work found anything untoward.
The IAEA also insisted that it regularly conducted snap inspections of various civilian and military sites, but Western diplomats noted that nearly all of those inspections were of places like university laboratories or manufacturing plants with little sensitive intelligence value. When pressed by the former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in 2017 to reinspect some suspicious military sites to satisfy the Trump administration’s concerns, the IAEA declined—insisting, correctly, that the terms of the deal required a specific and credible basis to request such intrusive inspections.
The deference afforded to Iran didn’t end there. In 2018, a spectacularly successful Israeli intelligence operation recovered a cache of documents related to the Iranian weapons program that clearly illustrates the extensive work the Islamic Republic had done in pursuit of a fissionable device. Those documents were hidden away, presumably to be pulled out of storage after the deal had expired and Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon had been fully legitimized. But Iran was under no obligation to disclose those documents, even though it had repeatedly claimed (and former secretary of State John Kerry affirmed) that all of Iran’s past nuclear-weapons work was on the table.
The JCPOA was never designed to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear-nation status. It was only aimed at dragging that process out while reshuffling the region’s geopolitical deck in Iran’s favor and ultimately providing a patina of legitimacy to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Any talk about exhuming and reanimating this agreement that glosses over its weak verification regime suggests that the Biden administration, like the Obama administration, will settle for any deal—even a bad one. When Iran is on the ropes, it’s Joe Biden who is committed to negotiating from a position of weakness.