Last week, Iran announced that it had started enriching uranium to 20 percent at its underground Fordow facility. This move is a serious escalation in a long-running crisis – but what is even more ominous is that it also poses a threat. Iran is apparently signaling that it will continue to expand its nuclear program if the 2015 nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – is not rescued in the weeks after US President-elect Joe Biden took office in future negotiations. In the circumstances, a new arrangement would likely be worse than reviving the current business.
Despite all the efforts of the Trump administration, the Iran deal has not completely collapsed. In 2018 the government stopped the promised easing of sanctions for Iran. In response, Iran has gradually expanded its nuclear program, thereby exceeding the limits of the uranium enrichment agreement. Still, Iran hoped that President Donald Trump would lose the 2020 US presidential election and that a new democratic government would want to resume the deal. Accordingly, Tehran has not withdrawn or restarted its plutonium program. It has continued to accept exceptionally intrusive surveillance of its ongoing nuclear activities. And it could quickly and easily reverse its ongoing non-compliance. If Biden can grant Iran the promised sanctions relief, he can likely put the deal back together (to which all the other signatories are still committed).
If it fails, Tehran will almost certainly escalate its violations. There is likely no attempt to build a nuclear weapon (although the possibility is reason enough to keep the deal). Instead, Iran will likely choose to expand its nuclear program – by developing better centrifuges, installing more, storing larger and larger amounts of enriched uranium, and perhaps even enriching it to a higher level. In short, Iran will pick up exactly where it left off in 2013 when its nuclear program was first constrained by the Joint Plan of Action, the less comprehensive predecessor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran will likely attempt to ramp up pressure on the United States to negotiate an end to sanctions. Because of the additional leverage available to Tehran, any new agreement – if ever reached – will likely have to tolerate more nuclear activity in Iran than is currently allowed.
Proponents of a better deal argue that increased economic sanctions will persuade Iran to make further concessions. The problem is that Tehran has a greater capacity than Washington to escalate the crisis. Despite the current US maximum pressure campaign against Iran, Iranian oil sales are on the rise again. Even maintaining current economic pressures will be a challenge for the United States as Iran is better able to evade sanctions and international support for it continues to decline. In contrast, without the 2015 agreement, Iran could dramatically expand its nuclear program without having to cross the nuclear threshold.
If the idea of leverage competition feels speculative and abstract, then the basic United States problem of labor disputes should be known. In order to deal with the Iran crisis, Tehran must offer economic and safety advantages if certain nuclear activities are not carried out. Dealing with a labor dispute also involves offering workers improved wages and conditions when they are not on strike. In both cases, the shape of a deal is determined by the relative leverage of the two sides.
In order to increase their leverage and thus do a tougher business, unions could try to make the threat of a strike more credible. A classic tactic is for workers to vote to approve a strike unless their negotiators can reach an acceptable settlement. This approach often proves effective as it places the responsibility for avoiding a strike on management, which can then feel pressured to make significant concessions.
Similarly, the Iranian parliament recently attempted to empower Iranian negotiators by passing a law banning international inspections and requiring expansion of the Iranian nuclear program unless sanction easing is in place (uranium enrichment to 20 percent is the first step in the Implementation of the law). This law is not yet part of a shot to the bomb. But it is a signal that Iran is approaching the nuclear threshold and making the threat of acquiring a nuclear weapon more credible.
Hoping the US can win a leverage competition by increasing sanctions, its experience of playing – and losing – this game against North Korea should ease expectations. There are, of course, many differences between Iran and North Korea (starting with the fact that the former does not have nuclear weapons). However, the case exemplifies how improved skills lead to improved leverage – even as economic sanctions tighten
Over the past 40 years, North Korea has improved its nuclear capabilities by accumulating ever larger amounts of plutonium, developing an enrichment program that “baffled” the American weapons scientist who saw it, and has conducted long-range missile and nuclear tests on a regular basis. The result was that each of the deals completed by the last four US administrations were less restrictive than the previous one.
The Clinton administration's agreed framework established a comprehensive roadmap to freeze and eradicate the North Korean plutonium program. The George W. Bush administration deal called for bubbly "deactivation" activities – including demolishing a reactor cooling tower on television – but was vague about next steps. A short-lived deal struck by the Obama administration in 2012 aimed to freeze various North Korean nuclear and missile activities without the need to dismantle anything. And the garden summit declaration signed by Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump contained no specific commitments. (A moratorium on nuclear and missile testing announced by U.S. officials was a unilateral gesture made months earlier.)
A senior North Korean diplomat once remarked: "The time lost (in dealing with us) has not been beneficial to the United States." If the Iran deal falls apart, wasted time will similarly harm US interests. Biden is therefore right to point out that the United States will rejoin the Iran deal (rather than advocating something better) if Iran resumes its restrictions.
Orchestrating mutual ascension will be challenging, and success is not guaranteed. But if Biden can do it, his government may be able to negotiate further restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and address its missile program, subsequently offering Tehran greater advantages. However, the way to such a better agreement is to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, not to destroy it.