One of Trump’s enormous mistakes was unilaterally dumping into the trash the finely negotiated Iran nuclear pact, officially termed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or J.C.P.O.A., that Secretary of State John Kerry had accomplished in an astonishing diplomatic coup never achieved before or since. Trump declared that the U.S. was pulling out of the pact, declaring it to be the worst deal ever. He imposed draconian economic sanctions upon Iran to force them to return to table to negotiate an agreement more to Trump’s liking.
Nothing happened the way Trump wanted. Iranian leaders ignored Trump’s threats and refused to consider renegotiating the deal while the sanctions were in place. Relations with the U.S. steadily soured as Iran has stepped up aggressive actions in the Middle East and appeared ready to return to production of nuclear weaponry. Our European allies largely ignored the U.S. sanctions and Trump’s threats and have continued as though the pact was fully operational. Russia and China have distanced themselves from the fray and are ostensibly trying to appear aloof, while working for their own interests in the shadows. The Middle East economy is in chaos. In the four short years of the Trump administration, the world situation with Iran has moved from one of easing tension and cautious optimism to one approaching the rim of disaster.
Prior to Trumps precipitous action. relations with the United States had been improving. Under the leadership of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president who took over from the radical iconoclast Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, Iran’s civilian economy and its relations with its European neighbors was improving while its hardline military presence was softening. Although the country was also under the joint-but-supreme control of the rigidly militant Ayatollah Khamenei under its dual-headed government which no one in the West appears to understand, President Rouhani was making headway in many areas. Trump’s actions re-invigorated the position of the hard liners, making Rouhani’s tasks of any further improvement in relations with the West all but impossible. Rouhani’s term is up in June and the next five years depends greatly on whether the moderates can hold on to Rouhani’s position.
Biden has been tip-toeing around trying to get all the players back to a table somewhere to work out a solution. Iran refuses to agree to reopening negotiations so long as the economic sanctions are in place. Biden is being pulled by traditional diplomats who insist that any concessions by the U.S. must be met by reciprocal concessions from its adversary. The advice is that the U.S. should never concede one iota of any position taken until and unless there is a reciprocal and satisfactory concession towards the U.S. demands; that there must be a quid pro quo that we approve of. The result so far has been a frustrating stand-off, with no progress on the U.S. vs. Iran fronts and an impatient Europe getting more nervous as the war clouds of impending disaster continue to mount.
The answer seems obvious – at least to get the thing moving in the right direction. Biden should just undo what Trump did. Lift the sanctions and declare that the U.S. is once again a member of J.C.P.O.A. He can do this unilaterally with the stroke of a pen. It does not require Congressional approval. There in nothing written that says it has to have the approval of the other members of the J.C.P.O.A, meaning there is no need to get diplomats around any table somewhere. Just declare it done.
Do not misunderstand. The J.C.P.O.A. is not the best deal in the world, nor was it intended to be. It is full of holes and fails to address many problems that are in desperate need of solution. But the pact is a start; it is a beginning that no one thought possible, a first step that could lead to other actions. What is more, it had the support of every world power in the industrialized world. It was a remarkable diplomatic feat. Throwing it away because it was not good enough was just plain dumb.
There is no guarantee that trying to paste the thing back together again will work. But for sure it cannot make it worse, and the diplomatic symbolism of the gesture would be unmistakable.