What 2020 Democrats Risk Getting Wrong on Iran

Most are vowing to rejoin the nuclear deal, but pretty soon there may be no deal left to rejoin.

As the field of Democratic presidential candidates narrows, and the issue of Iran returns to the political forefront, thoughtfully approaching how exactly to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon will become a matter of great significance, especially as President Trump has made this task far more difficult by recklessly withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

Supporting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known, is clearly a political winner in the Democratic primary (68% of Democrats support it), which is no surprise given that it was one of President Obama’s landmark achievements, and that it helped resolve, at least temporarily, a major issue of war and peace with a war-weary public. In an intensely contested primary, it’s easy to call for the United States to re-enter the deal. But it is also important for candidates to take into account the significant changes that have taken place.

If we were able to go back in time and reverse Trump’s irresponsible choice, we would, but that’s obviously not possible. Come January 20, 2021, the Iran deal will look much different than it did when it was agreed to by the P5+1 in July 2015, or even when the president tore it up in May 2018. There were always elements of the deal—the so-called sunset provisions that expired over time—that meant that the agreement was adopted and implemented with the knowledge that there would have to be further negotiations to fully and reliably prevent a nuclear-armed Iran indefinitely, a feature that is consistent with most arms-control agreements. President Trump irresponsibly shortcut that timeline by pulling out altogether.

While candidates may declare that they are for getting back into the Iran deal, the JCPOA as we know it won’t exist for us to return to in a few years. For instance: the U.N. embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran is set to expire in 2020, additional sunsets will start going into effect, and it’s far from clear how Tehran will behave over the next 18 months. In May, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced a two month deadline to reach another pact before Iran would start enriching uranium beyond JCPOA-approved levels. In other words, by the time the next president takes office, there may no longer be a deal left for the United States to rejoin.

That is why simply re-entering the pact should be seen as a midpoint, but not the ultimate goal. Since the vast majority of likely primary voters support the JCPOA, there’s a strong incentive for some activists and party influencers to turn the issue into an ideological purity test, without full regard for the fact that many of the JCPOA’s most important restrictions will actually be expiring in the coming years, some of them during the next president’s term. (In one of the recent debates, Cory Booker was the only 2020 Democrat who wouldn’t commit to rejoining the pact.)

The policy goal, therefore, should be to achieve longer lasting restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, and, separately, to address Iran’s threatening behavior in the region. But that certainly cannot be achieved if the next president unilaterally rejoins the JCPOA, without preconditions or negotiations, after Trump has rendered it inoperative.

He or she could instead offer some immediate sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian concessions while retaining enough leverage to subsequently reach a stronger deal with longer-term commitments. This is what President Trump should have done when he took office, with some of the sanctions against Tehran that were still in place, building on the window of opportunity created by the JCPOA in the first place.

The next Democratic administration will need to make it a high priority to responsibly ensure Iran doesn’t develop a nuclear weapon. No one should trust the rapacious regime in power, or its stated goodwill, but there is an opportunity to craft a strategy that retains enough leverage against Iran for us to make meaningful gains through diplomacy.

Hastily rejoining the deal, assuming it’s still even possible, could instead give Iran renewed relief from sanctions upfront without forcing the country to comply again with the JCPOA’s terms going forward, which will be crucial. Of course, the president will need to resuscitate a working relationship—not built on trust, but on verification and accountability—between Washington and Tehran. To accomplish this, a new administration could offer to encode any subsequent agreements with Iran in the form of a treaty or Congressional-Executive agreement to help assure the Iranian public that the next U.S. president would be more constrained from tearing it up on a whim. That would also require cooperation from Capitol Hill, but this kind of overture could lead to a serious Iranian concession and, as a result, the American suspension of all current, unilateral nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, provided they adhere to our conditions and the restrictions that would be negotiated on a multilateral basis.

That would not foreclose the “snap-back” provision of United Nations nuclear sanctions on Iran under U.N. Security Council resolutions, which allows world powers to restore sanctions against the Islamic Republic if they don’t adhere to the agreement. Should Iran be in breach of the agreement, one or more of the EU3 members would need to invoke this option within 60 days after the U.S. rejoined the JCPOA. Even if those countries won’t give their blessing, the U.S. likely would retain the right to invoke this provision itself.

To be sure, rejoining the JCPOA or convincing Iran to adopt even heavier restrictions would require considerable American concessions. The United States could potentially lift all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, including by allowing entities to purchase Iranian oil without fear of American punishment. The U.S. could also remove all current secondary sanctions against Iran’s central bank—i.e. U.S. sanctions against third-country actors that do business with the Central Bank of Iran—since that was a key commitment that the U.S. made to Iran under the deal. The Central Bank brokers most of Iran’s oil sales. Sanctions against it are one of the key tools to drive down Iran’s sales of oil and access to hard currency. This relief would dramatically boost Tehran’s economy, supercharging its profits from restarted oil sales, and facilitating its management of foreign reserves.

At the same time, the Treasury Department has identified numerous instances in which the Central Bank of Iran evidently facilitated the sponsorship of terrorism. As such, the U.S. could condition any relief on the premise that any future support of terror would result in the reimposition of sanctions, a move that could also disincentivize malicious behavior inside the country.

Even without invoking new sanctions on the Central Bank there are other effective and legal steps to build U.S. leverage against Iran. The Treasury Department would certainly be justified if it followed through on its 2011 finding that Iran is a primary money laundering jurisdiction as defined under the Patriot Act. Treasury has yet to take the standard next step of issuing a final rule that would make these precautions mandatory, even though the money laundering and terror financing risks posed by Iran’s economy are up there with North Korea as the absolute worst in the world, per the Financial Action Task Force.

Encouraging European governments to go along with these sorts of approaches would require genuine offers of so-called carrots, including ways to benefit their own economies. Some of these enticements, however, should be kept off the table until negotiations on a new arms control agreement, longer and broader in scope than the JCPOA, is reached by our next president—which hopefully is not Trump.

While simply rejoining the JCPOA might be a worthwhile and resonant talking point, it’s a promise that doesn’t accurately capture what an incoming administration will face upon entering office in 2021.

Instead, a new president will have to repair American policy and build on the scaffolding of the JCPOA while exercising enough leverage to ensure Iran accepts another deal that would extend and expand restrictions on its nuclear program. If Iran is willing to meet our terms, that could of course correspond with greater sanctions relief than set forth under the 2015 accord. Any Iranian recalcitrance under such an agreement would have to be met with a vigorous response from the United States, including through a ramped-up sanctions regime. The United States should also pursue a halt to Iran’s other nefarious activities in the region, such as fomenting violence in Iraq and Syria, as part of a separate but simultaneous process. In so doing, the U.S. can avail itself of diplomatic and economic tools that allow it to address the Iranian threat, and reverse the damage of the current president.

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Aaron Keyak and Steve Rabinowitz

Aaron Keyak and Steve Rabinowitz head Bluelight Strategies, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., and are veterans of the Hill and numerous presidential elections. Their full memo to the presidential campaigns on how to talk about the Iran deal can be read here.