The Iran nuclear deal: Is it truly the only option?

Scout Hutchinson, Opinion Editor

Author’s note: This article is by no means a comprehensive look at the Iran nuclear deal, which has returned to the conversation after the U.S. pulled out during Donald Trump’s presidency. Instead, it considers last week’s deliberations and whether or not the nuclear deal is the only option at the moment.  

On Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, international deliberation on the opportunity to recommit to the Iranian nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) resumed in Vienna, five months after Iran halted initial negotiation in the summer due to President Ebrahim Raisi’s election. The need for further negotiations comes after former president Donald Trump pulled out of the already agreed-upon deal in 2018, effectively decimating the little diplomatic trust established by the Obama administration. 

The initial negotiations in Vienna have predictably created a back and forth debate between U.S. and European negotiators with Iranian negotiators, leading to very little headway in producing an actual signed agreement. Much of the deliberations and concessions gained in the summer have had to start anew, as President Ebrahim Raisi’s government has adopted a harsher negotiating position. This new standpoint emerges from a distrust of international agreements following President Trump’s sudden departure from the agreement. Ultimately, Iran is weary of signing an agreement where the U.S. could pull out again without warning. 

These conversations have led the Biden administration to release statements claiming the need of a “plan b,” or other options, whether that means increasing the already extremely harsh 1,600 sanctions imposed by the Trump administration or a hint at direct military action. 

However, despite Biden’s allusions to the contrary, the U.S. truly does not have any other options. Sanctions as a form of “maximum pressure” do not work and instead just harm Iranian citizens, specifically their right to health services. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, “The comprehensive web of US sanctions has led banks and companies to pull back from humanitarian trade with Iran, leaving Iranians who have rare or complicated diseases unable to get the medicine and treatment they require.”

Sanctions also do not directly affect Iran’s opportunities to create nuclear weapons. Since Trump pulled out the deal and imposed sanctions, Iran has begun to enrich uranium to a purity of 20 percent, making the window of time it would take for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon if it chose to about a month. However, Iran still maintains that they do not intend to make a bomb and the IAEA has confirmed that Iran is currently not engaging in 90 percent enrichment, which is needed to develop a nuclear bomb.

Alluding to potential alternative courses of action does not help the U.S. find footing in the deliberations at hand. Instead, it increases distrust of U.S. international deals that was reaffirmed when Trump initially pulled out of the agreement and will provide Iran with an excuse to continue its nuclear program. 

This means that the U.S. must do something to continue the deliberations. Right now the Biden administration has done nothing to address the sanctions imposed on Iran, even though they have criticized them before. Ultimately, any deal with Iran could have an expiration date, due to U.S. presidential elections every four years, creating credibility issues.

As France’s former U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, tweeted on Friday, “Even if the JCPOA was restored, no Western company would dare invest a cent in Iran, no Western bank would finance any deal in Iran with the threat of the return of US sanctions in 2025. Once was enough. The Iranians know it.”

The Iranian nuclear deal will not be perfect, nor will it completely change the course of the Iranian regime or diplomatic relationships. However, the Iranian nuclear deal never promised to do anything like that. The deal, according to the Atlantic, simply will be able to continue to “prevent Iran from acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, demonstrate to the Iranian public the benefits of cooperation with the international community, and buy time for potential changes in Iranian politics and foreign policy.” 

Currently, the deal is our only option, and we must continue to focus on it instead of giving haphazardly threatening remarks. Threatening more sanctions or armed intervention will just exacerbate the already crippled economy in Iran and continue to create humanitarian crises, and will not affect the production of nuclear energy.