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‘Maximum pressure’ on Iran has failed

President Joe Biden returns to the White House on Wednesday morning, March 17, 2021, after a trip to Wilmington, Delaware In indirect talks in Vienna, the US and Iran agreed to try to synchronize Washington’s lifting of sanctions and Iran’s limiting of uranium enrichment. (Photo: NYTimes)
There exists now a brief window of time for Iran and the United States to return to the principles of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known to supporters and critics alike as the Iran nuclear deal.اضافة اعلان

In 2015, a group of world powers signed on to relax some international sanctions if Iran gave up the most worrisome aspects of its nuclear program and agreed to robust inspections. The nuclear deal wasn’t a peace deal. It was an agreement to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. In 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from that agreement, convinced that a new set of far more oppressive sanctions would cripple the country enough to humiliate it into accepting new terms more favorable to the United States.

President Donald Trump’s gambit failed. The new sanctions have crippled the country. But they also prompted the Iranian government to restart nuclear work that it had given up. That’s why Robert Malley, President Joe Biden’s special envoy to Iran, spent this past week in Vienna negotiating the path back to US compliance with the deal. Diplomatic niceties being what they are, European diplomats shuttled between the US and Iranian delegations, which were holed up in separate hotels. The talks, which have been described as “constructive and results-oriented,” will continue next week. That’s cause for cautious optimism.

On offer from the United States is an end to most of the “maximum pressure” sanctions that the Trump administration piled on in an attempt to seal Iran off from the global economy. Those sanctions target a wide array of the country’s institutions, including its central bank, its oil ministry, and the National Iranian Oil Co.

Of course, the same old spoilers who never wanted a deal in the first place are loath to see the US talk about resuscitating it. The most common criticism is that lifting the sanctions — honoring the United States’ old commitments — will squander leverage that has been accrued the past three years.

At this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense. If the United States refuses to honor the first agreement, why would Iranians ever trust it to honor a second?

The uncomfortable truth is that “maximum pressure” sanctions are unsustainable. They haven’t changed Iranian behavior for the better. Quite the opposite. To punish the United States for refusing to hold up its end of the bargain, Iran has orchestrated calibrated violations of its own — to remind the United States what a world without the Iran nuclear deal looks like. Under the nuclear deal, Iran was allowed to enrich uranium up to a purity of 3.67 percent, far below weapons grade. It is now enriching up to 20 percent purity. Under the nuclear deal, Iran was limited to 202.8kg of uranium. It is now estimated to have stockpiled 3 tons.

Under the nuclear deal, international inspectors were also allowed to investigate every inch of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle with little advance notice. Now inspectors have been notified that they will lose that kind of access.

The situation is also untenable in other ways. Sanctions on Iranian banks and European and Asian institutions that do business with Iran were originally intended to produce enough short-term pain to force negotiations. Leaving them in place indefinitely risks driving the entire economy of Iran, a sophisticated country of more than 80 million people, onto the black market. It will empower the most hard-line and criminal elements in the country, including Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. It will make fools of moderates, including President Hassan Rouhani, who spent political capital on forging a deal with the United States and wants to see it back on track before he leaves office in August.

Other countries in the Middle East have valid concerns about Iran’s support for Shiite militias in the region and the proliferation of ballistic missiles technology. Some nations argue that the Trump-era sanctions should be left in place to starve Iran of cash that can be used for such mischief-making. But starvation hasn’t worked thus far. It has made Iran an even more belligerent neighbor.

If the nuclear program can be brought under control peacefully, a regional coalition could address Iran’s role in the region. Leverage abounds: Even if Biden rolls back the Trump-era sanctions, a vast majority of US sanctions will be left in place, leaving economic leverage that can be used to strike follow-on agreements.

Biden’s foreign policy team came into office promising to make the nuclear agreement “longer and stronger”, a worthy goal. The first step toward it is getting back into the deal.