In July of 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed between Iran on one side, and the United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, and Germany on the other. That is, the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, plus Germany. The aim of the JCPOA was to prevent Iran’s radical theocratic regime from developing nuclear weapons, in the fear that it would use them to terrorize the world.
The JCPOA imposed a number of new conditions on Iran, such as requiring it to sharply reduce its then-existing supply of enriched uranium, setting limits on how much uranium enrichment it may conduct in the future, and limiting its gas centrifuges and heavy water facilities. Compliance would be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was given broad liberty to visit and inspect the nation’s nuclear industry centers. The Iranian regime agreed to this deal because of its (almost certainly false) claim that it sought only nuclear energy generation and not weapons, and because the six other signatories promised in return to ease crippling economic sanctions that had been leveled against Iran.
The goals of the JCPOA are unquestionably noble, but the deal has one fatal flaw: It legitimizes a brutal, oppressive regime that is in no way a representative body for its people. When six of the most powerful and respected nations in the world enter into negotiations with the Iranian government, they ignore the fact that that government came into power via coup (unfortunately with American help) in 1979, and has ruled the country by religious fiat ever since. They suggest to the global community that such despots are worthy of acknowledgment, and in doing so, they make the work of deposing those despots all the more difficult for the people of Iran.
This is why then-US President Donald Trump is to be lauded for, in 2017, refusing to recertify the Iran nuclear deal. This was a preliminary step, constituting the United States’ declaration that it could not verify Iran’s ongoing compliance with the JCPOA. The following year, the US committed to a full withdrawal from the agreement, leaving the other five signatory nations with Iran to continue it on their own.
This very nearly failed, and for a hopeful time it seemed as if the JCPOA would fall apart altogether. Sadly, however, several other parties to the deal failed to support the US move. In fact, they opposed it, negotiating with Iran and offering to offset renewed American economic sanctions in order to preserve the agreement. Largely because of these efforts, the JCPOA remains in force to this day.
Iran’s government has not even consistently complied with the terms. In 2019, the regime openly announced that it would halt implementation of certain conditions. That same year, it also increased uranium enrichment beyond agreed-upon limits, and doubled its quantity of advanced centrifuges, all in violation of the terms of the JCPOA. The IAEA has confirmed the claims, but again, it didn’t have to – Iran declared these facts itself.
Despite the deal’s ill-advised nature and the regime’s bad faith, let us be clear that economic sanctions on Iran were never the correct tool to use before, during, or after the negotiations. Such sanctions only have the effect of pushing millions of innocent Iranians into poverty, for the actions of a government they did not elect and very often do not support. The correct approach to the JCPOA was never to draft it in the first place, not to worry about how to enforce it when the regime withheld compliance.
Neither is military action with the aim of forcible regime change a moral or sensible solution. In the first place, this would be very difficult strategically, and costly in blood and treasure. Even more importantly, however, it would once again bring pain to the people of Iran, who would be made to endure a war against their homeland. Any use of force against Iran would be wrong.
One may wonder, then, just what the US is to do to prevent the evil regime of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And the correct answer to this question, quite apart from any direct action, is simply to support the Iranian people. A growing proportion of the citizens of Iran belong to a young, progressive demographic, who largely admire Western ideals of liberty and democracy and have no taste for the absolute theocracy under which they currently suffer. They have already proven their desire for change through campaigns such as the Green Movement and various courageous public demonstrations against the government’s oppressive policies. Their will is strong; they merely need help from those who sympathize with their liberal ideals.
Advances in communications technology such as the advent of the Internet have already made it possible for Iranian dissidents to network and organize in entirely unprecedented ways. We should encourage the development of such technology in Iran, to further strengthen their unity and enable them to effect change.
Equally important is that we constantly remind them that the United States is on their side. Agreements like the JCPOA, which again, acknowledge and legitimize their brutal regime, accomplish the opposite of this. That is why it’s so distressing that the Biden administration has begun calling for a return to the nuclear deal, seeking to undo former President Trump’s work and once again sit at the table with the theocratic Iranian government.
In the end, regime change in Iran – and an end to fears of that brutal government gaining nuclear weapons – must come from within. As a free nation, it is the United States’ duty to support and encourage this change, without direct interference. President Biden is wrong to legitimize Iran’s current rulers. The JCPOA should fade away, and at the very least, should enjoy no American support.
Mr. Slater Bakhtavar is an attorney, foreign policy analyst, political commentator and author of "Iran: The Green Movement."