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John M. Crisp, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.
The United States is in a complicated place with Iran. Here’s the short version: In 2015, the U.S. joined Great Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, the European Union and Iran in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement that limited Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons for 15 years. In exchange, Iran received sanctions relief, as well as other benefits. In other words, a deal.
Over the next several years, Iran’s compliance with the terms of the JCPOA was verified repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Department of State, as well as by other security agencies and experts.
Nevertheless, in May 2018, the Trump administration abrogated the JCPOA and imposed sanctions that have staggered the Iranian economy. The other signees to the agreement — including Iran — tried to maintain its terms, but, predictably, the JCPOA has fallen apart. The Iranians are suffering economically, and Iran has begun to push past the limits of the JCPOA.
Critics of the JCPOA contend that it was a “bad deal.” Some argued that it did not do enough to curtail other undesirable Iranian activities or that it gave Iran too much in return for too little.
But this perspective betrays naivete about the limitations of international deal-making. Our nation, as well as six others and the European Union, determined that this was the best deal that could be hammered out at the time. And it was working.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the Trump administration considered every deal that the Obama administration made to be a bad deal. The Paris agreement on climate was a bad deal. The Tran-Pacific Partnership was a bad deal. The Affordable Care Act was a bad deal.
NATO? The World Health Organization? NAFTA? All bad deals. In fact, one could be forgiven for imagining that former president Trump disapproves of every deal that doesn’t have his name on it.
When Trump ditched the JCPOA, he called it “horrible.” At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that it had “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.” Trump promised that the United States would work with its allies to find a way to keep Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. That did not happen, and the prospects continue to deteriorate.
This is the fraught situation bequeathed to President Joe Biden by the Trump administration. Biden campaigned on the restoration of some version of the JCPOA. In February, his administration offered to open talks with Iran. Iran declined without first receiving relief from the sanctions that are demolishing its economy.
Thus the U.S. and Iran are at a standoff. But the complicated political interests that are at work on both sides are in danger of being overwhelmed by very human concerns associated with every impasse: Who will dominate? Who will look weak? Who will blink first?
We should blink first. Why? Because it’s in our interest to do so, and because we can.
The U.S. would benefit enormously from a normalized, non-nuclear Iran, as well as from the reestablishment of its reputation as a reliable proponent of diplomacy over war. Starry-eyed idealists might even say it’s the right thing to do.
Furthermore, we can afford the sanctions relief that would put the nuclear talks back on track. And we don’t have to worry about looking “weak” in the same way Iran does. Our power — military, economic, cultural — is so far beyond Iran’s that this negotiation can work to our benefit.
Our greatest power is the power to make the deal happen. The Biden administration should use it immediately.