Democratic Presidential Candidates Want to Restore the Iran Deal. It Won’t Be Easy.

By the Apadana Chronicle Editorial Board

In the recent months, several Democratic presidential contenders have publicly announced their support for re-entering the Iran nuclear deal, or the JCPOA. Those candidates are senators Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Kamala Harris (California) and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), as well as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), former Obama cabinet secretary Julián Castro, and most recently, Pete Buttigieg. The crowd that comprises Democratic presidential hopefuls – 24 in all – see the Iran Deal as a point of contention with President Trump on which they could capitalize and use it as a talking point in their campaigns. Restoration of the JCPOA may be easy to promise, but very difficult to achieve. 

First, by 2021, there may be no actual deal to rejoin. Impatient with EU’s dawdling in creation of an avenue for the regime to skirt sanctions, the mullahs are likely to resume their nuclear activities. According to New York Times, international inspectors say that the regime is ramping up its nuclear operations. On the one-year anniversary of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the deal, Hassan Rouhani announced a 60-day deadline after which Iran will begin enriching uranium to a higher level than allowed by the JCPOA, unless the country receives additional sanctions relief. This would be followed by a series of 60-day deadlines after which Iran would abandon the terms of the deal one by one. The next US presidential term will not begin for another 580 days, which means that he or she cannot just unilaterally lift the sanctions. The next US president will need to negotiate with the Iranians to get them back into compliance.

Even if the deal still exists in some form in 2021, it still may not be possible to just slide right back into it. If Iran keeps up its end of the deal until the conclusion of Trump’s term, while the US does not, the mullahs might demand reparations for the three years of sanctions that were imposed on Iran. It would be very difficult for any Democratic president to agree to this and sell it to the congress or the American people.

One of the major targets of criticism with respect to the JCPOA was the sunset clauses. For example, the UN embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran is due to lift in 2020, before the next election. By 2023, within the next presidential term, a ban on assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile program will be lifted, as will a ban on its development of advanced centrifuges. Additional sunsets will come into effect over the course of the next decade, until inspection requirements end in 2031. Will these deadlines remain as they are or will they be extended? If they are to be extended, that may not sit well with the mullahs. If they are to remain unchanged, it could become problematic in the eyes of the Congress.

It is very doubtful the next president (or even Trump) could just rejoin the JCPOA in its current form. The next administration has to start from scratch and along the way, there will be obstacles that did not exist when Obama signed the nuclear deal. The terrorist designation of the IRGC, for instance, can hinder a new agreement. It is unlikely that a Democratic president would ret-enter the nuclear deal without addressing Trump Administration’s grievances with respect to the JCPOA. These concerns primarily involve IRGC’s malign activities in the region. Simultaneously, the mullahs may not agree to new concessions. If Rouhani, whom they call a “moderate,” is replaced by a radical Islamist, not only he will not agree to de novo concessions, he may reject the original deal entirely.

There is also no indication that Trump will lose the 2020 elections, so the Democrats are actually going ahead of themselves on this very delicate issue. The most prudent posture for them at moment is to remain neutral on the topic and see how things unfold in the next 18 months.

It seems that democrats have nothing particularly new to bring to the table in 2020 with regard to foreign policy. The Iran nuclear deal is, therefore, the only argument they are able to muster in order to oppose Trump. Many of these candidates are clueless about the content of the JCPOA and the potential ramifications of restoring it. It will be impossible to reimplement the deal without addressing IRGC’s destructive behavior in the region, in addition to its ballistic missile program and support for terrorist factions. The mullahs are unlikely to have the appetite for negotiating any of these issues. The regime, including its chief propagandist, Javad Zarif, is only interested in restoration of the original deal. That way, things return to “normal” while the IRGC carries on with its malign activities in parallel to “compliance” with the deal.

After the experience with the JCOPA and how it was decommissioned with “the stroke of a pen” (quoting Sen. Tom Cotton), no rational, politically-savvy president would simply ease into the deal without obtaining congressional ratification. Failure to do so will make the deal subject to violation by both sides. A Republican senate (as it stands now) will be uninterested in approving the deal into a treaty if Trump’s trepidations via-à-vis the JCOPA are not addressed. It is naïve on the part of Democrats to assume that reentering the JCPOA will clear the path to subsequent negotiations with the regime on its other misdeeds. Ensuring that the regime is compliant with international norms requires dismantling of the IRGC. The IRGC is the biggest impediment to diplomacy and engagement with the regime. However, the disarmament and abolishment of the IRGC is essentially synonymous with stripping the regime of its identity and legitimacy. Subsequently, the only way to guarantee Iran’s compliance with its nuclear activities, as well as other issues of concern, is to dismantle the entire mullah ruling system and replace it with a secular, democratic leadership that abides by international standards.

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