RJC Statement on Returning to the JCPOA

President Joe Biden intends to return the US to the dangerously flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama-Biden Iran nuclear deal of 2015. The RJC strongly opposes this policy. It offers concessions to Iran without addressing the problems with the JCPOA. This policy will only bring Iran closer to achieving the goals of its nuclear weapons program and closer to exercising hegemonic power in the region. 

The Obama-Biden Iran Nuclear Deal

Even before Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, he signaled his intention to appease the Iranian regime, despite its rogue behavior, on the assumption that Iran, despite evidence to the contrary, was interested in being a productive member of the international community. When candidate Obama was asked in 2007 if he’d be willing to meet unconditionally with Iran’s head of state, he stated that he would. His main rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, called Obama out for being “irresponsible” and “naive.”

As President, Obama spoke sternly about the importance of denying the Iranian regime the opportunity to obtain nuclear weapons capability. Asked to identify his diplomatic bottom line during a 2012 presidential debate, Obama said “the deal we'll accept is, they end their nuclear program. It's very straightforward.”

But such promises were negated when the Obama administration’s diplomacy intensified during his second term. The deal that emerged in 2015 - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - was premised on false Iranian declarations about the prior extent of their weapons-related research and allowed Iran to maintain all of its nuclear infrastructure. And while the JCPOA set forth restrictions on what Iran could do with that infrastructure, it lacked an effective mechanism for enforcement. Moreover, the JCPOA provided for the expiration of those restrictions in just a few short years.

In exchange for these meager concessions, the Iranian regime was able to secure relief from international sanctions and a cash windfall of more than $150 billion. The Obama administration suggested that the money coming into the regime’s coffers would be used to relieve the suffering of the Iranian people, but eventually admitted that much of it went to fund its efforts to destabilize the region, including through support of terrorist organizations.

That unhappy circumstance was a consequence of the Obama administration’s insistence that their deal with Iran be limited to a narrow set of issues related to the nuclear program. The deal had nothing to say about the Iranian regime’s taking American hostages, its human rights violations, or its sponsorship of terrorism. Iran’s fomenting of the war in Yemen - only 18 miles from the US military base in Djibouti and at the mouth of the Red Sea, the access point for Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean - was likewise ignored.

Perhaps worst of all, the JCPOA imposed no restrictions on the Iranian regime’s pursuit of more accurate and longer-range ballistic missiles, that is, the technology for ensuring that a nuclear payload could reach its intended target.

Recognizing that opposition to the JCPOA in Congress was strong, the Obama administration refused to submit it as a treaty and mobilized Senate Democrats to block a vote altogether. Even though bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate rejected the deal, Obama held on to a sufficient number of Democrats to prevent congressional action to stop it.

RJC vigorously opposed the Obama Iran deal. We welcomed President Trump’s decision to withdraw from it and the reimposition of sanctions that followed that decision. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy changed the regime’s incentives and would likely have led Iran to return to negotiations in a second Trump term.

Back to the JCPOA?

Unfortunately, comments by President Biden and his top foreign policy advisors suggest they want to revive the Obama policy of appeasing Iran. Here’s Biden in his own words:

"If Iran returns to strict compliance with the [JCPOA], the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations."

In fact, Iran was never in strict compliance with the JCPOA as it had failed to provide an accurate accounting of all of its nuclear infrastructure. But more fundamentally, the Iranian regime has made it clear that if they accept Biden’s terms and secure sanctions relief, they have no interest in follow-on negotiations that would address its ballistic missile program and other malign activities. Biden and his advisors say they want a “longer, stronger” deal with Iran, but by rejoining the JCPOA and lifting the sanctions the Trump administration imposed, the Biden administration would forfeit the only leverage the US has to compel Iran to negotiate such a deal.

It is often said in Washington DC that ‘personnel is policy,’ so we are troubled that President Biden has chosen to entrust our Iran policy to people like Robert Malley, his Special Iran Envoy. Malley is notorious for supporting the Iranians’ efforts to limit the scope of negotiations to exclude any discussion or commitments regarding Iran’s ballistic missile program, its sponsorship of terrorism, or even Iran’s taking of American hostages.

We Need a New, Better Deal

The only way to reengage with Iran must be with a new, better deal. To be acceptable, a new Iran deal must address the most glaring defects in the JCPOA by:

  • Establishing an effective inspections/enforcement mechanism and not permitting Iran to declare sites off limits to inspectors;
  • Removing “sunset clauses” and requiring permanent dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure;
  • Restricting Iran’s illegal ballistic missile program;
  • Requiring that Iran cease funding of terrorism and terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and end its support for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen;
  • Providing for the release of Americans being held hostage by the regime;
  • Submitting any deal with Iran to the US Senate for ratification as a treaty.

In addition, achieving an acceptable deal with Iran will not be possible without extensive consultation with Israel and other traditional US allies in the region as well as with Congress.