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Iran: Lessons Learned

January 27, 2021

It’s not 2015 anymore.

President Biden faces a major challenge in the Middle East. How can the U.S. stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, ensure Middle East stability, and avoid new wars? In the six years since the nuclear agreement was reached between Iran and six world powers, we have learned important lessons about Iranian goals and behavior, about the region, and about international negotiations—lessons that can inform the administration’s decisions and help shape future policies.

We learned that Tehran is not interested in moderating or integrating into the international community; rather, it is steadily pursuing regional hegemony. Since 2015, Iran has become increasingly belligerent—kidnapping American sailors, attacking the U.S. power grid and government computers, firing missiles at a Saudi oil facility and American military bases, and seizing a South Korean oil tanker. It continues to promote violence, fund and arm rogue non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and spread terrorism. Domestically, Iran is as repressive as ever—murdering activists, jailing journalists, and kidnapping dissidents, among its many human rights abuses.

We realized that unilateral U.S. sanctions, combined with the COVID‑19 pandemic and falling oil prices, have worked: Iran’s economy is in a deep recession, with 40% annual inflation. International companies are more concerned about investment risks and access to the vast American market than their own governments’ encouragement to do business with Iran. We also learned that economic sanctions, however biting, have not (yet) changed Iran’s behavior.

We discovered that our partners in the deal would not invoke the agreement’s sanctions “snapback” mechanism, despite Iranian violations, explicit statements that Iran will no longer honor the agreement, and a clear march toward nuclear weapons capabilities. We learned that the “most comprehensive” and “most robust and intrusive” inspections are insufficient if they don’t translate into action even after repeated and systemic violations—from uranium enrichment far above the agreed-upon levels and quantities to the installation of prohibited advanced centrifuges.

We now understand that key partners were missing from the 2015 deal. Existential security concerns of allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states should be considered alongside the commercial interests of the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

We learned that Israel vigorously enforces its red lines, using both overt and covert force. If international diplomatic and economic measures do not stop Iran, Israel can and will do it by force. With recent realignment of Israeli-Arab relations, Israel will not stand alone. Pragmatic Arab regimes that previously supported Israel tacitly now do so publicly, broadening the international coalition against Iranian nuclearization.

Israel’s 2018 capture of Iran’s nuclear archive proved that Tehran had pursued for decades an extensive clandestine military nuclear-weapons program, contrary to its repeated denials. And we learned that while the mullahs mothballed the program, they maintained the ability to restart it at any time.

The agreement was always intended only to delay, not permanently block, Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. Now that its first “sunset”—the expiration of the international arms embargo on Iran—has passed, advocates want to extend the timetable. However, once Iran received sanctions relief in 2015, it refused to negotiate on other areas of concern, including ballistic missiles and regional aggression, critical to American allies.

Iran now demands lifting all U.S. sanctions—and compensation—before it meets its obligations under the 2015 agreement. This is a non-starter for the U.S.; without economic leverage, Iran will not address the deal’s shortcomings and duration. Such a rollback would ignore the events of the last six years.

The Middle East is not the same place it was in 2015. We now know much more about Iran, about sanctions, and about our international allies than we did then. The incoming Biden administration must consider these important lessons and consider 2021 realities in formulating its Iran strategy.

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Also published at the Times of Israel, February 2, 2021. As always, your feedback is very welcome and actively solicited. Please contact me with your reactions, additions, and rebuttals.

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