Diplomacy—Blemishes and All—is the Best Way to Deal With Iran | Opinion

To this day, the Iran nuclear deal remains one of the most controversial foreign policy topics in Washington, D.C.

The 2015 deal signed between the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, U.K., U.S., Germany) and Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is one of those diplomatic accords that has split the U.S. foreign policy establishment apart. Its proponents continue to argue that the JCPOA was a highly immaculate agreement that placed severe limits on Iran's nuclear program from root to branch, all while averting what may very well have been a costly military conflict. Its opponents are equally convinced that the deal was at best a delaying tactic to a serious problem and at worst an outright capitulation to a dangerous regime.

As time can attest, there will never be a consensus on the JCPOA. Reasonable people will always disagree on whether the agreement hashed out over six years ago was good, bad, or largely indifferent.

The U.S. strategy of maximum pressure on Iran, however, is another matter entirely. To this day, some analysts continue to insist that an approach of all-sticks, no-diplomacy approach would permanently resolve the issue on U.S. terms. The evidence, though, begs to differ.

Seeking to compel Iran to return to the negotiating table, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA and reenacted the long economic sanctions list on Tehran that were previously lifted under the deal. In the months and years to come, the White House would slap even more restrictions on the Iranian economy—about 1,500—in an attempt to drag Tehran into new negotiations. Some of the loudest advocates of the maximum pressure strategy were giddy at the time, trumpeting its success on the airwaves.

"Right up until the present day, we've seen continued demonstrations, even riots in cities and towns, all across Iran as the economic situation worsens," Former national security adviser John Bolton told CNN on August 2018. "So I think our reimposition of sanctions has already had a major effect."

An Iranian man walks past a mural painted on the outer walls of the former U.S. embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran, on November 4, 2020. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

If one looks strictly at economic indicators, Bolton was right. As the new sanctions took hold, Iran's economy plummeted. The Iranian government saw its own money, tens of billions of dollars worth, locked into overseas bank accounts. Iran was finding it extremely difficult to sell crude oil to its traditional customers—between 2017 and 2020, Iran's crude exports fell by about 75 percent. Petrified of losing access to the U.S. financial system, European firms like Airbus and Total withdrew from existing projects inside Iran.

Yet as pleasing as it was to the architects of the maximum pressure strategy to see Tehran's wallet further constricted by the month, bankrupting the Iranian economy wasn't the end goal. Rather, squeezing Tehran's finances was supposed to be a means to an end: pushing the Iranian government into a new set of talks, where Tehran would eventually agree to a deal that was stronger, permanent and more comprehensive than the JCPOA. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined what the U.S. was looking for in a speech shorty after former President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, a wish-list that included a cornucopia of fanciful items that amounted to a complete reformation of Iran's entire foreign policy.

Far from forcing Iran into surrendering, it chose to fight what it viewed as an assault on Iranian sovereignty and an attack on its dignity. As realists predicted at the time, Iran was far more likely to resist U.S. diktats than to gently succumb to them. And resist they did: Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium went up exponentially, as its scientists installed more advanced centrifuges. Tehran again started to enrich uranium to 20 percent (this week, Iranian officials stated that enrichment would proceed to 60 percent). Iran's ballistic missile program and support for proxies in the Middle East continued without a flinch, and the Iranian military establishment was more willing to use a degree of force to defend its core interests than it was earlier.

In short, the very thing advocates of the maximum pressure strategy hoped to accomplish—a more tamed, less belligerent Iran—was pushed further into the ether. The situation between the United States and Iran, adversarial in normal times, became highly dangerous and nearly resulted in a full-blown military conflict as U.S. drones targeted Iranian generals and Iranian ballistic missiles slammed into U.S. military facilities in Iraq.

The Biden administration is now attempting to walk back the escalatory dynamics the maximum pressure campaign instigated. U.S. and Iranian diplomats began indirect negotiations last week in Vienna and are continuing their talks, for now. Both sides remain skeptical of one another's ultimate intentions. The Biden administration is questioning Tehran's sincerity of offering nuclear concessions, and Iran remains highly distrustful Washington will actually lift the economic sanctions it promised to lift.

Yet notwithstanding the mutual doubts and the difficult intricacies involved in conflict resolution, diplomacy remains the best path forward for both the United States and Iran. To the extent the talks in Vienna chip away at the hostility and open up an opportunity to break the cycle of escalation that brought both nations to the brink of war 15 months ago, dialogue could reasonably be labeled a success.

Diplomacy, of course, is extremely difficult work. But the absence of diplomacy creates even more problems. Every other alternative, from covert operations and additional sanctions to attacks-by-proxy and outright military conflict, is a recipe for disaster—and one to be avoided at all costs.

Ongoing negotiations are a way to get us there.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.