How Restoring the JCPOA Will Restore America's Leverage with Iran | Opinion

With U.S.-Iran nuclear talks in Vienna progressing, the prospect of a looming deal has many in Congress lamenting the loss of leverage over Tehran. Senate Republicans argue that former president Donald Trump's sanctions on Iran provided "an enormous amount of leverage over the Iranian regime," and that the Biden administration should "not relinquish its leverage over the Iranian regime just to return to [the 2015 nuclear deal]." Even members of the president's own party have slow-walked returning to the Obama-era agreement.

But the reality is quite the opposite. Only by returning to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal can the Biden administration restore U.S. leverage over Iran and secure critical U.S. interests.

The prevalence of the idea that the U.S. has more leverage over Iran outside of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is matched only by its wrongheadedness. Far from ceding U.S. leverage over Iran—leverage, it should be noted, that failed to produce a single positive policy outcome during the Trump administration's tenure—a U.S. return to the JCPOA would reinvigorate that leverage in three important ways.

First, any agreement by which the U.S. and Iran return to compliance with the JCPOA would secure the critical U.S. interests in capping Iran's nuclear program and facilitating international access into Iran's nuclear facilities. In its push for "maximum pressure" on Iran, the Trump administration untethered Tehran from the JCPOA's constraints on its nuclear program and undermined the International Atomic Energy Agency's ability to access to Iranian nuclear facilities. The result was nuclear escalation—the exact thing "maximum pressure" purportedly intended to deter. Through a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, the Biden administration seeks to reverse Iran's nuclear developments and put out the fire that its predecessor allowed to reignite.

A return to the JCPOA would reestablish leverage over Iranian nuclear ambitions that the Trump administration ceded. Most notably, it would restore the U.S.'s rights under the agreement to invoke the "snapback" mechanism, which authorizes the unilateral reimposition of United Nations sanctions on Iran should Iran act in material breach of its nuclear commitments. By withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump administration relinquished the U.S.'s rights to unilaterally snap back UN sanctions on Iran—leading to its failed attempt to invoke the mechanism at the Security Council. Considering the upcoming presidential elections in Iran this summer, the reinstitution of the U.S.'s right to snap back sanctions will be an important point of leverage to ensure Iranian adherence to the JCPOA's nuclear constraints.

vienna, austria, nuclear, deal, talks, iran
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi (R) speaks with other participants at the JCPOA Iran nuclear talks on April 27 in Vienna, Austria. Representatives from the United States, Iran, the European Union and other participants from the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are meeting both directly and indirectly over possibly reviving U.S. participation in the deal. EU DELEGATION VIENNA/Getty Images

Second, a U.S. return to the JCPOA would permit the Biden administration to reset sanctions on Iran in ways that can achieve non-nuclear U.S. objectives. The Trump administration's "maximum pressure" strategy towards Iran had the lamentable effect of exhausting U.S. sanctions leverage while failing to secure any American interests. During that period, Iran's nuclear program scaled up significantly, its regional activities became more aggressive and it even tested out missiles on American forces in Iraq. Far from deterring Iran's actions in these areas, Trump's sanctions acted as an accelerant. Their failure shows that concerns over the scope of sanctions relief for Iran as part of a mutual return to compliance are misplaced.

If there is a lesson here, it is this: U.S. sanctions provide the most leverage through tailored use. When broadly applied to impose an effective boycott, sanctions provide diminishing leverage, particularly if the target learns—as Iran did—that it can withstand the sanctions without compromising its policies. Trump's "maximum pressure" approach is a case in point; U.S. sanctions had diminishing impact over time as Iran showed it could withstand the onslaught.

Lifting sanctions in order to reimpose the JCPOA's constraints on Tehran's nuclear program will secure leverage over Iran in two ways. First, by opening Iran's economy to the outside world, the Biden administration will put still-sanctioned parties in Iran at a substantial competitive disadvantage to their non-sanctioned peers, incentivizing them to cease activities deemed anathema to U.S. interests. Second, by lifting sanctions but retaining the underlying legal authorities under which they were imposed, the Biden administration will coax formerly sanctioned parties in Iran to refrain from activities that may be sanctionable. As a result, it will have reinvigorated the leverage lost during the era of "maximum pressure."

Finally, by putting Iran's nuclear program back in the proverbial box, the Biden administration will permit the United States and its partners to turn their attention to other Iranian activities of concern. Already we are seeing this play out, as America's regional allies prepare for a U.S. return to the JCPOA. Most notably, Saudi Arabia appears to have begun a long-awaited dialogue with Iran about taming the regional competition that has caused such foment in neighboring states.

Despite its professed desire to address all outstanding issues with Iran, the Trump administration caused its international partners to focus their energies on the JCPOA's preservation. This involved tolerating Iran's nuclear escalation and spending substantial diplomatic capital on mechanisms designed to bypass reimposed U.S. sanctions. Iran's regional activities, if not excused altogether as a predictable result of the Trump administration's decision to forgo the JCPOA, became a secondary concern for U.S. partner countries. By ceasing a policy that divided America from its allies, the Biden administration will be able to re-harness the power of the collective in pursuit of its remaining areas of dispute with Iran.

Too often in Washington, leverage is mistaken for power. There is no doubt that the United States has the power to impose sanctions that effectively institute an international boycott on Iran's economy. But the era of "maximum pressure" evidences the fact that power does not always translate into leverage, and that too bold a display can lead to exhaustion and futility. The Biden administration intends to return to the JCPOA and—in doing so—can better tailor the use of American power to maximize leverage with Iran.

Tyler Cullis is Counsel at Ferrari & Associates where he specializes in the practice of US economic sanctions. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and CNN, amongst others.

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