Why Biden Sees Iran Nuclear Deal 'Sunsets' As No Obstacle to Arms Control

As the United States and Iran deliberate on what appears to be the final stretch toward deciding the fate of their 2015 nuclear deal with major world powers, President Joe Biden's administration has defended the landmark accord's sunset clauses as a routine aspect of non-proliferation diplomacy that can be renewed once the accord is back on track.

Even more, a core tenet of the deal would remain in place indefinitely. But with the agreement still now in limbo, a White House National Security Council spokesperson told Newsweek that the present nuclear landscape is far more volatile.

"Let me be clear: under the current situation, the sun has already set," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson then cited the words of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, who stated last month that Iran's nuclear program was "galloping ahead" and that the IAEA has "very little visibility" into its development in the absence of an agreement.

This state of affairs was attributed by the spokesperson to former President Donald Trump's "reckless decision to leave a deal that was working."

The deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was reached seven years ago by the U.S. and Iran alongside China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. The historic agreement granted the Islamic Republic international sanctions relief in exchange for severely curbing its nuclear activities.

When Trump unilaterally abandoned the accord in 2018 it rendered its future uncertain. New U.S. economic restrictions once again disrupted foreign trade with Iran, which began to ramp up nuclear production in response. Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama's vice president when the deal was signed, has continued to back the agreement as president. His administration has sought to dispel concerns over the temporary nature of certain limits on Iran's nuclear work in order to highlight the immediate and long-term benefits of returning to the JCPOA.

"Our aim is [to] restore Iran's compliance with that deal," the National Security Council spokesperson said. "The focus on sunsets is a red herring. The deal blocks every pathway to a weapon."

US, Joe, Biden, Iran, Ebrahim, Raisi, combo
In this combination photo, U.S. President Joe Biden (L) speaks to the press in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (R) takes part in a joint press conference in Tehran on July 19. MANDEL NGAN;ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Yet the matter of sunset clauses has remained a controversy for critics of the JCPOA. The framework of the deal would allow Iran, which has consistently denied any plans to weaponize its nuclear program, to begin operating advanced centrifuges by 2026 and then enrich more uranium at higher levels by 2031.

But should the agreement be revived, the Biden administration has argued there would be ample time to negotiate further arrangements.

"The limits on Iran's enriched uranium stockpile and level of enrichment last until 2031, securing our most profound and urgent non-proliferation goals for nearly a decade," the National Security Council spokesperson said. "This buys us the space and time we need to follow up the JCPOA with something more durable and comprehensive."

And while these expiration dates have proven contentious among JCPOA detractors, such measures are relatively commonplace for bilateral nuclear agreements. For example, the 2010 U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was the product of the previous START that actually did expire months before the signing of its sequel, which nearly suffered a similar outcome under the Trump administration until Biden agreed to extend the agreement a day before its impending collapse just two weeks into his White House tenure.

The National Security Council spokesperson said that, "while some JCPOA provisions do sunset, most arms control agreements have provisions that do not last forever."

"It is common that such provisions need to be renewed or replaced," the spokesperson added. "That's what we intend to do. And if Iran violates the deal, or cheats, our sanctions can sunset."

Even in the event of a lapse of these provisions, the spokesperson noted that "some of the JCPOA's most important provisions have no sunsets — most importantly, the powerful inspection tools of the Additional Protocol with the IAEA and the prohibition on some activities related to nuclear weapons development."

"In other words," the spokesperson added, "if we restore Iran's compliance with its nuclear commitments, we will be where we are today — ten years from now, but much better off because the program will be under the most intrusive inspections and monitoring ever negotiated."

The White House also saw national security implications for the JCPOA beyond the realm of weapons of mass destruction.

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The U.S. military conducts "precision airstrikes" targeting "infrastructure facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps" on August 23 in Deir Ezzor, Syria. The operation was said to have been conducted in response to recent attacks launched by militias affiliated with Iran against U.S. positions in eastern Syria in recent weeks. U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

The process to restore the JCPOA began in April of last year and has dragged on through nine rounds of talks in the Austrian capital of Vienna. Earlier this month, the European Union circulated a "final" text of the draft, to which Iran responded last week and the U.S. replied Wednesday.

Hours before Tehran confirmed receipt of Washington's answer, however, the Pentagon's Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that U.S. forces had conducted "precision strikes" on "infrastructure facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps," or IRGC, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The raid came as a stated retaliation to earlier attacks on U.S. position in the area by groups said to be affiliated with the Islamic Republic.

Further clashes commenced Wednesday CENTCOM said further rocket attacks injured three U.S. service members and the U.S. military responded with attack helicopters, reportedly killing four fighters.

Asked about what bearing the JCPOA had on regional stability, the National Security Council spokesperson said the Trump administration's pullout from the deal and subsequent "maximum pressure" strategy wrought only greater instability in the region.

"Under so-called maximum pressure, Iran accelerated attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria — a nearly 400 percent increase in 2020 alone," the spokesperson said. "The largest attack on our embassy in a decade occurred in late 2020. Iran also accelerated attacks against our partners in the region, including missile attacks against Saudi Arabia launched from Iran."

The U.S. embassy compound in Iraq was also stormed on New Years' 2020 by protestors supportive of the pro-Iran "Axis of Resistance." The attack came amid tit-for-tat hostilities between U.S. forces and local militias aligned with Tehran. It was followed days later by the U.S. killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike at Baghdad International Airport, to which Tehran retaliated by launching a salvo of missiles against U.S. military positions in Iraq.

Biden has continued to impose Trump-era sanctions against Iran and wield military might against its allies, but the current administration has also sought to employ a diplomatic approach toward addressing tensions with the Islamic Republic.

"Under this administration, we've used diplomacy and direct military strikes to reduce risks to our forces," the National Security Council spokesperson said. "Attacks have dropped precipitously."

Though the president has ordered at least two previous rounds of airstrikes against "Axis of Resistance" militias operating in eastern Syria amid rocket attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq last year, the tempo of clashes has markedly slowed over the past year and a half since Biden took office.

The White House has also taken a parallel approach of arming regional partners such as Saudi Arabia, a top rival of Iran, and at the same time supporting efforts to ease frictions in the Persian Gulf. The spokesperson said that "we are strengthening the defense of our partners even as we pursue diplomacy to de-escalate tensions in the region."

UAE, Iran, flags, expo, 2020, Dubai
The flags of the United Arab Emirates and Iran are pictured during a national event at the Iranian Pavilion of Expo 2020, in the Emirate of Dubai on February 7. The UAE announced in August that its ambassador would return to Tehran, normalizing ties six years after a schism brought on by Saudi Arabia severing relations in 2016 after Iranian protestors torched Riyadh's embassy in Tehran in response to the kingdom's execution of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric. KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Though revolutionary Shiite Muslim Iran remains a leading rival of many of the Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, a trend toward reconciliation has taken hold.

This month alone, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait returned their ambassadors to Iran for the first time since a regional schism erupted in 2016. That year, amid an ongoing battle for influence across much of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran after protesters burned down Riyadh's embassy in Tehran over the Kingdom's execution of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric.

And over the past 16 months, beginning around the same time that Biden launched efforts to restore U.S. participation in the JCPOA, Iran and Saudi Arabia have also held successive rounds of talks in Baghdad with the aim of putting their bad blood behind them.

The Biden administration has expressed its backing for the burgeoning rapprochement.

"We remain committed to consulting closely with our regional partners regarding U.S. policy on Iran and wider regional issues, and we support dialogue among the countries in the region on issues of regional security and stability," the National Security Council spokesperson said. "We hope that dialogue will contribute to de-escalation of tensions."

Still, a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia remains uncertain, as did the prospects for the JCPOA. Reports from both Washington and Tehran suggested, however, that significant progress had been made in recent weeks and a deal could be reached within days, likely after a 10th round of talks in Vienna.

Despite there being no viable alternative available, the National Security Council spokesperson said the Biden administration was prepared for either eventuality.

"Whether or not there is a deal," the spokesperson said, "the President's commitment to protect U.S. personnel and confront Iran's activities that jeopardize our people or our friends in the region is unwavering."

Newsweek has contacted Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations for comment.