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Opinion The only thing worse than a deal with Iran might be no deal

The JCPOA Joint Commission meets in Vienna on Dec. 17, 2021. (Handout via Reuters)

Announced in mid-July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal — made sense not as a permanent solution to the Islamic republic’s drive for atomic weaponry but as an effort to buy time for one. The Obama administration, in partnership with France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia, agreed Iran would curtail uranium enrichment until 2031 in return for economic sanctions relief — worth tens of billions of dollars to its struggling economy. Given what might happen otherwise — an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran, with wider war to follow — the bargain was, as we noted at the time, “complex and costly” but “preferable, in the short term, to the likely alternative.”

Today, President Biden is negotiating a resumed deal with Iran that would undoubtedly call for a similar, difficult, risk-benefit analysis. That evaluation begins by acknowledging that the Biden administration finds itself in such a position because in 2018 his predecessor, Donald Trump, unilaterally pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, branding it “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” Though Iran responded with restraint at first, it has since stepped up uranium enrichment, to the point where it could now have enough weapons-grade material for one or more bombs within weeks — rather than the one-year “breakout time” the JCPOA achieved. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s approach — stepped-up sanctions — damaged the Iranian economy but failed to curb the regime’s nuclear development or its support for terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East.

At first, Mr. Biden’s promise to restore the JCPOA seemed unlikely to bear fruit, given Iran’s position — made all too credible by Mr. Trump’s behavior — that there was no point talking to a country that would not stick to its agreements. However, recent reports from Vienna, where U.S. and Iranian negotiators are dealing through intermediaries, suggest that Tehran might still agree to a modified freeze of its program in return for relief from Mr. Trump’s sanctions. The deal would end in 2031, as the JCPOA did, with Iran possibly much closer to breakout than it would have been if the United States had not pulled out, triggering Iranian noncompliance.

In other words, if a deal with Iran does get done, the United States could be buying less time than it did in 2015, at a higher price. Iran’s neighbors, not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia, would remain nervous. It would not be the “longer and stronger” deal, encompassing Iranian missile development as well, that the Biden team once called for. Whether that is nevertheless acceptable depends on the details, especially how much latitude Iran guarantees international inspectors, including with respect to past nuclear activity, which it has still not satisfactorily explained to the International Atomic Energy Agency. And it depends on the follow-through Mr. Biden provides in terms of deterring — and punishing — Iranian aggression throughout the region.

As in 2015, the United States should not let the best be the enemy of the good, provided its negotiators really have done as much good as they possibly could.