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Is the Iran deal worth salvaging?

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After almost 17 months of diplomatic wrangling, there could be glimmers of hope for a nuclear deal with Iran. On Wednesday, U.S. officials said they had sent back a response to Iranian comments on a E.U.-led draft agreement that would salvage the 2015 agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program. The trading of response documents could precede another round of talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the terms of the original deal, which placed hard curbs on Iran’s ability to enrich fissile material to weapons-grade levels in return for sanctions relief.

Those terms were unilaterally broken in 2018 by former president Donald Trump, who rejected the pact forged by the Obama administration and other international powers even as Iran was believed to be abiding by its restrictions. That move was opposed by the deal’s European, Chinese and Russian signatories, but cheered on by a clutch of regional powers united in their animus toward Iran — including Israel, then led by right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Arab monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Trump administration, at the time, claimed Iran wouldn’t dare restart its forbidden nuclear activity. But by 2019, shorn of incentives not to, Iran installed faster centrifuges in its facilities and commenced enrichment activities that violated the agreement’s strictures. Under the 2015 deal, the so-called “breakout” time for Iran to create enough for fuel for a potential nuclear bomb was measured in months, even close to a year. Now, it’s a matter of weeks, officials and analysts claim.

Biden came to office in 2021 vowing to return to the agreement and rein back Iran’s enrichment surge. But domestic politics intervened in both countries — an immediate deal with sanctions relief for Iran was a non-starter in Washington, while hard-liners in Tehran, who long opposed the original deal and doubted the worth of any diplomacy with the Americans, swept away the regime’s so-called “reformist-pragmatist” camp in elections. Polling of Iranian attitudes this summer found that fewer than half of the Iranians surveyed believe the deal will be restored, while more than two-thirds expressed doubt that the United States would abide by its commitments.

Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran, warned late last year in an interview with the New Yorker that the Iranians were “emptying the deal of the nonproliferation benefits for which we bargained.” He acknowledged that at some future point diplomacy on this matter would “be tantamount to trying to revive a dead corpse.”

U.S. responds to Iran’s latest demands on reviving nuclear deal

Evidently, the Biden administration doesn’t believe we’ve reached that stage yet. But the prospect of the deal’s restoration has revived the angry debates surrounding its initial brokering. Republican lawmakers have expressed their outrage over any agreement that doesn’t have congressional oversight. David Barnea, chief of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, was quoted by Israeli media on Thursday warning that a looming deal would be “a strategic disaster.” A flurry of comments from Israel’s political elites, including Prime Minister Yair Lapid, urged the United States to back away from the negotiating table.

There’s no small irony to their current objections. Trump broke the accord in 2018 with Netanyahu’s goading even amid “a clear consensus within Israel’s security and defense establishment at the time that leaving the agreement was a giant error,” wrote Haaretz journalist Amir Tibon. Now, he added, it may be replaced by an agreement that “some experts warn … will be worse for Israel and create a more dangerous Middle East.”

“Israel, and opponents of a new deal in Congress, have said that the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions will provide Iran with hundreds of billions of dollars to finance terrorist activities, and the early expiration of some of its provisions will quickly allow Iran to revive plans to manufacture a nuclear weapon,” my colleague Karen DeYoung reported.

“Administration officials dispute the dollar calculations and say that the reinstatement of limits on the Iranian nuclear program, even with some expiration dates, will provide several years’ relief from an imminent nuclear threat and room for further negotiations,” she added.

Iran nuclear talks resume in last-ditch effort to secure deal

The Trump administration and its fellow travelers who took a hammer to the agreement are reaping what they sowed. “Their actions not only almost prompted a war, but as a result of the Trump administration’s poor decision-making, Iran expanded its nuclear program in an unprecedented manner,” Holly Dagres, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told me. “Love or hate the JCPOA” — the acronym for the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers — “it’s the best path forward at preventing Iran from potentially developing nuclear weapons.”

Had Trump not withdrawn from the deal, Dagres added, the inherent “confidence-building exercise” that the JCPOA entailed would have continued, perhaps leading to negotiations on other fronts. “Whether those discussions would’ve been constructive is unclear, but it’s safe to say that Iran would not be considered a nuclear threshold state as it is by some today,” she said.

Yet there’s a parallel sense that hawks in Washington got exactly what they wanted. “On its own terms, [the Trump administration’s decision to leave the deal] has been very successful,” argued John Ghazvinian, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center.

It scrapped any prospect of rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, tightened cooperation between Israel and the U.S.’s Gulf allies and raised the likelihood of future covert Israeli or even American action against Iran. New tensions came to the fore and defined a fractious state of play — from Iran’s own violent plots abroad and the militancy of its Middle Eastern proxies to U.S. reprisals, including strikes this week on Iran-backed factions in northeastern Syria.

Now, the Iranian regime and the Biden administration are simply “trying to secure their very basic and immediate needs,” Ghazvinian told me. The Biden administration wants to rein in Iran’s march toward being able to produce a nuclear weapon, while Iran would welcome loosened sanctions on its economy and oil exports.

Ghazvinian, author of “America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present,” noted that the world is in a different place from 2015 or 2009 — when the Obama administration entered a diplomatic process with European partners and Russia and China on Iran’s nuclear program. “We have become consumed with the details of the nuclear issue, lawyered this thing to death, and forgotten what the larger point was” — that is, he said, that the Obama administration believed the nuclear agreement could build a foundation for a wider strategic dialogue that would address concerns over Iran’s destabilizing activities.

That dialogue is nowhere in sight, while strategists in both countries have long since shifted their priorities — in Washington, away from the Middle East; in Tehran, toward greater accommodation with some of its neighbors and closer ties to China. It’s hard “to resolve an exceptionally complex technical issue in the context of an exceptionally dysfunctional political atmosphere,” Ghazvinian said, referring to the nuclear deal and the broader chasm between the United States and Iran. “We need to move beyond the JCPOA, we need to move past it.”