Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. She tweets at @BarbaraSlavin1.
There are many reasons why Iranian officials have been hesitant about whether to accept a new European Union proposal for reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The dominant political faction in Iran is full of officials who opposed the plan and saw their views vindicated when the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018 — while Iran was in full compliance. And they are understandably wary of trusting the promises of another U.S. administration.
Given that the relief from sanctions that the deal provides relies on executive orders rather than a Senate-approved treaty, there are few guarantees that President Joe Biden’s team can offer that a future U.S. president couldn’t reverse. However, that doesn’t mean Tehran should turn away from this opportunity, as a revived JCPOA would provide important benefits to the country, even if of short duration.
Through a revised deal, Iran would gain access to an estimated $100 billion in hard currency reserves, which are currently frozen in foreign banks, and it would be able to rapidly increase energy exports at a time when the world is in dire need of them.
According to Bijan Khajehpour, a veteran analyst of the Iranian economy, the country’s exports of crude oil and condensate could reach nearly 3 million barrels a day — twice what they are now — boosting government revenues by $65 billion annually at current prices.
Ordinary Iranians would see an immediate impact from this in terms of a stronger national currency and reduced inflation, while the country would be able to replenish its rainy day National Development Fund and renovate aging infrastructure.
Such sanctions relief would also facilitate more regional trade and investment, meeting the current Iranian administration’s goal of focusing on the neighborhood. By contrast, without a revived deal, the Biden administration is likely to increase efforts to enforce secondary sanctions on Iran, going after oil smugglers and middlemen in countries like the United Arab Emirates.
Regional tensions would also likely rise in tandem with the country’s nuclear program, which, in terms of Iran’s ability to rapidly produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, is now essentially at the point of breakout. Israel has already carried out assassinations of multiple Iranian scientists and sabotaged facilities; and on a recent trip to Israel, Biden threatened the use of military force as a last resort to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
If Iran were to revive the JCPOA, on the other hand, its accumulation of enriched uranium would be reversed, and it wouldn’t be allowed to have enough material for a single weapon until 2031.
A renewed deal could also provide the basis for seeking a nuclear weapons-free Persian Gulf in which regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would agree to forswear these arms and work on confidence-building measures instead. Iran and Saudi Arabia are much more likely to renew diplomatic relations and cooperate on extending and shoring up the cease-fire in Yemen if a nuclear crisis is averted. Meanwhile, Iraq would also benefit from reduced animosity between Iran and its Arab neighbors.
Although Iran has adopted a “look to the East” policy in recent years — in part to compensate for U.S. and European sanctions — its influence with countries such as Russia and China would also be enhanced if it revived the nuclear deal, as it would gain more options for trade and investment. Misery may love company, but that’s no reason why Iran, whose 1979 revolution was predicated on a policy of independence from superpowers, should sacrifice its freedom of maneuver to give more comfort to Russia.
Of course, a revived JCPOA is no panacea for the country’s many problems.
It will not, for example, make Iranians love their regime, which has grown more repressive and intolerant as it has entered its fifth decade. It will, however, give a country of 80 million people the space to breathe, and enable the government to reduce some of the economic pressures that are pushing the population into poverty at a rapid rate. Additionally, if they saw more opportunities at home, fewer educated Iranians might feel the need to emigrate.
Reviving the JCPOA would also benefit President Ebrahim Raisi, who’s now been in office for over a year.
Raisi didn’t attend the annual summit at the United Nations General Assembly last year, but he reportedly hopes to come this fall. Such a visit would certainly be controversial, given Raisi’s record as a prosecutor tied to thousands of executions in the 1980s and new accusations of targeting Iranian dissidents and former U.S. officials for assassination. If, however, Iran does agree to revive the JCPOA, Raisi would have something else to talk about with his Western counterparts.
At a time when the world is confronting multiple crises, Iran has the power to defuse an issue of utmost importance to regional stability and the cause of non-proliferation. The Raisi government should seize this opportunity before it disappears.