From the day of Joe Biden's inauguration in the United States, one of the new administration's major foreign policy objectives has been the restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Like most ill-destined roads, the JCPOA was paved with good intentions. Commonly known as the "Iran nuclear deal," it placed strict restrictions on the Iranian government's enrichment of uranium for possible use in nuclear weapons, and used the threat of economic sanctions to induce compliance. To be sure, nobody wants a nuclear-armed Iran, especially under the despotic, theocratic regime that has ruled there since 1979.
The JCPOA was a foolish manoeuvre when it was enacted in 2015 and seeking to revive it is foolish now. To understand why, we must understand the two factors undermining it: (i) The ineffectiveness of the deal itself, and (ii) Iran's own reasons for wishing to avoid it despite the threat of sanctions.
But first, Iran's new president. Ebrahim Raisi is an ultra-conservative ally of the Iranian theocracy, which certainly helps to explain the widespread understanding in Iran that his election was rigged and neither of his opponents ever had any actual chance. He is a hardline supporter of Iran's Sharia law, an old-timer who, unlike the Iranian youth, views the West with seething distrust.
He is also a criminal. In 1988, he was one of four Iranian judges pronouncing summary death sentences without due process on political opposition that were being held in prison for various failures of orthodoxy. He has defended that massacre because it was commanded by the Ayatollah, just as he has defended other politically-motivated murders by the regime since. This is the man whom the US must face in any negotiations for reinstating the nuclear deal.
Truthfully, however, the futility of such reinstatement does not require attacking Raisi's character – easy though the job may be. Iran has no interest in reviving the JCPOA. Their only possible motivation for doing so would be to stop U.S. sanctions against them, and there is simply no reason to believe that this is a pressing concern for the regime.
Economic sanctions are of limited utility against dictatorial governments, because the people in power, and their pampered lackeys, are wealthy and do not personally suffer the fallout. Those consequences are felt by the common people, the population of Iran in this case, who are driven into poverty by the millions when international trade stops. In fact, having the nation's treasure targeted by a direct attack from outside helps legitimize the authoritarians in charge. Hardline calls for ever more extreme and repressive police state policies, all in the name of "national security," can be justified by actual, provable foreign attacks against the economy of the homeland.
We must also ask whether the deal, if only it could be brought back, would be effective in restraining the Iranian regime's hands from developing nuclear weapons. Again, the outlook is far from encouraging.
This, ultimately, is because President Trump had the misfortune of inheriting a fine mess when he was asked to steward the Obama-era JCPOA. His clean-up measure was to cut our losses and withdraw from the agreement. It was the best option available to him, but it carried the unfortunate side effect of showing Iran just how fickle the deal was on the American side. It was never a treaty – nor does it stand any realistic chance of becoming one in the current political climate in the US. Rather, it was instituted essentially at the whim of a sitting president, and could be waved away just as easily by another, or even, the same president. Iran's religious government, no doubt, having concluded that they were deceived by what they regard as a godless, evil adversary would not be quick to enter into such a bargain again. More importantly, even if they did, they would have no reason to respect it by holding up their end of the deal.
Diplomacy with the Iranian theocratic regime is no solution. At the same time, the very thought of Ayatollah Khameini, or any deranged zealot, having his finger on a nuclear "button" is terrifying. Fortunately, there is potential for salvation from the oppressed people of Iran. They are a mostly young, progressive population who are in no way represented by their brutal, repressive government. Iranians typically admire Western ideals of democracy and personal liberty, and would like to bring these principles home to Iran. They are the single greatest threat to the theocracy's continued power, which is why their demonstrations and protests have been cracked down upon so savagely in recent years.
For reasons already discussed, there is little the US can responsibly do to topple the Iranian regime. The imperative is for the American government to engage with the restless people of Iran, and support them in making their own decision to choose freedom. This can be done by supporting their access to technology, especially communications technologies that have radically empowered Iranians to connect with their like-minded countrymen. The people of Iran must be reminded, loudly and often, that the United States is behind them when they strive to move towards freedom.
It is unfortunate, but negotiations with their cruel regime will not help those people, and in fact could easily make their situation worse (as economic sanctions already have.) The JCPOA was a bad idea when it was first enacted, and it remains so today. Efforts to revive it are wrong-headed, and for the innocent population of Iran, potentially dangerous.