Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Reviving the Nuclear Deal Gives the U.S. More Leverage Over Iran

| Feb. 15, 2021

Maintaining maximum pressure to inflict more pain won’t bring Tehran back to the negotiating table or halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As officials in Washington consider returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, much of the debate has centered on whether the U.S. government will lose leverage. Some experts and officials argue that if the Biden administration rejoins the deal—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the United States will squander the leverage built in recent years through former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy.

While U.S. sanctions have caused Iran’s economy major challenges and limited Iran’s access to financial resources, they have not succeeded in changing Tehran’s behavior regarding its nuclear program. Indeed, Iran has not offered additional concessions. Instead, it has engaged in its own leverage-building strategy by ramping up its nuclear activities, missile program, and regional activities. Iran is not only closer to having the capacity to build a bomb, but even the political discourse of key officials on whether to cross that threshold has been shifting.

Leverage is only meaningful if it can be effectively used to produce desired policy outcomes. Continuing to build leverage merely for the sake of inflicting pain or adding pressure is neither an effective nor sustainable negotiating strategy. It leads to a vicious cycle of chasing a perfect deal that does not exist and ignoring the opportunities for incremental progress as Iran inches closer to a nuclear weapons capability. By reviving the nuclear accord, the U.S. government will not squander any sanctions leverage, but if it plays its cards wisely, it could enhance its position for follow-on negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities.

In response to the maximum pressure effort, Tehran sought to increase its own leverage. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has ramped up its naval military operations in the Persian Gulf, targeting maritime trade routes through the Strait of Hormuz to signal its ability to harm U.S. interests and those of its allies. The most recent example was in early January when the IRGC seized a South Korean-flagged vessel most likely in reaction to the $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in compliance with U.S. sanctions.

Iran has increased its nuclear activities to bring it closer to having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so. Iranian officials indicated in January that they would expand their nuclear program by resuming uranium enrichment to a 20 percent level, which is much higher than the low-level 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 deal. Furthermore, to minimize the impact of sanctions and U.S. leverage, Iran has focused on investing in a resistance economy infrastructure to diversify the economy in ways that it will be more inward-looking and less reliant on foreign trade, particularly with the West. Today, Iran is nowhere near the brink of collapse. The country, rather, is projected to see an economic recovery in 2021.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rouhi, Mahsa.“Reviving the Nuclear Deal Gives the U.S. More Leverage Over Iran.” Foreign Policy, February 15, 2021.

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