Just like the proverbial cat, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) could have more than one life. It's quite a slippery big fish that refuses to be dressed and served. With seven signatories, Iran and P5+1 (USA, Russia, China, UK, France, and Germany), it was formulated in Vienna by July 14, 2015, ratified by UN Security Council on July 20, 2015. It was then adopted on October 18, 2015, and made operational on January 16, 2016.
The plan expired unceremoniously in Washington DC, on May 8, 2018, following a Trumpian Shrill. It was brought out from cold for gradual thawing, followed by resuscitation after January 20, 2021, and now pending final prognostication.
The JCPOA essentially involves restrictions on Iran's nuclear development activities and access to some forms of arms purchase abroad as well as the development of others. It terminates in October 2025, when the Iranian nuclear file is scheduled to be closed. In May 2019, the US reinstituted previously removed sanctions and began to add new ones periodically. Now, with Biden Administration in place, the issue is whether and how soon the US will regroup and reenter the abandoned JCPOA. While the new government has passed more than 60 days, it has not yet rejoined the JCPOA as is. On the northern edge of the Persian Gulf, Iran is not budging. The US wants a Last In First Out (LIFO) formulation for the revival of the agreement, whereas Iran wants the First In First Out (FIFO) process. The US was the first party (FI) to move the JCPOA into the shed for end-of-life disposal, followed by Iran (LI). So, it would appear natural, logical, and ethical that FIFO is followed. But not so fast, says the Biden Administration elected to promote decency, honor, teamwork, and fair play!
So, what is going on? Why the impasse? Perhaps the inertia long born of a big ego prevents the US from accepting that she was responsible for the unilateralism, the faux pas, in the first place. That would be the simplest and the most awkward explanation for holding back the powered-up paddles. Worse, would that mean giving Iran credit for any merit at all? That she can't get anything right was the official propaganda mantra in western governments and media behind isolating her for decades.
The JCPOA was never viewed as a legitimizing document for Iran. For the West, it was a means to avoiding a costly, unwinnable war against her. By accepting the JCPOA, Iran was paying a tribute, a war reparation of sorts, to the West even without having attacked anyone in P3+1. Therefore, by going first, the US will not only diminish itself (the least of its problems), it will officially endorse Iran's wholesomeness on at least one account! That Iran will not be allowed by any means to pry open the doors of national political legitimacy is probably getting in the way of JCPOA resuscitation. Otherwise, it will drive a big hole in the western narrative about Iran and its likes around the bend – Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, to name a few. So, it would appear the issue is not whether the agreement must live, but who goes first, and whether it is to be a step-by-step or one-step full restoration? However, once who goes first is agreed upon, the rest is merely procedural, having no latent strategic import.
If this was the Gordian's Knot Trump had left behind for Biden to unravel, then it is time for the West to change. How? Why? Well, the USSR changed by shedding all non-Russian republics and going capitalistic and haltingly democratic. China changed by accepting ownership, free-market and profit, and foreign investment. What has the West done to spruce itself for the 21st century? It's still bathing and basking in the glow of technological miracles, new products, and money to buy the world multiple times over. However, it has not reformed an iota! It's Victor's Lap needs to end and be infused with some level of soul-searching, humility, and inclusiveness. For all practical purposes, there is no more originality left in what the West continues to pursue. The rat race of too much of too many things continues unabated. For societies with an existential lifestyle, this is the end of the road.
It appears to me that, once his Cabinet crew has completed the JCPOA Circus travel show, an experienced, fulfilled, introspective, empathetic, honorable Biden will pull the lever in favor of FIFO. In fact, on the 27th of March, the US appeared to have downgraded her stand on LIFO. Any buzz highlighting Iran's integrity and rightfulness will be deftly managed so that she does not get any frequent flyer mileage from the incident. On the other hand, Iran has officially allocated three months for the Phoenix to rise from the ashes. So, it's do or die!
Sadly, only if that was the end of it all! For the JCPOA, three outcomes are possible: Restored to pre-2018 status, dead as volcanic debris, or JCPOA V2. If President Joe R. Biden, who lately has used God Willing and references to Prophetic Hadith, one hopes not like mouthwash of last resort, does not understand that Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyib Erdogan (the late Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi included) use the same things like their diet and toothpaste, then he will not dig their honor, uprightness, and sincerity. The unnoticed startling paradox inherent to our approach to Iran is as follows: The US considers the Iranian Democracy incorrigibly faulty because of her fervent religiosity, whereas it is dismissive of the deep religious foundations Iran relies upon against acquiring WMD.
The US has its 2nd Amendment that grants ordinary citizens the right to bear arms to protect against real and speculative situations. Yet in the face of crushing interventions close by in Iraq and Afghanistan, bifurcation of Libya, the presence of US 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf, frequent B-52 flyovers, nuclear-armed Israel with F-16, F-35, and German submarines to project that deadly armament and more, and F-35s to a city-state UAE – a sliver of land with merely 1.1m citizens, and Iran cannot have any semblance of 2nd Amendment for its entire nation – cannot have WMD (OK), cannot even have missiles or drones either, and cannot purchase arms internationally? Really! So, by some miracle and suicidal madness among the Iranians (and this did come up the first time around), should JCPOA V2 emerge, then ex-President 'DJ' Trump (he was certainly a DJ on America's Stage) will have gotten it right. He will then have the right to argue that had he won the reelection; he would have been the one signing JCPOA V2. It's his tactics that made the change possible. He is the Master Deal Maker! Does the US really want that claim to stick? If not, Iran is doing her service by not going along with the push and shove of this administration. One fears that the Biden administration's foot-dragging approach is in keeping with post-Bush II when hardly any of the war-related evils of that era were successfully confronted by the Obama administration. It has not served the nation well. Some sinkholes, backyard wells, and septic systems need sealing up forever.
The bottom line, rejoining JCPOA as the first mover will restore the US image's wholesomeness and rebuild trust in it. Rejoining WHO, Paris Climate Agreement, Open Skies Treaty, etc., are easy choices. The real test of sincerity the world is keenly watching is how the US honors its JCPOA commitment. The US could suggest and perhaps expect, on practical grounds, a two to a three-year reset of the clock for the time lost only for matters included in the JCPOA. However, in less than four years, the US must rush because a new Republican government could emerge that would re-tamper with JCPOA since it did not get enough time to take a solid systemic hold. Let us remember the Democrats are trying to avoid a new endless, blistering Gulf war that others are trying to impose on the US. The JCPOA does not just contain Iran's presumed nuclear ambition. It contains the possible breakout of a war that the US should not want and does not need.
This article was originally published on April 5, 2021.