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Source: Foreign Policy

Aug 14, 2023

There Are No Good Deals With Iran
But the Biden administration’s latest negotiations with Tehran are still the best option available.

By Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Last week, Iran transferred four dual U.S.-Iranian nationals wrongly incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison to house arrest. The transfer is reportedly the first step in a sequence that will ultimately secure the freedom of five U.S. citizens. In exchange, Iran will be able to tap into nearly $6 billion of its existing frozen assets for carefully monitored expenditures on food and medicine.

Not surprisingly, the reaction from critics who tend to see the Islamic Republic as Satan’s finger on earth has been predictable. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton called the deal “ransom” and “a craven act of appeasement.” Sen. Jim Risch opined that it would provide “a windfall for regime aggression.”

Perhaps. But let’s not forget that five Americans will be freed, some of whom have been unjustly imprisoned for years, and that Iran won’t have direct access to its funds, which will be strictly monitored for humanitarian purchases only. To critics of the arrangement, of course, there’s no getting around the fact that money is fungible and will free up funds that Iran can use for nefarious purposes. If they had their druthers, the only U.S. interaction with the Iranian regime would be to apply more pressure.

And there may be more not to like. Separate from the hostage release, U.S. officials have been working to establish a set of informal, unwritten understandings with Iran designed to deescalate tensions, especially on issues such as uranium enrichment, and perhaps at some point to return to a more formal agreement like the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

But here’s the bottom line: There are no good deals with Iran, only bad and worse ones. For a U.S. administration with a plate full of headaches—from Ukraine and Russia to China—and a presidential reelection campaign to run, trying to preempt a serious crisis over Iran’s nuclear program is the smart and responsible play. The last thing the Biden administration needs is a Middle East crisis over an uncontrolled Iranian nuclear program that’s enriching uranium at weapons-grade levels.

Indeed, if its strategy and luck hold (and no one should underestimate the possibility of some Iranian or Israeli provocation that might trigger a blow-up), the Biden administration might be able to manage the Iran file until after the next presidential election, when more options might become available.

Anyone who witnessed the tortuous process of negotiating with Iran over the nuclear issue knows there are no slam dunk deals to be had with Iran, only tactical ones. That’s not to say Washington’s own constraints and behavior—most notably the Trump administration’s galactically reckless decision in 2018 to walk away from the JCPOA—aren’t also a significant part of the problem the Biden administration faces today.

But let’s face it: The U.S. is dealing with an authoritarian, repressive regime that imprisons, tortures, and kills its own citizens; seeks major influence in at least four Arab capitals (Beirut, Lebanon; Damascus, Syria; Sanaa, Yemen; and Baghdad, Iraq); supports attacks against U.S. forces; and is now playing a major role in supporting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

And then there’s the nuclear issue. To put it simply, the United States has a strategic problem with Iran but lacks a strategic solution. All of Washington’s efforts—from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement to the latest effort at de-escalation through a set of understandings—are transactional, not transformational; interim, not final; and compartmentalized, not comprehensive. And all diplomatic efforts are constrained by U.S. and Iranian domestic politics, which severely define the limits of what’s possible.

Iran is now a nuclear weapons threshold state—that is to say, it has the capacity to develop all the elements required to make a bomb, including the ability to produce enough fissile material at weapons-grade level for at least two nuclear weapons. That doesn’t mean Iran is well on its way to weaponizing or has even decided to do so. But Iran has the knowledge, technology, and resources to weaponize, according to some, within two years.

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