( Tomdispatch.com ) – One, erratic and often unhinged, blew up the U.S.-Iran accord that was the landmark foreign policy achievement of President Obama’s second term. He then ordered the assassination of a top Iranian general visiting Iraq, dramatically raising tensions in the region. The other is a traditional advocate of American exceptionalism, a supporter of the U.S.-Iran agreement who promised to restore it upon taking office, only to ham-handedly bungle the job, while placating Israel.

In November, of course, American voters get to choose which of the two they’d trust with handling ongoing explosive tensions with Tehran across a Middle East now in crisis. The war in Gaza has already intensified the danger of an Iran-Israel conflict — with the recent devastating Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria and the Iranian response of drones and missiles dispatched against Israel only upping the odds. In addition, Iran’s “axis of resistance” — including Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and militias in Iraq and Syria — has been challenging American hegemony throughout the Middle East, while drawing lethal U.S. counterstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

It was President Donald Trump, of course, who condemned the U.S.-Iran agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) while running in 2016. With his team of fervent anti-Iran hawks, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, he took a wrecking ball to relations with Iran. Six years ago, Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and, in what he called a campaign of “maximum pressure,” reinstituted, then redoubled political and economic sanctions against Tehran. Characteristically, he maintained a consistently belligerent policy toward the Islamic Republic, threatening its very existence and warning that he could “obliterate” Iran.

Joe Biden had been a supporter of the accord, negotiated while he was Obama’s vice president. During his 2020 presidential campaign, he promised to rejoin it. In the end, though, he kept Trump’s onerous sanctions in place and months of negotiations went nowhere. While he put out feelers to Tehran, crises erupting in 2022 and 2023, including the invasion of Israel by Hamas, placed huge obstacles in the way of tangible progress toward rebooting the JCPOA.

Worse yet, still reeling from the collapse of the 2015 agreement and ruled by a hardline government deeply suspicious of Washington, Iran is in no mood to trust another American diplomatic venture. In fact, during the earlier talks, it distinctly overplayed its hand, demanding far more than Biden could conceivably offer.

“Natanz,” Digital Imagining, Dream, Realistic v. 2, 2024.

Meanwhile, Iran has accelerated its nuclear research and its potential production facilities, amassing large stockpiles of uranium that, as the Washington Post reports, “could be converted to weapons-grade fuel for at least three bombs in a time frame ranging from a few days to a few weeks.”

Trump’s Anti-Iran Jihad

While the U.S. and Iran weren’t exactly at peace when Trump took office in January 2017, the JCPOA had at least created the foundation for what many hoped would be a new era in their relations.

Iran had agreed to drastically limit the scale and scope of its uranium enrichment program, reduce the number of centrifuges it could operate, curtail its production of low-enriched uranium suitable for fueling a power plant, and ship nearly all of its enriched uranium stockpile out of the country. It closed and disabled its Arak plutonium reactor, while agreeing to a stringent regime in which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would monitor every aspect of its nuclear program.

In exchange, the United States, the European Union (EU), and the United Nations agreed to remove an array of economic sanctions, which, until then, had arguably made Iran the most sanctioned country in the world.

Free of some of them, its economy began to recover, while its oil exports, its economic lifeblood, nearly doubled. According to How Sanctions Work, a new book from Stanford University Press, Iran absorbed a windfall of $11 billion in foreign investment, gained access to $55 billion in assets frozen in Western banks, and saw its inflation rate fall from 45% to 8%.

But Trump acted forcefully to undermine it all. In October 2017, he “decertified” Iran’s compliance with the accord, amid false charges that it had violated the agreement. (Both the EU and the IAEA agreed that it had not.)

Many observers feared that Trump was creating an environment in which Washington could launch an Iraq-style war of aggression. In a New York Times op-ed, Larry Wilkerson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, suggested that Trump was repeating the pattern of unproven allegations President George W. Bush had relied on: “The Trump administration is using much the same playbook to create a false impression that war is the only way to address the threats posed by Iran.”

Finally, on May 8, 2018, Trump blew up the JCPOA and sanctions on Iran were back in place. Relentlessly, he and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin piled on ever more of them in what they called a campaign of “maximum pressure.” Old sanctions were reactivated and hundreds of new ones added, targeting Iran’s banking and oil industries, its shipping industry, its metal and petrochemical firms, and finally, its construction, mining, manufacturing, and textile sectors. Countless individual officials and businessmen were also targeted, along with dozens of companies worldwide that dealt, however tangentially, with Iran’s sanctioned firms. It was, Mnuchin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “a maximum pressure campaign for sanctions…. We will continue to ramp up, more, more, more.” At one point, in a gesture both meaningless and insulting, the Trump administration even sanctioned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, a move moderate President Hassan Rouhani called “outrageous and idiotic,” adding that Trump was “afflicted by mental retardation.”

Then, in 2019, Trump took the unprecedented step of labeling the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s chief military arm, a “foreign terrorist organization.” He put a violent exclamation point on that when he ordered the assassination of Iran’s premier military leader, General Qassem Soleimani, during his visit to Baghdad.

Administration officials made it clear that the goal was toppling the regime and that they hoped the sanctions would provoke an uprising to overthrow the government. Iranians did, in fact, rise up in strikes and demonstrations, including most recently 2023’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, partly thanks to tougher economic times due to the sanctions. The government’s response, however, was a brutal crackdown. Meanwhile, on the nuclear front, having painstakingly complied with the JCPOA until 2018, instead of being even more conciliatory Iran ramped up its program, enriching far more uranium than was necessary to fuel a power plant. And militarily, it initiated a series of clashes with U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf, attacked or seized foreign-operated oil tankers, shot down a U.S. drone in the Straits of Hormuz, and launched drones meant to cripple Saudi Arabia’s huge oil industry.

“The American withdrawal from the JCPOA and the severity of the sanctions that followed were seen by Iran as an attempt to break the back of the Islamic Republic or, worse, to completely destroy it,” Vali Nasr, a veteran analyst at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and one of the authors of How Sanctions Work, told me. “So, they circled the wagons. Iran became far more securitized, and it handed more and more power to the IRGC and the security forces.”

Biden’s Reign of (Unforced) Error

Having long supported a deal with Iran —  in 2008, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, in 2015, in a speech to Jewish leaders — Joe Biden called Trump’s decision to quit the JCPOA a “self-inflicted disaster.” But on entering the Oval Office, Biden failed to simply rejoin it.

Instead, he let months go by, while waxing rhetorical in a quest to somehow improve it. Even though the JCPOA had been working quite well, the Biden team insisted it wanted a “longer and stronger agreement” and that Iran first had to return to compliance with the agreement, even though it was the United States that had pulled out of the deal.

Consider that an unforced error. “Early in 2021 there was one last chance to restore the agreement,” Trita Parsi, an expert on Iran and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me. “He could have just come back to the JCPOA by issuing an executive order, but he didn’t do anything for what turned out to be the ten most critical weeks.”

It was critical because the Iranian administration of President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, responsible for negotiating the original accord, was expiring and new elections were scheduled for June 2021. “One of the major mistakes Biden made is that he delayed the nuclear talks into April,” comments Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Princeton University scholar and a former top Iranian official who was part of its nuclear negotiating team in 2005-2007. “This was a golden opportunity to negotiate with the Rouhani team, but he delayed until a month before the Iranian elections. He could have finished the deal by May.”

When the talks finally did resume in April — “gingerly,” according to the New York Times — they were further complicated because, just days earlier, a covert Israeli operation had devastated one of Iran’s top nuclear research facilities with an enormous explosion. Iran responded by pledging to take the purity of its enriched uranium from 20% to 60%, which didn’t exactly help the talks, nor did Biden’s unwillingness to condemn Israel for a provocation clearly designed to wreck them.

That June, Iranians voted in a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and militant supporter of the “axis of resistance.” He took office in August, spent months assembling his administration, and appointed a new team to lead the nuclear talks. By July, according to American officials, those talks on a new version of the JCPOA had reached “near complete agreement,” only to fall apart when the Iranian side backed out.

It was also clear that the Biden administration didn’t prioritize the Iran talks, being less than eager to deal with bitter opposition from Israel and its allies on Capitol Hill. “Biden’s view was that he’d go along with reviving the JCPOA only if he felt it was absolutely necessary and to do it at the least political cost,” Parsi points out. “And it looked like he’d only do it if it were acceptable to Israel.”

Over the next two years, the United States and Iran engaged in an unproductive series of negotiations that seemed to come tantalizingly close to an agreement only to stop short. By the summer of 2022, the nuclear talks once again appeared to be making progress, only to fail yet again.  “After 15 months of intense, constructive negotiations in Vienna and countless interactions with the JCPOA participants and the U.S., I have concluded that the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted,” wrote Josep Borrell Fontelles, the foreign policy chief for the European Union.

By the end of 2022, Biden reportedly declared the Iran deal “dead” and his chief negotiator insisted he wouldn’t “waste time” trying to revive it. As Mousavian told me, Iran’s crackdown on the Woman, Life, Freedom revolt in the wake of its “morality police” torturing and killing a young woman, Mahsa Amini, arrested on the streets of Tehran without a veil, and increased concern about Iranian drones being delivered to Russia for its war in Ukraine soured Biden on even talking to Iran.

Nonetheless, in 2023, yet another round of talks — helped, perhaps, by a prisoner exchange between the United States and Iran, including an agreement to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues – resulted in a tentative, informal accord that Iranian officials described as a “political ceasefire.” According to the Times of Israel, “the understandings would see Tehran pledge not to enrich uranium beyond its current level of 60 percent purity, to better cooperate with U.N. nuclear inspectors, to stop its proxy terror groups from attacking U.S. contractors in Iraq and Syria, to avoid providing Russia with ballistic missiles, and to release three American-Iranians held in the Islamic Republic.”

But even that informal agreement was consigned to the dustbin of history after Hamas’s October 7th attack doomed any rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

The question remains: Could some version of the JCPOA be salvaged in 2025?

Certainly not if, as now seems increasingly possible, a shooting war breaks out involving the United States, Iran, and Israel, a catastrophic crisis with unforeseeable consequences. And certainly not if Trump is reelected, which would plunge the United States and Iran deeper into their cold (if not a devastatingly hot) war.

What do the experts say? Against the possibility of a revived accord, according to Vali Nasr, Iran has concluded that Washington is an utterly untrustworthy negotiating partner whose word is worthless. “Iran has decided that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans and they decided to escalate tensions further in order to gain what they hope is additional leverage vis-à-vis Washington.”

“Biden’s intention was to revive the deal,” says Hossein Mousavian. “He did take some practical steps to do so and at least he tried to deescalate the situation.” Iran was, however, less willing to move forward because Biden insisted on maintaining the sanctions Trump had imposed.

The Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi, however, catches the full pessimism of a moment in which Iran and Israel (backed remarkably fully by Washington) are at the edge of actual war. Given the rising tensions in the region, not to speak of actual clashes, he says gloomily, “The best that we can hope for is that nothing happens. There is no hope for anything more.”

And that’s where hope is today in a Middle East that seems to be heading for hell in a handbasket. 

Via Tomdispatch.com