TEHRAN – Stephen Herzog, a research fellow at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University, says Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy to strangulate Iran economically has failed as the Islamic Republic has “improved economic ties with China, Venezuela, and other states.” The research fellow at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University also says, “Iran has significantly more enriched uranium than it did prior to the JCPOA.”
Herzog made the remarks in an interview with the Tehran Times just as it has become clear that Joe Biden had secured enough electoral votes to win the U.S. presidential elections.
The research fellow also predicts Iran would not go to “accept Biden’s word if it is possible for future U.S. presidents to exit the deal again with the stroke of a pen.”
“The United States must consider how to reassure Iran, whether legally or otherwise, that the JCPOA will remain in force in the future,” Herzog notes.
The following is the text of the interview:
Q: In 2019, the United States withdrew from a landmark arms control treaty with Russia, claiming it undermines its national security interests. Do you think the move implies a shift in U.S. strategy or just can be considered an impulsive decision by President Trump?
A: It’s true, in August last year, the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987. It prohibited the United States and Russia from maintaining nuclear- and conventionally-armed ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500–5500 kilometers that destabilized Europe during the Cold War.
While the administration correctly pointed to Russian missile tests violating the treaty, they made no attempt to save the agreement. This was a grave mistake, as the treaty had numerous benefits for international security, and disagreements could have been addressed.
However, I wouldn’t say withdrawal necessarily indicates shifting U.S. arms control strategy in the long run. Instead, it highlights stark differences between Trump and his election opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump also left the Open Skies Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—known as the Iran Nuclear Deal—and removed U.S. signature from the Arms Trade Treaty. If re-elected, it’s likely Trump will allow the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia to expire. It’s the last remaining agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. But in my view, Trump isn’t necessarily opposed to arms control, so much as he mistakenly believes only deals he makes are worthwhile. His diplomacy with North Korea that has achieved no progress toward denuclearization is one striking example.
On the other hand, Biden would attempt to return to these agreements and restore predictability and normalcy to U.S. foreign policy. On a practical level, this means that the U.S. back to international deals is much more likely if Biden defeats Trump in the election.
As Vice President under Barack Obama, when the JCPOA was negotiated, Biden strongly supports the deal, which is part of his campaign platform.
Q: Why does Israel oppose creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in West Asia but at the same time accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons?
A: The consensus in open sources, as you suggest, is that Israel maintains an arsenal of approximately 90 nuclear weapons despite refusing to confirm or deny its nuclear status. Israel has also never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and agreed to forego developing such weapons. My understanding is that the Israeli government states that it would be willing to participate in a Middle East (West Asia) nuclear-weapon-free zone only as part of a broader regional peace deal that resolves its perceived security threats. Whether it is true or not, the Israeli perception seems to be that Iran and other states’ proposals to establish a zone aren’t serious and are just an effort to stigmatize Israel. Israel wants to link Iran, Egypt, and other proponents of regional nuclear disarmament to wide-ranging peace negotiations. Likewise, further participation in the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) would be productive steps forward.
Regarding Israeli accusations about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the administration of Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called “atomic archive” disclosures was deeply unpersuasive. All they did was confirm what the international community knew long ago: there is currently no ongoing military nuclear activity in the Islamic Republic.
I do not believe that Iranian leaders are seeking nuclear weapons, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has recently determined that Tehran does not have the fissile material to make even a single nuclear bomb. Yet, Iran has taken a number of steps away from the JCPOA in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s withdrawal. My sense is that Iran is trying to show Washington the costs of leaving the deal by pursuing reversible actions such as increasing the number of centrifuges at the Fordow and Natanz facilities and enriching uranium above 3.67% content of isotope uranium-235.
But unfortunately, Iran’s signaling was not being assessed by the Trump administration as a reason to return to the deal. Instead, it’s persistently seen as evidence that Tehran cannot be trusted and must be targeted with further sanctions and military threats.
Q: Iranians were showered with missiles during Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in the 1980s, but Tehran was not given weapons to defend itself. Now, why is Iran’s defensive missile program being demonized?
A: What happened to Iranians at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s missiles, chemical weapons, and landmines was a tragedy. So many civilians suffered in inexcusable violations of human rights. Iraq’s use of missiles against Iranian cities in the 1980s shows that these are deadly, offensive weapons.
Today, Iran continues to test and improve a great diversity of ballistic and cruise missiles with various ranges. The Islamic Republic has used its missiles in recent years in attacks across Iraq and Syria (against ISIS). There are also questions raised by Europe and the U.S. about why, if Iran needs missiles purely for its regional defense, it has built delivery systems that are now capable of reaching much of Europe.
The Iranian government, to prove that its missile program as defensive, should publish a “white paper” strategy document informing interested parties around the world about its conceptions of deterrence and defense, as well as the circumstances under which Iran would consider using missiles. Transparency of this nature would help to avoid misperception and inadvertent escalation. It would also provide a clearer understanding of Iranian views that might tailor future international dialogue to achieve peace.
Q: Is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, “the worst deal ever negotiated” as Trump described it?
No, it is very far from “the worst deal ever negotiated.” The JCPOA is a historic deal that provides Iran with a pathway toward integration into the global economy and the pursuit of civilian nuclear energy. Meanwhile, it contains an intrusive layered verification regime under IAEA oversight that ensures Iran isn’t developing nuclear weapons. The Iran nuclear deal was a victory for all parties involved and a step toward peace in the Middle East (West Asia) and beyond.
Trump’s desire to destroy the deal because of its association with Obama is well-known. In fact, Trump’s efforts to “stop Iran from getting the bomb” have been abject failures. Iran has significantly more enriched uranium than it did prior to the JCPOA and a reduced breakout time. Meanwhile, the “maximum pressure” campaign to economically isolate Iran hasn’t worked, as the Islamic Republic has improved economic ties with China, Venezuela, and other states. Attempts to reinstate the conventional arms embargo and snapback sanctions have also failed.
I believe a Biden presidency will revitalize the JCPOA.
But this is far from guaranteed, as it will be difficult for any U.S. leader to return to the deal so long as Iran is qualitatively and quantitatively expanding its centrifuge enrichment program. If Iran can step back from these advancements, I expect the JCPOA to return in full force. However, Iran isn’t just going to accept Biden’s word if it’s possible for future U.S. presidents to exit the deal again with the stroke of a pen. It will be essential for the
United States to consider how to reassure Iran, whether legally or otherwise, that the JCPOA will remain in force in the future. Iranian officials should clearly explain what would be acceptable as reassurance.
If Trump is reelected, I expect a continuation of the failed policy of “maximum pressure,” perhaps through increased U.S. secondary sanctions on foreign firms transacting with Iran. To make a deal with Trump, Iran will need to negotiate over the nuclear and missile programs, as well as its support of groups the United States has labeled as terrorist organizations. But Trump and his advisors will have to end “maximum pressure” and treat Iran as an equal partner at the bargaining table. Obviously, under a second Trump presidency, the survival of the JCPOA will be in question. Until a new agreement can be reached, it will be incumbent on Iran and its European parties to maintain the JCPOA. This would require Iran to scale back its nuclear developments. Adherence to the JCPOA offers the best path to peace.