Choosing the Least Bad Option: Restoring the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The United States and Iran have been engaged in negotiations for over a year in an attempt to reach a new agreement meant to curb Iranian nuclear activities.[1] The final form of the agreement has yet to be determined. Whatever is finally agreed on will likely be very imperfect. Even an imperfect agreement is worth supporting, however, if it delays another nation in building nuclear weapons.

The current negotiations are intended to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated in 2015 between Iran and a coalition of nations consisting of the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. Under the JCPOA, Iran accepted temporary limits on its nuclear-related capabilities, including its ability to enrich uranium and how much enriched uranium it could possess. Because enrichment is the process by which uranium is refined into a form suitable for use in nuclear weapons, this was a significant concession. Iran also accepted monitoring and inspections of its nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, the United States and European Union (EU) agreed to lift various economic sanctions and restrictions imposed on Iran.[2]

As a means of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the JCPOA was far from ideal. The limitations on Iran’s uranium enrichment would expire in 10-15 years.[3] After that point, Iran could theoretically begin enriching uranium with the aim of producing nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the JCPOA offered the hope of, at the very least, pausing for a decade or more another nation’s development of such weapons.

The JCPOA started to come apart in May 2018, when the Trump administration decided to withdraw the United States from the agreement and reimposed US sanctions on Iran.[4] A year after the US withdrawal, the Iranians responded by gradually disregarding various JCPOA limitations, including on uranium enrichment and stockpiling. The Iranians have maintained, however, that they would undo these violations of the JCPOA if sanctions are lifted.[5]

The Biden administration, in collaboration with the EU, has been seeking a revived version of the JCPOA.[6] In August, the parties seemed to be approaching acceptance of an EU proposal for a new agreement. Diplomatic wrangling has continued, though.[7] One sticking point is Iran’s request that the IAEA drop an investigation into uranium found at previously undisclosed locations.[8]

Only time will tell if the United States, Iran, and the other parties can restore the JCPOA. Even if restored, such an agreement will face likely opposition from the US Congress and Israel.[9] The agreement will presumably still provide only temporary limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities and likely will have other flaws as well.

Nevertheless, peace advocates should hope that some form of JCPOA can be revived. Even temporary restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities are worthwhile if they delay another nation from developing nuclear weapons. (Also, some future diplomatic breakthrough might be possible in another 10-15 years.)

Yet another nation joining the ranks of the nuclear powers would have severe consequences for peace in the world. More nuclear weapons multiply the chances that these weapons will be used, whether in aggression or retaliation or by accident. The dangers are especially great in the Middle East, where increased tensions and confrontation are likely between a possibly nuclear-armed Iran and the already nuclear-armed Israel.

Further, Iran developing nuclear weapons may encourage other nations to do so. In a narrow sense, an Iranian nuclear arsenal may prompt other nations in the region (Saudi Arabia, for example) that, like Israel, are hostile to Iran to pursue their own nuclear arsenals. In a broader sense, the continued expansion of nations with nuclear weapons weakens the global political taboo against such weapons that agreements such as the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty try to strengthen.[10] The more nations that develop nuclear weapons, the less significant it might seem for yet more nations to do so.

A revived JCPOA is especially worthwhile in the absence of an alternative option. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA failed to produce a better arrangement and encouraged Iranian uranium enrichment. Using military force to stop Iran’s nuclear activities would just begin another destructive conflict in the Middle East. A revived JCPOA is the least bad option available.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.


[1] “Iran Says It Sends ‘Constructive’ Response on Nuclear Deal; U.S. Disagrees,” Reuters, September 1, 2022,

[2] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, March 2022,; Ellie Geranmayeh, “Explainer: The Iran Nuclear Deal,” European Council on Foreign Relations, July 17, 2015,

[3] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance”; Geranmayeh, “Explainer: The Iran Nuclear Deal.”

[4] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance”; “Iran Says It Sends ‘Constructive’ Response on Nuclear Deal.”

[5] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance.”

[6] Francois Murphy, “Exclusive: Iran Steps Up Underground Uranium Enrichment, IAEA Report Says,” Reuters, August 29, 2022,

[7] Jennifer Hansler, Mostafa Salem and Shafi Kakar, “Iran’s Response to Nuclear Deal ‘Not Constructive,’ US State Department Says,” CNN, September 2, 2022,;  Maziar Motamedi, “Are Iran and the West about to Finally Agree a Nuclear Deal?” Al Jazeera, August 20, 2022,

[8] Hansler, Salem, and Kakar, “Iran’s Response to Nuclear Deal ‘Not Constructive.’”

[9] Ibid.

[10] UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” accessed September 7, 2022,    

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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