A third way?

Yet, somewhere between a costly war and an unlikely regime change lies a third possibility, one that would require Trump to explore diplomacy. He changed course with North Korea; he could do the same with Iran.

The Trump administration’s criticism of the JCPOA was more right than wrong. While the agreement did reduce Iran’s nuclear capabilities and increase the time it would need to develop nuclear weapons, the constraints it accepted were relatively short-lived, being due to expire over the next decade.

Iranian flags flutter during an inauguration ceremony for new equipment and infrastructure on 25 February 2019 at the Shahid Beheshti Port in the south-eastern Iranian coastal city of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman (photo: Getty Images/AFP/A. Kenare)
As U.S. sanctions begin to bite: facing a host of challenges, Iran is looking to an isolated port in the country's far southeast to maintain the flow of goods. The port in Chabahar, only about 100 kilometres from the Pakistan border and located on the Indian Ocean, is Iran's largest outside the Gulf. It is also the only Iranian port with exemptions from unilateral economic sanctions re-imposed by the United States in 2018

At that point, Iran could remain within the accord, yet put into place all it would need to build a nuclear inventory with little or no warning. This did not justify U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, especially given that Iran was in compliance with it, but it does make a strong case for renegotiation.

That opportunity still exists. Despite the failure of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent attempt to mediate between the U.S. and Iran, diplomatic prospects have arguably improved, in part because the sanctions are biting. The Trump administration has expressed a willingness to talk with Iran’s government without preconditions. Iran has so far rejected talks, but that might change if the U.S. indicated that a degree of sanctions relief would be on the table.

Policy change, not regime change

The time has come for such a diplomatic overture. Think of it as JCPOA 2.0. The accord’s provisions restraining Iran’s nuclear activities – above all its centrifuges and nuclear fuel – would be extended well into the future. A revised agreement would also restrain Iran’s ballistic missile programme. In return, Iran would receive relief from many of the sanctions that have been introduced.

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