Donate to RNS

War or peace? For Iran and the United States, it’s time to decide.

A swift return to the JCPOA is our best and only option for dealing with Iran.

A mourner walks back from a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone attack, passing graffiti on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Funeral ceremonies for Soleimani drew a crowd said by police to be in the millions, on Monday in Tehran, where his replacement vowed to take revenge. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

(RNS) — When President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, The Religious Society of Friends — the proper name of the denomination known as Quakers — knew how perilous the decision was. As a faith community with a long tradition of working to prevent nuclear war and arms proliferation, Quakers understood the immense value the pact provided.

The deal was not perfect. It would not — and was not designed to — address all points of contention between the United States and Iran. But it did block the path for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon while simultaneously reducing the risk of yet another war in the Middle East. Importantly, according to U.N. watchdogs, Iran upheld its obligations under the agreement.

Then came President Trump’s withdrawal from the accord. From that moment on, tensions with Iran have continued to escalate dangerously. In early 2020, the United States assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, an action deemed to be in violation of international law, and which resulted in trading of fire that risked plunging the two countries into war. The latest violence flared up in late June when the United States launched airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in both Syria and Iraq.


RELATED: Ebrahim Raisi poised to sweep into Iranian presidency despite weak religious credentials


Diplomacy and peace remain possibilities — but they hang by a thread. If the United States truly intends to achieve peace with Iran, then a swift return to the nuclear deal is the starting point. But Congress must not erect new hurdles. As long as there is no deal, we remain on a path to war and nuclear confrontation.

President Joe Biden, for his part, has said that he wants to rejoin the pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with changes. Negotiators from the JCPOA’s signatories have been meeting in Vienna with the hopes of reviving the agreement. Incremental progress has been made, but officials have warned that talks can’t go on indefinitely.

The fragile state of these talks is compounded by other circumstances. In Congress, the Democratic Party’s platform officially endorses a return to the Iran nuclear deal. Yet a few influential lawmakers have called on President Biden to rejoin the JCPOA only if it were extended to cover a number of non-nuclear issues, including human rights abuses and support for armed non-state actors in the region.

These are critically important issues that need to be addressed. But by drawing a new line in the sand, the United States could end up with no deal at all. The JCPOA was always meant to be the start of a new chapter, an entry point into diplomacy with Iran that would halt its march toward nuclear weapons. We cannot simply close the book on page one.

We also have seen what a world without the Iran nuclear deal looks like. Since our withdrawal, Iran has worked to reduce the “breakout time” needed to develop a nuclear weapon. Our abandonment of the JCPOA has let Iran off the hook.

Further, the previous administration’s maximum pressure campaign, employed after withdrawal from the deal, has wrought terrible consequences on Iranians. The U.S. imposition of broad-based and escalating sanctions has caused immense human suffering by destroying the Iranian economy and severely weakening Iran’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unmistakable truth is that the maximum pressure has proven to be a maximum failure. A swift return to the JCPOA is our best and only option for dealing with Iran.

In 2019, amid rising tensions, I joined a group of Christian leaders in New York to meet with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. In 2007, my predecessor as general secretary of the FCNL, Joe Volk, traveled to Iran to meet with then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss the need for peaceful relations between our two countries. The Friends Committee on National Legislation took these steps because we know how precious peace is — and how important it is for us to raise our voices in uncertain times.


RELATED: New START buys time on nukes. Now let’s start banning them altogether


Now, with negotiations at a crossroads, we are once again compelled to raise our voices. We urge President Biden to prioritize diplomacy over harsh rhetoric and maximum pressure, and we hope lawmakers on Capitol Hill will echo our calls.

Diane Randall. Photo by Jennifer Domenick/Love Life Images, courtesy FCNL

Diane Randall. Photo by Jennifer Domenick/Love Life Images, courtesy FCNL

Nuclear weapons are a threat to all humanity — no matter which country possesses them. Peace is more than the absence of war. Every day, it takes difficult and diligent work. To shy away from this is to invite more violence and uncertainty into an already fraught international environment.

(Diane Randall is the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national, nonpartisan Quaker lobby for peace, justice and the environment. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)