By Cesar Jaramillo
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 1 Spring 2021
Donald Trump opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal) even before he became President of the United States. Despite his hostility, the deal survived his term in office, although not unscathed. Now new President Joe Biden is cautiously optimistic that it can be salvaged. But steps to preserve the deal must be taken immediately, before the already narrow window of opportunity fully closes.
The 2015 deal between Iran and the P5 (permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany and the European Union was intended to limit Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear warhead, ensure strict international verification that Iran was observing those limits, and provide Iran with sanctions relief. While Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes and there is no evidence to the contrary, Iran has not been fully transparent about the nature of this program.
Iran had a growing stockpile of uranium, an increasing number of centrifuges (including new-generation machines), a deeply bunkered enrichment facility, and a nearly completed research reactor. Iran contended that it had the right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium to achieve the benefits of nuclear energy. Still, the international community was right to require assurances that Iran’s nuclear-related activities did not have a military dimension.
Under the JCPOA, for the first 15 years, Iran was not to enrich uranium beyond the level of 3.67 per cent purity, sufficient to produce the low-enriched uranium used in nuclear power stations, but well below weapons-grade. Iran would put more than two-thirds of its centrifuges into storage and limit enrichment capacity to a single plant.
Iran agreed to inspections of its past nuclear-related work by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which had to certify Iranian cooperation before any sanctions relief could take place. And Iran agreed to implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocol agreement, which granted the nuclear watchdog virtually unrestricted access to Iran’s facilities.
For their part, the other parties to the agreement maintained the critical prerogative to react swiftly and sternly to any perceived failure to comply by Iran. Sanctions could be reinstated.
The JCPOA as negotiated was seen by many—including Project Ploughshares—as a pragmatic, robust, and verifiable agreement. Despite some predictable opposition, the deal was loudly applauded by the international community for addressing legitimate concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, while lowering tensions and avoiding military confrontation.
On May 8, 2018, President Trump attempted to squeeze more concessions from Iran by announcing the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA and the imposition of increasingly stringent U.S. economic sanctions. The Trump administration also called on states that had eased sanctions against Iran to re-impose them.
By withdrawing from the agreement, the United States violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the legal framework for the nuclear deal. The resolution called on states “to take such actions as may be appropriate to support” the deal and to refrain from “actions that undermine implementation of commitments.” Unilateral withdrawal clearly undermined implementation.
Before the U.S. withdrawal, the IAEA had repeatedly and consistently certified Iran’s full compliance. Since the withdrawal, however, Iran has moved away from compliance and has resumed some proscribed nuclear activities.
It is important to recognize that the incentives attached to compliance were removed BEFORE Iran stopped meeting all its obligations under the deal. The remaining parties to the agreement were unable to offset the economic and political impact of U.S. withdrawal and thus could not persuade Iran to return to compliance.
The election of Joe Biden as President of the United States has spurred hope that the Iran nuclear deal might be revived. Certainly Biden is familiar with the file: he was Barack Obama’s vice-president when the JCPOA was negotiated.
The new administration has already made a successful foray into nuclear security territory. The future of the New START Treaty—a bilateral nuclear arms reduction agreement between the United States and Russia—was in doubt under Trump but was rescued soon after President Biden assumed office. Set to expire in early 2021, the treaty has been extended until 2026.
On February 18, State Department officials signalled that the United States would be ready to accept an invitation from the European Union to re-engage with all the remaining parties to the JCPOA—including Iran—in talks specifically aimed at bringing all parties into compliance with their commitments.
Iranian officials have indicated that Iran would be prepared to return to full compliance. And so, salvaging the deal seems possible. But the thorny issue of sequencing might yet derail everyone’s hopes. Both the United States and Iran are demanding that the other make the first move.
On the day that the United States announced its willingness to participate in the EU talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran would return to compliance only after the United States lifted the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. “Remove the cause if you fear the effect,” said Zarif. “We’ll follow ACTION w/ action.” But the Biden administration expects Iran to fully comply with the nuclear deal before it starts to lift sanctions.
Let us hope that the meetings proposed by the European Union can offer a solution to this standoff. With good faith among the key stakeholders, a solution seems possible—if not certain.
Photo: Representatives of (from left) China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announce the framework of the Iranian nuclear deal in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April 2015.