JCPOA: A deal undone

Cesar Jaramillo Featured, Nuclear Weapons

In a widely expected move, on May 8, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the immediate U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) and the imposition of increasingly stringent economic sanctions against Iran.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 2 Summer 2018 by Cesar Jaramillo

Not once in a 10-minute address did he point to a single concrete instance of noncompliance by Iran with the terms of the deal. The reason: there was nothing to denounce.
The international community, including the U.S. intelligence community, agree that Iran has fully complied with its obligations under the deal reached three years ago between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). A thorough, robust, and verifiable agreement was reached.

Viewed skeptically by some (Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu labelled the agreement a “historic surrender”), the JCPOA constituted a redeeming victory for modern diplomacy.

A solid deal

Following nearly two years of protracted negotiations, the JCPOA was the best the negotiators could achieve.

It addressed legitimate concerns about the direction of Iran’s nuclear energy program—in particular, the possibility that it could be diverted to produce nuclear warheads. Iran had a growing stockpile of uranium, an increase in the number of centrifuges (including new-generation machines), a deeply bunkered enrichment facility, and a nearly completed research reactor.

Pre-deal, Iran had restricted UN inspections and remained reluctant to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, which granted the nuclear watchdog virtually unrestricted access.

Under the deal, Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium stockpile by 98 per cent. It agreed not to enrich uranium for the first 15 years after the deal went into effect beyond the level of 3.67 per cent purity, needed to produce the low-enriched uranium (LEU) used in nuclear power stations.

Iran placed more than two-thirds of its centrifuges in storage, with enrichment capacity limited to a single plant. Critically, Iran will implement the IAEA Additional Protocol agreement that will continue as long as Iran remains a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The deal did allow Iran to present reservations to IAEA requests to inspect suspicious facilities. In such cases, an arbitration committee made up of the P5+1 and Iran would decide. Some critics were concerned that the time allowed for this process would give Iran the opportunity to conceal any wrongdoing. But negotiators clearly took into account the IAEA’s technical means and expertise to detect and assess recent nuclear activity.

Perhaps most importantly, under the deal, the P5+1 maintained the prerogative to react swiftly and sternly to any perceived undue obstructions from Iran. Sanctions could be reinstated.

Why withdraw if no violations?

Both of Iran’s regional arch-rivals—Saudi Arabia and Israel—are close U.S. economic and military allies.

Israel has long railed against the deal. As early as 1992, current Prime Minister Netanyahu (then a Member of Parliament) warned that Iran was “3 to 5 years” from acquiring nuclear weapons. In 2003, the Jerusalem Post reported that “Iran will have an operative nuclear weapons program by 2005.” In 2009, Netanyahu told a U.S. Congressional Delegation that Iran was “one or two months away from a bomb.” In 2012, he presented a cartoon of a bomb with the fuse lit up before the UN General Assembly.

Trump seems especially receptive to Israel’s concerns. And he had made a campaign promise to withdraw from the JCPOA.

Widespread implications

As the United States engages North Korea in high-profile talks over the latter’s nuclear weapons program, U.S. behaviour vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear deal will certainly be considered by North Korea’s leadership.

This decision has put the United States at odds with close allies on a key foreign policy issue. The re-imposition of sanctions directly affects the interests of European companies keen to do business with Iran. Some might have to choose between doing business in the United States (if trade wars permit) and doing business in Iran.

The JCPOA has served not only to defuse the stalemate over the Iranian nuclear program, but has also laid a foundation for increasingly normalized interactions between the Islamic Republic and the West. The negotiation process itself represented a rare example of rapprochement between serious adversaries, which could help overcome a history of mutual transgression and utter mistrust. All good will gained could be lost.

Parting thoughts

Yes, the JCPOA is necessary and addresses legitimate proliferation concerns. But let us not forget the profound double standards upon which it is founded. Each of the P5+1 nations has nuclear weapons stationed in their territory. Israel is the only Middle East state actually in possession of nuclear weapons, and one of only four outliers to the nearly universal Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the end, stiff opposition to the deal has never been tantamount to extensive opposition. The JCPOA was broadly welcomed by the international community as a highly promising path to address tensions around Iran’s nuclear program, and as an alternative to potential military escalation. But the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia as support, could well derail the best diplomatic attempt thus far to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran.

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