The future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Iran nuclear deal — is uncertain. In the absence of US leadership, representatives of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Russia and Iran met on September 1 in Vienna to discuss the accord.
The deal, which imposes limitations on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program, was agreed in July 2015 between the Iranians and the P5+1 group — China, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — and implemented six months later. The deal was struck when the Obama administration was in the White House following years of negotiations. The JCPOA gave Iran relief from international economic sanctions in return for dismantling major parts of its nuclear program and giving access to its facilities for inspection.
Reworking US Policy in the Middle East and North Africa
Yet ever since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in November 2016, the future of the JCPOA has hung in the balance. Trump made it a campaign promise to pull out of the Iran deal. He kept his word and officially withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, saying the deal is “defective” and did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its interference in the affairs of other countries in the Middle East.
Washington has since reinstated US sanctions on Iran and sought to penalize any nation doing trade with the Iranians, which has led to widespread criticism. In response, Iran has resumed its uranium enrichment at the Fordow nuclear plant, which is banned under the JCPOA.
The events surrounding the Iran deal have seen their ups and downs, but one thing is for sure: The collapse of the JCPOA is in no one’s best interest.
A Rocky Year
Several incidents have marked 2020 as a critical year for Iran. In January, the US assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike in Baghdad, which led to a further escalation in tensions. In response, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “Severe revenge awaits the criminals.” The Iranians later revealed they would no longer comply with the limits set to uranium enrichment under the nuclear deal.
In July, a fire broke out in Natanz, Iran’s enrichment site. The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization claimed the explosion was the result of “sabotage,” and officials further stressed that the incident “could slow the development of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.” Both the assassination of Soleimani and the explosion in Natanz have rocked the nuclear deal, which is standing on its last legs.
Making Promises and Breaking Them
The JCPOA is not the first international agreement the US has withdrawn from under the Trump administration. In August 2019, the US officially pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an agreement signed by Washington and Moscow in 1987 that sought to eliminate the arsenals of short and intermediate-range missiles of both countries. Russia reciprocated and called the INF Treaty “formally dead.” Just months later, in May 2020, the US announced its decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an accord that allows unarmed aerial surveillance flights over dozens of countries.
When it comes to bilateral agreements, the world has experienced challenges with enforcing arms control and nonproliferation agreements, particularly since Trump was elected. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) — which, despite its own uncertainty, is the last remaining arms control pact between the US and Russia — is one clear example. The fact that Trump wants to strike a new deal with Iran but is quick to pull the trigger at torpedoing international agreements — including the 2015 Paris Climate Accord — does not bode well for building trust with the Iranians.
Considering that US–Iran diplomatic relations are a nonstarter under the Trump administration, the result of the US presidential election on November 3 will be critical. President Trump has promised to reach a new deal with Iran “within four weeks” if he is reelected. If he wins, his administration would have to reshape its approach toward Iran in a constructive way to meet the timeline he has set. On the other hand, if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins, his administration would likely rejoin the JCPOA, as well as seek additional concessions from Tehran. In a recent op-ed for CNN, Biden stated, “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
Biden served as the vice president under the previous Obama administration, which, together with the P5+1 group, negotiated the JCPOA back in 2015. Therefore, it is safe to say that the future of the nuclear deal might just rest on the outcome of the US election.
A Regional Arms Race
For now, however, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA has weakened the impact of the accord. More importantly, the near-collapse of the deal could have a direct impact on the next Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Review Conference in 2021, potentially drawing criticism from non-nuclear-weapon states that may wish to pursue civilian programs of their own.
The JCPOA is not only important for global nonproliferation efforts, but also for stability in the Middle East. The complete failure of the deal would have severe implications. It would make neighboring countries feel less secure. As a result, this would encourage not just states but potentially non-state actors — such as terrorist groups — to focus on developing nuclear weapons. This would lead to an arms race in the geostrategic Middle East.
Developing a civilian nuclear program is a long and expensive process that involves extensive oversight by international bodies. Therefore, while it may be an unlikely scenario, regional states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may think that nuclear weapons are essential for national security due to their rivalry with Iran and start building their own arsenal. The potential collapse of the JCPOA clearly has global ramifications that could be catastrophic for nuclear nonproliferation.
Sanctions on Iran
On August 20, France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement saying they do not support the US request for the UN Security Council to initiate the “snapback mechanism” of the JCPOA, which would reimpose the international sanctions against Iran that were lifted in 2015. As the US is no longer a party to the JCPOA, it has limited influence over its enforcement. Therefore, the Security Council rejected the US move.
The Iranian economy was already fragile before President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, and US-enforced sanctions are further complicating the situation. High living costs, a deep recession and plummeting oil exports are just the tip of the iceberg.
The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) is seen as an important mechanism to organize trade between Germany, France and Britain on the one side, and Iran on the other. INSTEX allows European companies to do business with Iran and bypass US sanctions. On March 31, these three European countries confirmed that INSTEX had “successfully concluded its first transaction, facilitating the export of medical goods from Europe to Iran.”
Although INSTEX can be helpful for Iran, US sanctions have dealt a fatal blow to the country’s economy. According to the World Bank, Iran’s GDP “contracted by 7.6% in the first 9 months of 2019/20 (April-December 2019),” mostly due to a 37% drop in the oil sector.
For the US, sanctions are a strategic way to deter Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Yet they can also be counterproductive. Iran is aware of the strategic benefit the JCPOA has for other states. This includes global and regional security. In this regard, the joint statement on upholding the nuclear deal during the recent meeting in Vienna came as no surprise. But if multilateral sanctions are reimposed, that could be the final straw for Iran. This may lead the Iranians to walk away from the JCPOA and up the game with its nuclear program.
With all of this in mind, it is vital that the remaining parties to the JCPOA continue with constructive dialogue to try to uphold the agreement. Everyone benefits from the deal, and its success depends on each side’s fulfillment of their responsibilities and commitments, particularly Iran’s full compliance.
Most importantly, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is necessary for the future of nuclear nonproliferation. If the deal collapses, then the world enters uncharted territory.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.