The future of the Iran deal looks uncertain. The remaining members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) having expressed their firm opposition to President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal this May and the administration’s reinstatement of sanctions against Iran in August. The current signatories of the JCPOA need to work together to preserve the deal and restore Iran’s shaken confidence to restore a policy obstruction to Iran’s path to building nuclear weapons. A coordinated international effort that protects legitimate economic business with Iran is needed, as U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA jeopardizes Iran’s compliance with limitations on its nuclear program going forward.
The JCPOA, reached in July of 2015 between Iran and the P5+1, consisting of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany, proved essential to impeding Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. Iran significantly reduced its quantities of enriched uranium, centrifuges, and weapons-grade plutonium. The deal mandated that Iran reduce its uranium stockpile by 98 percent and abide by a 3.67 percent cap on uranium enrichment for 15 years. The deal called for a two-thirds reduction in Iran’s centrifuges for 10 years and permits the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iran’s nuclear facilities to conduct inspections and ensure compliance. On January 16 2016, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had met its agreements within the JCPOA, and all nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the European Union, and the United States were lifted. The U.S. Treasury Department estimated the value of Iran’s frozen assets to be roughly $56 billion, but estimates widely vary.
Much of the negative commentary regarding the JCPOA relates to the limited duration of the deal and Iran’s troubling behavior as a whole. Opponents of the deal argue against the agreement’s “sunset clauses,” in which certain provisions of the deal expire. Restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment are set to expire in 2030, while restrictions on Iran’s centrifuges will expire in 2025. The longest duration of key clauses in the deal is 15 years, with some clauses expiring in 10. Critics argue that a deal in which limitations on Iran’s nuclear program ultimately expire is not worth the concessions granted to Iran, and they maintain that the lifting of economic sanctions will financially enable Iran to now do whatever it wants. Dissenters also raise issue with key issues the nuclear deal does not address such as Iran’s anti-American rhetoric, its threats to Israel, and its overall destabilizing influence in the Middle East. President Trump’s fervent criticism of the deal preceded his decision, with Trump labeling the JCPOA “defective at its core” in his announcement of U.S. withdrawal.
Concerns of a financially robust Iran that is better equipped to potentially conduct harmful activities in the Middle East are valid, but critics of the JCPOA fail to concede that few alternatives to the deal existed considering Iran’s advanced nuclear capabilities prior to the JCPOA adoption. At the time of the deal’s negotiation, Iran’s nuclear program had a breakout period of a mere three months, and reaching an agreement was therefore essential in prolonging this alarmingly short span. Despite concerns of Iran’s behavior following the adoption of the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the principal monitoring authority on Iran’s nuclear program, has consistently asserted that Iran is adhering to the terms of the JCPOA since its implementation in 2016. Although Iran has committed several infractions relating to its heavy water cap, experts point to Iran’s recent rigid compliance in this regard. Although small infractions of the JCPOA’s highly technical specifications are inevitable, international experts are in agreement that Iran is complying with the deal — a confirmation possible through the IAEA’s unprecedented international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The reinstatement of U.S. sanctions will be a point of contention between the United States and members of the P5+1 who have strongly criticized Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA, particularly France, Germany, and the UK. Unilateral U.S. sanctions are unlikely to be as effective as pre-JCPOA international sanctions. Currently, eight countries, including China, India, and Turkey have secured waivers from the United States, allowing them to continue importing oil from Iran. Additionally, the EU issued a blocking statute to protect European businesses from the effects of extra-territorial U.S. sanctions. Countries not party to the JCPOA will likely continue seeking exemptions from the United States to continue business with Iran. However, the reinstatement of U.S. sanctions will ultimately damage Iran’s economy and devastate Iran’s oil sector once sanctions target its oil exports in November.
The remaining members of the P5+1 face pressure to safeguard the deal and preserve Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA. This can be done in several ways. Firstly, remaining members must be vocal in their commitment to the nuclear deal in a show of good faith to Iran despite U.S. withdrawal. Secondly, the EU must lead the way in maintaining European business ventures with Iran to prevent a retaliatory response by Iran that would likely involve the resumption of uranium enrichment activities. The EU could accomplish this by continuing the blocking statute to protect European firms conducting legitimate business with Iran, establishing direct credit transfers to Iran’s central bank to circumvent U.S. sanctions, and formulating an economic package for Iran that could offset the effects of sanctions. Iran’s continued compliance with the JCPOA is not guaranteed in the face of crippling U.S. sanctions and isolation from international financial markets. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remarked in June that Iran would increase its uranium enrichment capacity in the event that the JCPOA does not survive following U.S. withdrawal. This outcome would be disastrous and could potentially spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East coupled with deteriorating relations between Iran and the United States.
To preserve the deal, the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, and particularly the EU must establish viable economic options for Iran to benefit from its continued participation in the JCPOA while confirming Iran’s compliance with the deal’s restrictions. A mutually advantageous agreement is the only way to ensure that Iran will continue reigning in its troubling nuclear program. Many hail the JCPOA as an international security breakthrough for a reason — it accomplished the feat of extending the impending breakout time of Iran’s nuclear program and securing unparalleled access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. The deal also created the prospect of improved relations between Iran and members of the P5+1. The remaining members of the JCPOA therefore must preserve these milestones, previously thought of as unattainable, and build upon the JCPOA diplomatic framework to ensure Iran’s willingness to curtail its nuclear program. If not, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will increasingly threaten international security and further deteriorate already strained relations between Iran and the United States.
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Jennifer Thompson is an M.A. Candidate in the Security Policy Studies program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Her research interests are primarily in the Middle East with a focus on counterterrorism. Jennifer received her B.A. in International Affairs and minor in English from George Washington University in 2011.