The fate of the nuclear agreement between Tehran, Brussels and the P5+1 group comprised of the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom as well as Germany has been in limbo after US President Donald Trump announced a new strategy toward Tehran in October.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Monday that he agreed with the foreign ministers of France, the United Kingdom as well as with top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini that the nuclear deal reached in 2015 should be maintained.
“We are united in that we want to maintain an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, otherwise we risk that the state will create nuclear weapons,” Gabriel said after the meeting.
The minister’s speech was broadcast live on the website of the European Commission.
Last week, after consultations in Washington, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherinisaid that the European Union insists that all countries comply with the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, including the United States.
In mid-October, US President Donald Trump said that the White House would work with Congress on the “serious shortcomings” of the international agreement with Iran, and threatened to pull out of the deal if it wasn’t reconsidered.
On July 14, 2015, Iran and six international mediators (the Russian Federation, the United States, Great Britain, China, France and Germany) reached an historic agreement on the settlement of the long-standing problem of Iranian nuclear energy: a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was adopted, the implementation of which lifts previously-introduced economic and financial sanctions against Iran.
Limiting a Nuclear Program: Redlines and Provisions
The JCPOA is a complex document.
Its language was carefully crafted to be acceptable to both sides and to allow them to successfully sell the agreement at home.
It aims to close off the two pathways for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon domestically: using highly enriched uranium or using weapons grade plutonium.
The JCPOA severely restricts Iran’s potential uranium path to the bomb, while virtually closing off its plutonium one.
It also strengthens the monitoring and verification regime in place, thus placing the Iranian nuclear program under the most intrusive inspections regime ever voluntarily agreed to by any party.
Given the politicized and visible nature of certain components of Iran’s nuclear program, the negotiators had to carefully manage both those at the negotiating table and their constituents. Ultimately, they were able to sell the agreement by presenting it as respecting the country’s priorities, framed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as several key redlines.
Those included ensuring the talks be exclusively about the nuclear program; allowing continued research and development; keeping all facilities open and running; and allowing Iran to work toward meeting its practical needs, such as the ability to fuel its nuclear reactors in the future.
For its part, Obama’s team had to navigate Congress, foreign negotiating partners, and the Iranians.
To that end, Obama administration officials framed much of the discussion around several key ideas.
First, the deal was not, as U.S. officials and negotiators often put it, built on trust but on verification.
Second, the United States would lift only nuclear related sanctions.
Third, the Obama administration’s aim was to extend Iran’s so called breakout time—or the time it takes to produce enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon.
Ultimately, both the Obama administration and the Iranian leadership were able to sell the deal as having met their own respective requirements.
Under the JCPOA, the United States and its partners agreed to forgo the notion of “zero enrichment” and to allow Tehran to preserve its uranium enrichment program, while imposing several limits to cap its capabilities for a number of years.
Iran scaled back its enrichment program by moving all such activities exclusively to the Natanz complex, a partially underground fuel enrichment facility in central Iran, while repurposing its Fordow facility, just north of Natanz in the city of Qom, to only conduct research and development.
At Natanz, Iran limited its uranium enrichment to 5,060 first generation centrifuges, reducing by about half its operating centrifuges at the time.
It also agreed to only use those centrifuges to enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent for 10 years, well below the 90 percent enrichment needed for a nuclear weapon.
And for 15 years, Iran agreed not to surpass a stockpile of 300 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride, making it very difficult to surreptitiously enrich excess uranium. The country also agreed to limit research and development pertaining
Although the JCPOA only scales back Tehran’s enrichment program, it effectively closes off its plutonium path to the bomb.
Under the agreement, Iran reiterated its long standing position that it would not seek plutonium reprocessing capabilities, which would be vital to its ability to use plutonium in a nuclear weapon.
It also agreed not to build any more heavy water reactors, instead exclusively acquiring light water reactors—which are not optimal for the production of plutonium for use in a nuclear weapon.
The country is also redesigning the problematic Arak heavy water reactor, which was a source of concern to the international community because of its ability, once completed, to produce a considerable amount of weapons grade plutonium.
These steps effectively extended Iran’s so called breakout time.
To make it more difficult for Tehran to pursue weaponization, the IAEA now has unprecedented access to inspect and monitor virtually every single stage of the fuel cycle, from milling and mining to centrifuge workshops and all declared facilities.
In exchange for the steps Iran takes toward increasing transparency and scaling back key components of its fuel cycle activities, the P5+1 agreed to lift nuclear related sanctions. The deal also provided for Iran’s being able to procure dual use items—or goods that have both military and civilian applications—through a specific channel designated for increased transparency, as well as civilian aircraft, allowing the country to update its aging fleet.
What Are the Deal’s Shortcomings?
Despite these important steps, the JCPOA suffers from a number of shortcomings, stemming from domestic politics in the countries involved and their respective bottom lines, as previously outlined.
First, Iran’s ballistic missile program was declared off the table from the outset.
As a result, one of the three key stages of building a bomb—the development of delivery vehicles—is not covered by the JCPOA. Critics have argued that other parts of Iran’s nefarious activities, including human rights violations and support for terrorism, should also have been addressed by the JCPOA. But the JCPOA’s limited scope was essential to reaching agreement.
Second, the sunset clause of the agreement is another shortcoming. Key provisions within the JCPOA are set to expire after a number of years—different lengths of time are associated with different items, as in the case of limitations on enrichment.
As a result, once all of the JCPOA’s provisions expire in 25 years, Iran’s nuclear program will be considered as that of a normal non nuclear weapon state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—provided that the IAEA can successfully verify full compliance by Tehran.
However, although many of the provisions of the deal will expire gradually, some important checks will remain permanently in place under the NPT and IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (and Additional Protocol, which Tehran pledged to take steps to ratify through its legislative process).
In other words, Iran’s nuclear activities will still be under close scrutiny by the IAEA, which will retain access to key sites, and Tehran will still be obliged to restrict its nuclear program to a civilian one under the NPT.
Third, during the talks, it was already clear that sanctions relief would be a key sticking point in attaining and implementing the deal.
After it was signed, the JCPOA revealed the limitations of sanctions relief.
Because the JCPOA singles out nuclear sanctions, it does not allow the Iranian economy to fully normalize and reintegrate into the international financial system.
The remaining sanctions—imposed by the United States, primarily, for Iran’s human rights abuses and regional activities, including support for terrorism—combined with pending and proposed sanctions have stymied Iran’s economic recovery and discouraged businesses from investing in Iran.
That situation has further undermined support for the deal in Iran.
Fourth, arguably the most significant shortcoming of the JCPOA stems from the fact that it merely caps Iranian fuel cycle activities rather than stopping them altogether. Indeed, it was clear to U.S. negotiators and their P5+1 partners that the zero enrichment policy pursued by the United States in the past was neither viable nor conducive to a negotiated settlement. Instead, the negotiators sought to place limits to extend Tehran’s breakout time and to tighten the verification and monitoring regime.
Some of these shortcomings have undercut support for the deal in Iran and the United States. But they also made the agreement possible and its implementation sustainable. Ultimately, both sides were able to argue that they gained more from the agreement than they conceded and to present it as a “good deal” to their respective constituents.
The JCPOA and the Future of the Islamic Republic
Iranians’ perceptions of the JCPOA have evolved over the past two years. Initially, the populace enthusiastically welcomed the deal, which it saw as the key to its country’s economic and political reintegration into the global community. Within the regime, the nuclear talks enjoyed broad support, especially among its key figures. And once signed, the JCPOA received some criticism but was hailed as both necessary and satisfactory by the majority of the establishment.
Khamenei and Revolutionary Guards commanders cautiously praised the negotiators but also warned that America could not be trusted. Throughout the process, Khamenei was careful not to implicate himself too directly, even though he was made aware of every detail of it. As a senior Iranian negotiator noted, the supreme leader is not one to micromanage foreign policy issues, but in the case of the nuclear talks, he was very much involved every step of the way.
In the weeks and months after the deal was signed, Khamenei gradually distanced himself from the agreement.
That move opened the door to substantial criticism by hard liners, who accused the Rouhani government of having negotiated with the United States for nothing.
Rouhani had made too many concessions and achieved too little, hard liners argued. And as most Iranians did not feel the trickle down effect of sanctions relief, the broader population also began to shift from its initial enthusiasm to a “wait and see” approach, before becoming more pessimistic that the deal would not lead to economic recovery.
Two years later, the JCPOA has lost some support, for several reasons. First, the Rouhani government initially oversold its ability to generate economic recovery after the deal and failed to manage expectations properly.24 The slow pace of sanctions relief reinforced the idea that the United States is unlikely to change its policies toward Tehran, regardless of what Iranians do. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, for example, has been slow to issue licenses to companies like Boeing and Airbus, delaying planned deals to update Iran’s aging and unsafe commercial airline fleet.
Second, to make matters worse, some of the rhetoric and reports coming out of Washington only exacerbate the feeling in Iran that the United States is not pursuing the deal in good faith, instead looking for “excuses” to further isolate Iran.
For example, President Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May 2017 and his statement there, largely focused on Iran, sent a clear message of animosity to Iranians, who were voting in the 2017 presidential elections at the time.
The president stated, “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”
Likewise, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “White House officials said they expect the U.S. won’t withdraw from the nuclear deal, but enforce it to the letter and possibly reinstate sanctions that were lifted as part of the accord under different reasons, such as human rights abuses or Iran’s ballistic missile tests.”
As a result, even though many in Iran do not see eye to eye with their government, and mock and criticize its anti American stance and rhetoric, they increasingly see sanctions as indiscriminate, targeting the entire population regardless of Iranian policy.
And the “sticks and carrots” approach is merely seen as “sticks and more sticks” by Iranians.
They blame the United States, not their own government, for antagonistic U.S. policies and rhetoric.
The Rouhani government has taken steps to remedy lingering economic grievances by highlighting the importance of cleaning up Iran’s financial and business sectors. As a result, it has announced plans to tackle regulatory reform, corruption, mismanagement, the lack of transparency, and the extensive political and economic influence of the Revolutionary Guards.
Rouhani has also argued for the “JCPOA 2,” which would allow the country to seek additional sanctions relief to further boost the economy.30 But these are not quick fixes.
Despite the drop in enthusiasm, Iranians accept the JCPOA as the law of the land. Iranians of all stripes, including hard liners, recognize that even though the agreement is flawed, it is here to stay and should be implemented properly. Where conservatives differ from moderates and reformists today is on the future approach to the JCPOA.
Notwithstanding the fraught politics around it, the JCPOA has opened some venues for engagement and cooperation, welcomed by Iranians. Since 2015, the European Union, led by High Representative Federica Mogherini, has held a series of talks with Tehran on a number of vital issues of contention between the Islamic Republic and the international community, including its ballistic missile program, regional activities, support for terrorist groups throughout the Middle East, and human rights abuses.31 These talks have been approved, and even welcomed, by all quarters of the regime, including hard liners. For example, the hard line head of the Iranian judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, has been kept informed on the human rights discussions and has accepted them.32 This type of engagement, especially with buy in on this level, is critical in helping change Iranian behavior in various areas.