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Context of recent developments in the Iran Nuclear Deal

April 29, 2018

There has been a flurry of activity recently regarding possible reintroduction of sanctions against Iran if President Trump decertifies the Nuclear Deal on May 12th. President Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both visited the White House in the last week in hopes of saving the agreement to which both France and Germany are signatories. The issues are complex and thoughtful opinions vary. The coming days may see dramatic American policy shifts toward Iran. Here I give some context to the recent developments, while at the same time highlighting some disagreements among allies, and what issues are at the center of the discussions.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

On July 14, 2015 Iran signed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) with the United States, the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK) and Germany. Frequently referred to as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”, it is the culmination of years of diplomatic efforts mainly by the three European countries (E3) in the face of extreme reticence by the United States. President Obama, through Secretary of State John Kerry, made significant concessions on earlier American demands on Iran (most especially, allowing limited uranium enrichment, and implementing sunset clauses) to enable the deal to take place. In return, Iran made significant concessions that curtailed its ability to pursue nuclear weapons, or to become “nuclear pregnant”. The JCPOA is designed to keep “break-out time” to more than one year for Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons (Cronberg 2017).

Provisions of JCPOA include (JCPOA 2015)

– Iran can continue to enrich Uranium, but in the first ten years enrichment is allowed only up to 3.67% of U-238, far below the enrichment level needed to straightforwardly construct a nuclear bomb.

– significant reduction in Iran’s stockpile of uranium.

– enrichment activity in the first 15 years can only be at one facility (Natanz) with limited technology (5060 IR-1 centrifuges with under 30 cascades utilized). For higher grade uranium fuel (~20%), which is needed in the Tehran Research Reactor, Iran must obtain it from Russia.

– R&D on enrichment is forbidden for eight years.

– Iran agrees to follow the Additional Protocol, which is a rigorous extension to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with accompanying heightened inspection openness.

– Reprocessing of nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium is forbidden.

– The signatories agree to end economic sanctions against Iran related to its nuclear program.

President Trump’s Dissatisfaction with JCPOA

President Trump has recently implied that on May 12th the United States will pull out of the agreement, and seek to reinstate nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.  The mechanism to do this arises out of the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015”, which was overwhelmingly passed by Congress a couple of months before JCPOA was signed (Iran Review Act 2015). The act requires the President to “certify” every 90 days Iran’s compliance with any agreement that may come (JCPOA). President Trump signed the certification in January 2018 and said that it would be his last waiver unless JCPOA were changed. He set a deadline of May 12th.

There are several key provisions that the Trump administration demands be changed. Most importantly, the Trump administration wants no sunset clauses on enrichment. Under JCPOA Iran will be lifted of many key restrictions in ten to twenty years that would enable significant gains in enrichment with no threats of sanctions or barriers. Enrichment to weapons grade uranium is the key step to achieving nuclear weapons, as it is hard to do this covertly compared to other steps (Davenport & Philipp 2016). An agreement now that implicitly accepts Iran’s ability to achieve that in time is unacceptable to many who cite Iran’s recent past nuclear perfidy, its involvement in state sponsored terrorism, and threats to annihilate Israel.

The U.S. sees enrichment activities by a bad-actor state as inherently possessing military intent, whereas the EU has argued more narrowly that enrichment is a right of all countries almost regardless of the country’s behavior. The EU has made clear, however, that their position would align more with the U.S. regarding enrichment if there were stronger evidences of current military intent of Iran’s nuclear program. All agree that Iran had this intent prior to 2003 (Cronberg 2017).

Justifying Termination of JCPOA

It is one thing to not like the agreement that was just signed, but it is another to find a legitimate reason to terminate it. The agreement can be terminated if it is found that Iran is not complying with its terms. This termination can happen legitimately by mere majority of the JCPOA signatories (JCPOA 2015; Gordon & Sanger 2015). However, the IAEA has certified multiple times since JCPOA was signed that Iran is complying, including most recently in February 2018 (IAEA 2018). However, the Trump administration charges that Iran has failed to comply with the “spirit” of the agreement (Parker 2017), which gives the U.S. the right to terminate it. Other signatories to JCPOA do not agree that the U.S. has the right to terminate the agreement, since it is a multilateral one. However, U.S. withdrawal, with its resulting imposed sanctions and secondary sanctions on those that do business with Iran, would effectively kill the agreement, and would eliminate all attractiveness to Iran to stay within it.

It what ways is Iran violating the spirt of the agreement according to the US? In September 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cited the preface of JCPOA, which discusses “regional and international peace and security”, and he said, “In our view, Iran is clearly in default of these expectations … through their actions to prop up the Assad regime (in Syria), to engage in malicious activities in the region, including cyber activities, aggressively developing ballistic missiles” (BBC 2017). However, the text of JCPOA in question (appended at end of this sentence) is seen by others as boilerplate text on hoped-for inevitable results of the agreement, not a commitment or requirement to do something more than the technical tasks associated with the nuclear program: “They [signatories] anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security” (JCPOA 2015).

Primacy of NPT

Another line of argument by the United States might best be characterized as an appeal to the primacy of the NPT under long-standing American interpretation, according to which the NPT language at least implies that any demonstration of military intent for nuclear weapons by a non-nuclear weapon state eliminates its rights to enrich uranium.  If Iran could be argued to have military intent, the NPT would supersede the JCPOA and trigger the effective termination of JCPOA. Iran’s failure to report its illicit nuclear activities pre-2003 constituted this trigger among the E3 before JCPOA was negotiated and signed (Cronberg 2017:54). Currently, the aggressive pursuit of ballistic missiles by Iran is interpreted by some to warrant maintaining, or rather re-invoking, the zero enrichment policy toward Iran. However, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a January 2018 interview with CNN appears to have wished to separate the nuclear issues of JCPOA from other problematic issues associated with Iran, such as its ballistic missile program, its destabilizing activities in the region, and sponsorship of terrorism (CNN 2018). Sanctions regimes can be tied to each of those issues, without terminating JCPOA. This was an apparent break from his previous support of the president, when he said in September 2017 that Iran was “clearly in default” of JCPOA (BBC 2017; Wadhams 2017). Tillerson was fired March 13, 2018.

Containing Iran

Finally, perhaps the most significant worry for many is that Iran already projects itself strongly in the region in ways that the US sees as destabilizing and destructive. As it rises out of the economic sanctions its economic and military power will only intensify, leading to more meddling and more destabilization of Western interests. Its power was reined in by heavy world-wide economic sanctions associated with its earlier secretive nuclear aspirations. Keeping Iran economically shackled is seen by some in the West as being in the West’s best interest, but through the passage of JCPOA the West is letting Iran rise again. And when it becomes economically more powerful, the sunsetting clauses of JCPOA fade out and Iran will be freer to pursue a program that could lead to nuclear weapons. Under the current pact, it appears inevitable to some that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons in time, and that is what worries the Trump administration officials. Any pretext to kill JCPOA is thought to be justified by those worries. However, a nuclear weaponized Iran appeared to many even more inevitable before JCPOA, and global insecurity is more likely to increase without JCPOA, which leads many to hope it is not terminated.

No Alternative?

The prevailing view among many diplomats in favor of retaining JCPOA is summarized by Peter Mattig, Germany’s Ambassador to the United States,  “We don’t think it will be possible to renegotiate it [JCPOA] and we believe there is no practical, peaceful alternative to this deal” (Sen 2017). The United States’s new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, agrees. But he may have less reluctance to non-peaceful alternatives, as evidenced by his 2015 New York Times op-ed,  “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” (Bolton 2015). Difficult days lie ahead.


BBC (2017). “Trump: Iran ‘atrocious’ at sticking to spirit of nuclear deal”. BBC.com (14 September 2017). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41274483

Bolton (2015). “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” NY Times (26 March 2015). https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/opinion/to-stop-irans-bomb-bomb-iran.html

CNN (2018). “Transcript: CNN’s exclusive interview with Rex Tillerson”, CNN.com (5 January 2018). https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/05/politics/rex-tillerson-transcript/index.html

Cronberg, T (2017). Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside EU Negotiations. Routledge.

Davenport, K. & Philipp, E. (2016), “A French view on the Iran deal: and interview with Ambassador Gérard Araud,” Arms Control Today (5 July 2016).

Gordon, M.R. & Sanger, D.E. (2015). “Deal Reached on Iran Nuclear Program; Limits on Fuel Would Lessen with Time,” NY Times (14 July 2015).

IAEA (2018). “Verification and monitoring on the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2331 (2015)”, Report by the Director General, GOV/2018/7 (22 February 2018). https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/18/03/gov-2018-7-derestricted.pdf

Iran Review Act (2015). “H.R. 1191 — Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015,” passed May 5, 2015. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1191

JCPOA (2015). Joint Comprensive Plan of Action, Vienna, 14 July 2015. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/245317.pdf

Parker, A. (2017). “Trump says Iran has not ‘lived up to the spirit’ of the nuclear agreement.” Washington Post (20 April 2017).

Sen, A.K. (2017). What are the implications of decertification of the Iran Nuclear Deal?” The Atlantic Council (10 October 2017).

Wadhams, N. (2017). “Tillerson Says Iran ‘Clearly in Default’ of Nuclear Deal’s Terms”, Bloomberg.com (14 September 2017) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-14/tillerson-says-iran-clearly-in-default-of-iran-deal-s-terms


Photo from rally on September 9, 2015 (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GETTY)

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