March 5, 2020

The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal

By Anastasia Efimova

After the United States dropped out of the JCPOA in May 2018, replacing the accord with the “maximum pressure” campaign, which triggered Iran’s decision to scale back its commitments through breaching limits on its nuclear program, the deal seems to nearing the collapse despite the remaining parties’ efforts to find the ways to salvage the JCPOA.

Since Iran’s gradual steps away from its commitments to the JCPOA driven by the US restoring crippling economic sanctions lifted by the deal, the two states have been involved in the vicious circle of sabre-rattling and continuous regional confrontation, which have reached the tipping point after the US killing of Qassem Suleimani. The increasing standoff between two states has resulted in Iran’s abandoning of the remaining operational limitations on its nuclear industry, put in place by the JCPOA, and rising considerations about Iran pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

While the tensions between the US and Iran continued to escalate, the deal’s other signatories – Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and China – have been unsuccessfully struggling to find the ways to return the parties to compliance and prevent the deal from collapse.

  JCPOA in a Nutshell

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 between Iran and P5+1 countries (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, the EU and, formerly, the United States). While imposing the restrictions on Teheran’s nuclear activities, it has reiterated its right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to cut back on its nuclear capacities through abandoning two-thirds of its operational centrifuges and 97% of its stockpile of enriched uranium, significantly limiting the level of the uranium enrichment, and halting uranium enrichment at Fordow site. Furthermore, it has permitted the more intrusive IAEA monitoring inspections, including the implementation of the Additional protocol. The deal endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, waived the UN sanctions imposed on Iran. Granting significant economic benefits to Iran through the increase in oil exports and resuming banking transactions, the JCPOA was a significant diplomatic achievement for the regional and international security.

However, the prior diplomatic efforts have whittled away in the aftermath of the US unilateral withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of the crippling sanctions regime, which swept away all the economic incentives for Iran to stick to its commitments envisioned by the deal. Iran has taken steps on rolling back its nuclear commitments through continuously stepping away from the restrictions imposed on its nuclear energy program through exceeding the limits on its enriched uranium and heavy water stockpile (1st  violation, July 2019), uranium enrichment (to 3,67 % uranium -235 to 4,5 %) (2nd breach, July 2019),  abandoning limits on advanced centrifuges (the 3rd breach, September 2019), and resuming enrichment of uranium at the Fordow enrichment facility (the 4th breach, November 2019).

 Implications of Iran’s Violations  

The announcement of the fifth breach of the agreement in January 2020 was followed by the declaration that Teheran’s uranium enrichment program “no longer faced any operational restrictions”. Stating that Iran discards the last key component of its operational limitations imposed by the deal – the caps on operating centrifuges – the Iranian authorities, nevertheless, reiterated the compliance with the IAEA’s safeguards and its Additional Protocol, giving the access to the inspectors.

Although the multiple systematic breaches of the JCPOA significantly undermine the objectives of the deal, they do not pose a near-term risk of nuclear proliferation and do not indicate at Iran’s dashing to a nuclear bomb. To date, Iran’s nuclear activities are still way more restrained than they used to be back in 2013 when Tehran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium reached 7,000 kilograms and used to enrich uranium to 20% at Fordow Enrichment Facility, which implied 2-3 months timeline for Tehran to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb.

The Iranian Foreign Minister’s statement that this was a “revisable action” as well as continuous cooperation with the IAEA safeguards, support the assertion that Iran is trying to leverage in negotiations through putting pressure on the remaining parties to the accord to deliver the sanctions relief as envisioned by the deal.

However, the attempt to put more pressure on the P4+1, particularly on the European signatories, to find the way to restore the economic benefits taken away by the US pulling out of the deal and reimposing sanctions, did not yield desired results.

Following the fifth breach announced by Iran on 5 January, the E3 launched the dispute resolution process, which is laid out in the JCPOA, viewing the dispute resolution mechanism as the only way to incite the Iranian authorities to resume compliance to the JCPOA. However, by invoking such measures, the E3 states are setting in motion a process that might end up in the UN Security Council resulting in the UN sanctions snapping back. This will put at stake the future of the deal and jeopardize the possibility of diplomatic off-ramp with Iran in the future.

What Next?

Hoping that triggering the dispute resolution process would spur Iranian officials to resume the commitments under the JCPOA, the European signatories risk escalating the situation that would jeopardize the future of the deal and might irreversible implications for the regional stability. “It’s a double-edged sword,” as noticed by an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, Ali Vaez.  “In one way, it creates time and space for the remaining parties to the deal to try to salvage it.” At the same time, the plausibility of diplomatic failure and the return of UN sanctions might entail the agreement’s collapse.

So far one of the pillar aspects of the nuclear deal is still in place with the IAEA’s monitoring and verification activities to Iran’s nuclear facilities, assuring that Iran is still far from the breaking out point towards assembling the nuclear weapons. The proliferation risk posed by these violations of the deal is still distant as far as Iran doesn’t resume the enrichment up to 20% uranium -235 and stockpiling the material enriched.

However, the frustration about the failure of the European leaders to relieve the economic strain posed on Teheran by the US sanctions, including a ban on imports of Iranian oil, might have greater implications due to the threats to withdraw from the NPT. This would abrogate the IAEA inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and put an end to the transparency of the Iranian nuclear activities, thus creating an ever-increasing instability and posing the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region.

Conclusion

The negotiations over the Iranian nuclear activities have initially started as an attempt to deradicalize the Islamic Republic of Iran through creating the win-win situation for the international community, on the one hand, through regional de-escalation and reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation, and through ensuring meaningful financial relief for the Iranian side, on the other hand. So far, Iran’s rolling back its nuclear capabilities didn’t deliver any economic benefits.

In case the JCPOA collapses and Iran pulls out of the NPT, there will not be any restrictions on the Iranian nuclear activities, which will entail significant implications for the regional and international stability. This, in turn, could urge the other states of the region to build up their nuclear capabilities, therefore, ruling out any probability of bringing out stability in the already destabilized Middle East and generating a risk of the nuclear arms race in the region.

While it is unlikely that Iran will actually withdraw from the NPT, such allegations should not be ignored. The plausibility of Teheran opting for the DPRK’s scenario, abandoning the NPT and returning to ramping up on its nuclear arsenal in case the pressure on Iran reaches a critical threshold, could undermine the global non–proliferation regime and trigger a nuclear crisis.

Iran’s next steps, as well as the future of the deal and, therefore, the overall situation in the region, depends a lot on the strategy chosen to pursue by its remaining parties. Therefore, it is crucial for the JCPOA signatories to come up with workable solutions on how to bring the parties back to the negotiation table and restore compliance with their obligations envisioned in the JCPOA in order to avoid a crisis over nuclear proliferation being added to an escalating confrontation in the Middle East.

The JCPOA was not intended to resolve all the issues related to Iran’s activities in the region. However, precluding Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons through maintaining the deal alive and returning to the fulfillment of the JCPOA provisions by all its signatories is in every party’s interest. As the former US president Barak Obama, noted, criticizing the Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal, “every aspect of Iranian behavior that is troubling is far more dangerous if their nuclear program is unconstrained.”

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