Deal or No Deal: What Should Be the Fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?

By Farnaz Alimehri 

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 has been labeled one of the Obama Administration’s culminating achievements in foreign policy and nonproliferation. Despite the successful negotiation and implementation of this agreement by all parties last year, political divisions in the United States and Iran remain strong. Politicians in Washington have been fighting the deal since its inception. The latest attempts to renegotiate the deal claim that it does not do enough to limit Iran’s nuclear program.[i] Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman and former ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace have stated that, “the Iranian regime has made clear it has no intent to honor the spirit or letter of the JCPOA.”[ii] President-elect Donald Trump himself declared he would “tear up the deal” once he arrives in the Oval Office.[iii]

Similar messages echo in Tehran, with some Iranian negotiators of the agreement arguing that the United States has not done its part to promote economic recovery for Iranians. They also assert that the United States has refused to honor the “spirit of the deal,” criticizing the decision by the U.S. Senate to expand the Iranian sanctions regime for the next ten years. This sparked a firm response from Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who assured there would be retaliation if the new sanctions were to be applied on Iran.[iv] With skepticism steeping in both countries, will the deal survive? It’s difficult to ascertain one way or another, but one can analyze the critics’ proposals to determine if there is an alternative pathway moving forward.

Renegotiating the Deal

Many have proposed renegotiation as a possible solution to the “bad” nuclear accord, but this is founded on a presumption that the deal is renegotiable. In reality, the JCPOA is not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the United States. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China are also parties to this agreement, so the United States cannot move unilaterally to renegotiate. Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and a principal negotiator of the JCPOA, has made public statements reminding President-elect Trump that, “the Iran deal is a multilateral accord, not a U.S. bargaining chip.”[v]

Furthermore, renegotiation of the JCPOA assumes that the Iranians will be keen to return to the negotiating table at all. Iran has taken many measures to implement the deal, some of which are irreversible. For example, they have maintained a low enriched uranium (up to 3.67% purity) stockpile at 300kg, which amounts to a 98% reduction of their uranium stockpile from pre-JCPOA levels.[vi] Additionally, Iranians filled in the core of the Arak heavy water reactor with concrete on January 11, 2016.[vii] They are also currently undergoing a redesign to limit the amount of plutonium produced by the reactor.[viii] According to a senior State Department official in September, “Iran is living up to the commitments it made as part of a nuclear agreement reached with six world powers in 2015.”[ix] From the Iranian perspective, what’s left to negotiate? The JCPOA is a nuclear deal that is designed to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear energy program. So far, critics of the deal seem to be more concerned with Iran’s non-nuclear behavior—like ballistic missiles and regional activity in the Middle East. Adding elements to the deal that address these concerns would actually be outside the scope of a nuclear agreement. Iran would not agree to these limitations.

The United States would be hard pressed to renegotiate the deal, especially with the budding resentment from the hardliners in Tehran. Rouhani’s administration is already facing harsh criticism for not making good on their promise of booming economic recovery, and much of the blame has been put on the United States. This sentiment has grown worse with the election of President-elect Trump. Hamidreza Taraghi, a hardline political analyst said, “Trump is far worse than his predecessor. Rouhani has proved that trusting America is useless and a waste of time, energy, and money.”[x] With so much lack of trust between the two countries, renegotiation seems out of sight.

More Sanctions?

On December 1, 2016, the United States Senate voted unanimously to expand the sanctions regime on Iran, however, the move was largely symbolic and does not actually place sanctions on Iran.[xi] The extension grants the president the authority to quickly impose sanctions if Iran is deemed to be in violation of its obligations under the JCPOA.[xii] Many wish to pursue sanctions on Iran for violating United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which called upon Iran not to undertake, for eight years, any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.[xiii] However, ballistic missile activity is not actually mentioned in the JCPOA. UNSCR 2231 lifted economic sanctions placed on Iran for their nuclear program, but Iran never agreed to limit its ballistic missile program in the JCPOA. Thus, Iranians believe they should not be penalized for violating the JCPOA because of their ballistic missile capabilities, arguing that there is no legal basis for further penalization.

Moving Forward 

The future of the JCPOA is in question in both the United States and Iran. This once celebrated nonproliferation triumph has turned into a political headache, used as a dividing mechanism along party lines in both Tehran and Washington. Pursuing renegotiation efforts now risks losing the current oversight and limitation of Iran’s nuclear energy program. If renegotiation is the most favored option, it would be more effective in ten years when Iran’s limits to enrichment expire, or perhaps even 25 years when 24-hour surveillance over Iran’s enrichment facilities is no longer mandatory.[xiv]

Better than renegotiation would be to encourage civil nuclear cooperation in Iran. There are many countries, such as Czech Republic, South Korea, and Japan, with gold star nuclear energy programs that could cooperate with Iran to increase safety and security of Iran’s nuclear energy program, while maintaining transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moving forward, the important thing to remember is the desired end state. Turning Iran into more of a pariah nation won’t deliver the results desired; we have seen what failed nuclear deals have done to states suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons program.[xv]For the future of the United States, Iran, and nonproliferation, let’s try to make this deal work.

[i] Joseph I. Lieberman, Mark D. Wallace, “How Trump Should Renegotiate the Iran Deal,” The Washington Post, December 6, 2016.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ariane Tabatabai, “Trump Said He’d Tear Up the Iran Nuclear Deal. Now What?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 10, 2016.

[iv] Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran’s President Says Donald Trump Can’t Tear Up Nuclear Pact,” The New York Times, December 6, 2016.

[v] “Can Trump Rip Up the Iran Deal? Easier Said Than Done,” Al-Monitor, November 9, 2016.

[vi] Ashish Kumar Sen, “Iran Seen Abiding by Terms of Nuclear Deal,” Atlantic Council, September 9, 2016.

[vii] “Core of Arak Heavy Water Reactor Taken Out by Iran,” Fars News Agency, January 11, 2016.

[viii] Samore, Gary. The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide. Cambridge, MA: Report for Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, August 3, 2015.

[ix] Ashish Kumar Sen, “Iran Seen Abiding by Terms of Nuclear Deal,” Atlantic Council, September 9, 2016.

[x] Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran’s President Says Donald Trump Can’t Tear Up Nuclear Pact,” The New York Times, December 6, 2016.

[xi] David E. Sanger and Thomas Kaplan, “Senate Votes to Extend Iran Sanctions Authority,” The New York Times, December 1, 2016.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Farnaz Alimehri, “Iranian Missiles Might Not Be As Scary As the West Believes,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 21, 2016.

[xiv] Samore, Gary. The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide. Cambridge, MA: Report for Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, August 3, 2015.

[xv] Adam Taylor, “The Slow Death of the Nuclear Deal with North Korea,” The Washington Post, January 6, 2016.