“[The] Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
– Donald Trump
The Joint Coordinated Plan of Action (JCPOA) was negotiated between Iran and six other countries, including the United States, in July 2015. It lifted economic sanctions on Iran in return for a halt on the development of nuclear weapons. President Trump has long called for the deal to be scrapped or for restrictions to be much tougher than they currently are, although until recently he has continued to certify that Iran has not breached the conditions of the deal. On October 13th 2017, however, President Trump announced he would decline to certify the deal. This article looks at the changing relationship between the US and Iran, the development of the Iranian nuclear program, the arguments for and against the JCPOA, and what ‘decertifying the deal’ truly means.
A Brief History of Modern Iran
By the late 1970s discontent with the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah (King) of Iran, was growing (1). The Shah’s extravagant lifestyle, harsh repression by security forces, shortages of basic foodstuffs for the lower and middle classes and resentment at foreign influence in Iran all combined to breed discontent among Iran’s population (1,2). An exiled cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been a leading religious figure since the 1960s, became a voice for people’s complaints (1). His proposals for a government based on the principle of velayat-e faqih (governance by Islamic jurists) seemed much preferable to the Shah’s corrupt and repressive regime (1,3). Mass protests in 1978 were met with brutal force by state security services, triggering further protests (1). In January 1979, ill with cancer and unable to provide a satisfactory compromise, the Shah left Iran (4). In February, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France (1). After the armed forces declined to intervene, the Islamic revolution had a clear path to power (4). On April 1st, after a national referendum, the country became the Islamic Republic of Iran, with Khomeini as its Supreme Leader (1).
In October 1979 the Shah was admitted into the United States to receive cancer treatment (5). For supporters of the Islamic revolution, who resented American support for the Shah’s regime and feared a repeat of the 1953 American-backed coup that ousted a democratically elected prime minister and put the Shah back on the throne, this was an affront (1,6). Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran in November, taking 66 hostages (5). The Iranian hostage crisis would last for 444 days, bolstering Iranian support for Ayatollah Khomeini and increasing anti-American sentiment in the country (6). Equally, Iran’s violation of international law and the continuing hostage crisis caused strong anti-Iranian feelings in the United States (6). President Carter began economic sanctions against Iran in response to the crisis, and a military attempt to rescue the hostages failed in April 1980, deepening the ill-feeling between the two countries (7,8).
Seeing an opportunity to win more power and influence in the region, and to prevent the Islamic revolution being exported to Iraq’s large Shia population, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980 (1). The war lasted for eight years, with estimates between half a million and 1.5 million casualties, including over 100,000 killed by Iraqi chemical weapons (1,5). The United States, together with France and the Soviet Union, provided military and economic support to the Iraqis, further antagonising Iran (1).
After Khomeini: Iran’s Leaders From 1989-Present
Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has had a mixed system of government, with the executive, parliament and judiciary overseen by a number of religious bodies, and the Supreme Leader as the highest ranking authority (9,10). Whilst the President is head of the executive, all decisions must be approved by the Supreme Leader , who controls the military, mosques, the justice system and the media, and makes decisions on defence, security and foreign policy (1,9). The Supreme Leader’s Guardian Council also vets all candidates during parliamentary elections (10). This means that moderate or reformist candidates have often struggled to make progress against a conservative clergy (9,10).
Ayatollah Khomeini died in June 1989, and was replaced by the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (5). Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani became president, and focused on rebuilding Iran’s economy after the turmoil of the revolution and the damage caused by the long war with Iraq (11). He also moved to end Iran’s diplomatic isolation and privatised companies that had been nationalised during the revolution (11). He was replaced in 1997 by a reformist candidate, Mohammed Khatani, who was able to rally women and young people to his cause (12). However, Khatami was hindered by conservative politicians and clergy, who blocked his reform efforts, banned liberal newspapers and cracked down on protests (1,12).
At the end of Khatami’s constitutional term limit in 2005, Iran elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative mayor of Tehran, as president (5). A hardliner, Ahmadinejad pushed limited economic liberalisation and conservative policies at home, whilst promoting international militancy abroad (5). Staunchly anti-Israel, Ahmadinejad called for its destruction and denied that the Holocaust had occurred (1). He also accelerated Iran’s nuclear program, which had begun during the Iran-Iraq War, and negotiations with the UK, France and Germany to curb Iran’s nuclear development broke down (1,7). More sanctions were soon imposed by the UN and the EU on Iran due to its continued nuclear development (5,7).
A reformer and staunch opponent of Ahmadinejad, President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 with a promise to improve Iran’s international relations and improve the economy (1). Rouhani had been Iran’s chief negotiator during previous nuclear talks and immediately re-opened negotiations with the West (13). In 2015 the talks resulted in an agreement, known as the Joint Coordinated Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limits Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons (14).
Development of the Iranian Nuclear Program
Iran first began working on nuclear energy in the late 1960s under the Shah, with a 5 megawatt research reactor supplied by the United States (15). By the 1970s, it had an ambitious civilian nuclear energy program aiming to produce 23,000 megawatts of electricity within 20 years (15). Deals were struck between Iran and European and American nuclear suppliers (15). The 1979 revolution and the subsequent war with Iraq halted Iran’s nuclear program and, although both Iran and Iraq took steps towards developing nuclear weapons during the war, neither side was successful (1,6).
Under President Rafsanjani Iran’s nuclear program was revived, this time supported by Russia, China and Pakistan (15). Throughout the 1990s, Iran made several official deals, such as two nuclear cooperation protocols signed with China (15). It also received nuclear technology and equipment through more illicit means, including through the network run by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan (15).
In 2002 American intelligence revealed that the Iranian nuclear program was far more advanced than had been previously thought (1,15). This was especially true regarding its ability to produce plutonium and enriched uranium, two components that can be used in nuclear weapons (15). Due to the covert nature of many of these activities, Iran was required to provide explanations and submit to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections in 2003 (15). In an agreement with France, Britain and Germany in 2004, Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, although it continued to manufacture equipment for uranium enrichment (15).
The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 meant an acceleration and expansion of Iran’s nuclear program (1). It also meant Iran refused to cooperate with the IAEA. In 2008 the IAEA presented member states with evidence that Iran had pursued work relating to nuclear weapons (15). Although Iran denied the allegations and refused to allow inspectors to validate them, a 2011 IAEA report judged the allegations to be “overall, credible…and consistent” (15). The revelation of a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment plant at Fordow in 2009 also heightened tensions between Iran and the West. The plant is built into a mountain and fortified against air attack (15). The Fordow and Natanz facilities were producing 20% enriched uranium, which accomplishes 90% of the work needed to produce weapons-grade uranium (15).
When he came to power in 2013 President Rouhani, formerly Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, opened direct talks with the US for the first time since 1979 (13). In July 2015 Iran finally, after more than a decade of talks, signed the JCPOA with the P5+1 countries (USA, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany), limiting its nuclear development in return for a lifting of sanctions (14).
What is the JCPOA?
The Joint Coordinated Plan of Action was signed on 14th July 2015, and lifted economic sanctions by the US, UN and EU on Iran in return for limitations on its nuclear programme and access for IAEA inspectors (14). Some key components are:
- Iran will reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, shipping the rest to Russia.
- Iran will only install 5060 new centrifuges (used to enrich uranium) over the next 10 years.
- No uranium enrichment will take place at Fordow, and the facility will be converted into a nuclear, physics and technology centre.
- Iran must redesign a heavy-water facility (which produces plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapon) so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.
- Iran must not build any more heavy-water reactors for 15 years.
- IAEA inspectors must be able to continuously monitor nuclear sites and Iran must allow inspectors to visit any site within 24 days of a request being made.
As a result, Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon is diminished for the duration of the JCPOA (14). Because of the removal of enriched uranium stockpiles and the ban on installing more centrifuges, the ‘break-out time’, or amount of time Iran would need to construct a nuclear weapon, has increased from 2-3 months to over a year (14). It also stops any research and development that might increase Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon in the future (14).
In return Iran gets relief from economic sanctions imposed by the US, the UN and the EU, which were costing Iran between $4bn and $8bn per month in lost oil revenues (14). It also allows Iran to use the global financial system for trade and to recover over $100bn in frozen overseas assets (14). Access to these assets and to international markets is seen as key in Iran after the economic disaster of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (14).
What are the arguments in favour of the Iran Nuclear Deal?
The JCPOA was hailed by President Obama as “a step away from the spectre of conflict and towards the possibility of peace” (16). But what are the advantages for the US and its allies?
Firstly, the agreement increases the potential ‘break-out time’ of Iran from 2-3 months to more than a year. IAEA inspectors also have monitoring capabilities and access to Iranian nuclear sites, making it much more difficult for Iran to develop nuclear components undetected (16). This means that in the event of a sudden crisis the chance of an escalation to nuclear conflict is significantly reduced.
The lifting of sanctions means that Iran can become more open and assimilate into the global economy (16). This means investment opportunities for foreign companies and access to Iranian oil, but it also means that, after the period of the JCPOA, Iran will be better integrated into international diplomatic and financial systems, and therefore less likely to feel the need to become a nuclear pariah state (16). President Obama said that he ‘believes unequivocally that future administrations would be in better positions 10-15 years down the line because of the deal’ (16). This view was echoed by John Kerry who, in response to suggestions that the deal would be scrapped, said that the deal ‘gives a quarter-century of absolute accountability’ (17).
If the nuclear deal were to break down, it would have several wide-reaching consequences. Firstly, Iran would return to its attempts to produce a nuclear weapon and would likely be successful at some point in the future (18). It would also further damage the relationship between Iran and the United States which was at its highest point since 1979 following the signing of the JCPOA (17). The re-imposition of sanctions would be difficult, as Russia and China would be unwilling to accede to American demands for new UN sanctions (17).
What are the arguments against the Iran Nuclear Deal?
Not everyone is as keen on the deal as President Obama. US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia fiercely opposed the deal, and President Trump won the backing of Republican hardliners by opposing the deal during his election campaign (17). There are several arguments against the agreement, mainly focused around Iran’s support for anti-Israel and anti-Saudi groups.
Iran uses its money and influence to support a variety of groups with the goal of attaining regional supremacy (1,6). For Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the torch-bearer for Sunni Islam and which is ruled over by an absolute monarch, Iran poses a clear threat (6). Iran is a Shia-majority state in which the people revolted and forced out their king, and has actively tried to export its revolution outside Iran (1). Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for supremacy in the region by supporting different political or military groups (1,6). Iran supports Shia militia groups in Iraq, Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen and opposition groups in Bahrain (1,16). It also played a large part in keeping President Assad, who is an Alawite (a breakaway sect of Shiism), in power (17). Israel, aside from the existential threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of a country whose president has openly called for Israel’s destruction, is also affected. Iran supports Hezbollah, a Shia political and militant group that was able to push the Israeli military out of southern Lebanon with Iranian backing (1,16). It also supports Hamas, a military-political group based in the Gaza strip that is actively opposed to Israel (1,16).
The worry for Saudi Arabia and Israel is that a relaxation of economic sanctions will allow Iran to use new funds to increase their support for these groups, although Iran says the money will be used to shore up its faltering economy (19). Such economic weakness links with another potential drawback. The Iranian regime was struggling with economic and social issues before the deal was agreed; if the JCPOA had not been agreed the Iranian regime may have fallen on its own (18,19).
Another argument is that Iran is not amenable to change and will continue with its anti-western sentiments and its nuclear program, either covertly now or once the JCPOA ends (20). Because of the structure of the Iranian government it is difficult for Iranian policy to deviate too far from the ideals of conservative hardliners and clergy (9,10). Even during the presidencies of moderates or reformists like Rafsanjani and Khatami, nuclear development has continued (1).
Finally, President Trump has called the deal too lenient and claims that Iran has broken the deal already anyway, exceeding heavy-water limits and restricting access to international inspectors (21). These accusations have been denied by Iran and the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini has said that there have been “no violations” (21).
President Trump and ‘Decertifying the Deal’
On October 13th 2017 President Trump announced his intention not to certify the Iran deal (21). This does not necessarily mean, however, that the deal will collapse. Certification, which needs to occur every 90 days, is not part of the JCPOA. Instead, it is a component of a US law called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) (22). All parties, including the US government, agree that Iran has not breached any of the stipulations of the JCPOA at this time (21). Instead, the Trump administration has cited a provision in the INARA that asks whether the lifting of sanctions against Iran is in American national security interests and “appropriate and proportionate” relative to Iran’s efforts to halt its nuclear development (21,22). President Trump argues that the deal is biased in favour of Iran, that Iran has broken the terms of the deal by testing ballistic missiles, and that continued Iranian meddling in the region harms US national security interests (17).
Now that President Trump has refused to certify the INARA deal, the United States Congress has 60 days to fast-track legislation to reinstate sanctions on Iran (22). Instead of new sanctions, Congress could enact new legislation that imposes a more stringent version of the JCPOA on Iran. President Trump has put forward three trigger points, to be included in any new or amended legislation, that would cause a re-imposition of sanctions: the deployment of an intercontinental ballistic missile, evidence that Iran could build a nuclear weapon in under 12 months, or Iran refusing to agree an extension to the JCPOA (17). Sceptics have argued that by passing the decision to Congress President Trump is essentially passing the buck; fulfilling a campaign promise whilst washing his hands of any culpability should his demands not be met (21). President Trump does have the ability to unilaterally re-impose sanctions by declining to waive them when they come up for review, as he did in September (21). His speech condemning the deal also tacitly acknowledged that it would be difficult to scrap, saying “What’s done is done, and that’s why we are where we are.” (17). The US is also only one partner in the deal; Iran has refused to accept any renegotiation of the JCPOA, and Britain, France and Germany have all urged the US to continue with the agreement (17).
What can we expect to see in the future?
Congress has until December 12th 2017 to fast-track new legislation to re-impose sanctions on Iran (22). This would mean that the US would be in breach of the JCPOA and the deal may collapse, with Iran returning to its development of nuclear weapons, although the JCPOA could continue without US involvement (21). It is unlikely that the other signatories to the deal, especially Russia and China, would support US efforts to re-impose sanctions (17).
A second option is that Congress takes the cue from President Trump and enacts legislation that would call for a stronger version of the JCPOA (21). The US would then seek to pressure Iran and the other signatories into amending the JCPOA to include new restrictions, such as a restriction on ballistic missile testing (21,22). The prevailing attitude outside of the United States makes it unlikely that either Iran or the signatories would agree to renegotiation (17). Iran may be open to amendments on a ‘more-for-more’ basis, with greater restrictions on its nuclear program in return for more reward from the US and its allies (20). This would put President Trump in a difficult position given his previous anti-Iran standpoint.
If Congress does nothing, then President Trump may find himself under pressure to decline to waive the sanctions when the decision comes up for review in mid-January 2018 (22,23).
Although Iran could remain within the terms of the JCPOA if Congress re-imposes sanctions or votes for stronger restrictions on Iranian nuclear development, it seems unlikely (17,21). Threatened by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran would be more likely to return to its nuclear program, giving the US government a stark choice (18,21). According to one former adviser to President Obama, if the US reneges on the deal “[t]he choice for the United States becomes clear and binary, which is to say: accept that they develop a nuclear capability or bomb them to prevent them from having it.” (21).
Even if President Trump’s posturing on Iran goes the same way as his failed push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, with much said and little progress made, the threat of the US reneging on the JCPOA will still damage US-Iranian relations, which had been at their highest in over 30 years. It could even lead to the collapse of the deal anyway, especially if President Rouhani is replaced by a more hard-line candidate, or if potential international investors avoid dealing with Iran due to uncertainties about the future US-Iran relationship, damaging Iran’s economy. What’s more, it shows other parties, such as North Korea, that US presidents cannot be trusted to uphold deals made by their predecessors, making it even more difficult to come to similar agreements in the future.
(1) The State of the Middle East Atlas. Dan Smith, 2016.
(2) Iran: A History of Struggle. Jared Delgin, Ben McReynolds, 1999. https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/war_peace/middleeast/hiranhistory.html
(3) Velayat-e faqih. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/velayat-e-faqih
(4) Iran’s Islamic Revolution: Lessons for the Arab Spring of 2011? Michael Eisenstadt, Washington Institute, 2011. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/html/pdf/Eisenstadt201104.pdf
(5) The World in Conflict: Understanding the World’s Troublespots. John Andrews, 2015.
(6) A Brief History of the Middle East: From Abraham to Arafat. Chistopher Catherwood, 2006.
(7) Sanctions Against Iran. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2015. https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/Iran%20Sanctions.pdf
(8) The Desert One Debacle. Mark Bowden, The Atlantic, 2006. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/05/the-desert-one-debacle/304803/
(9) Iran: Government and Society. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Iran/Government-and-society#ref783951
(10) Guide: How Iran is Ruled. BBC News, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8051750.stm#top
(11) Obituary: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. BBC News, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22494982
(12) Profile: Mohammad Khatani. BBC News, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3027382.stm
(13) Hassan Rouhani. Biography.com, 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/hassan-rouhani-21313175
(14) Iran Nuclear Deal: Key Details. BBC News, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-33521655
(15) A History of Iran’s Nuclear Program. Iranwatch.org, 2016. http://www.iranwatch.org/our-publications/weapon-program-background-report/history-irans-nuclear-program
(16) Obama: ‘We Have Stopped the Spread of Nuclear Weapons in This Region’. Michael B Kelley, Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, 2015. http://uk.businessinsider.com/a-quick-look-at-the-arguments-for-and-against-an-iran-nuclear-deal-2015-7
(17) Trump Disavows Nuclear Deal, but Doesn’t Scrap It. Mark Landler, David E. Sanger, NY Times, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/us/politics/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html
(18) Should Americans Support the Iran Nuclear Deal? Dardasha Weekly, 2015. http://www.dardashaweekly.com/podcast/2015/9/30/should-americans-support-the-iran-nuclear-deal
(19) Where are Iran’s Billions in Frozen Assets, and How Soon Will It Get Them Back? Matt Pearce, LA Times, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-iran-frozen-assets-20160120-story.html
(20) Trump and Iran Nuclear Deal? SP Seth, Daily Times, 2017. https://dailytimes.com.pk/129435/trump-iran-nuclear-deal/
(2) Trump Isn’t Certifying the Iran Deal—What Happens Next? Uri Friedman, The Atlantic, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/iran-deal-trump-next/542379/
(22) Trump Is Letting Congress Determine the Iran Deal’s Fate. Here’s What It Can Do. Jonah Shepp, New York Magazine, 2017. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/10/what-congress-can-do-after-trump-decertifies-the-iran-deal.html
(23) Trump to waive Iran sanctions for second time this year — report. Times of Israel, 2017. https://www.timesofisrael.com/trump-to-waive-iran-sanctions-for-second-time-this-year-report/