With the JCPOA Crumbling, US-Iran Relations Remain in Doubt

Written by: Riley Fink

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed to in 2015 by Iran, Germany, and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This historic deal aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Specifically, Iran was to dramatically reduce its enriched uranium reserves and lower the level at which future uranium is enriched to 3.67% — a level high enough for use in power generation but too low to create a nuclear weapon. Additionally, Iran was to limit the number of centrifuges in its possession, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was permitted to audit the dismantling process at regular intervals. Iran agreed to these restrictions in exchange for relief from devastating international sanctions imposed by the United Nations, European Union, and the United States. The key diplomats behind the orchestration of this deal are generally seen as former Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Since President Trump’s announcement in May 2018 that the United States was to withdraw from the deal, tensions between Washington and Tehran have ramped up. Not that bitterness between the two is anything new; Iran and the United States have had a contentious relationship for decades. Hostility between the two nations spiked following the 1979 Islamic revolution and overthrow of the pro-American shah. Protests ensued rejecting the long history of American intervention in Iranian affairs, destroying any sense of a cordial relationship between the United States and Iran. Such meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, most egregiously the 1953 Central Intelligence Agency-staged coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh known as Operation Ajax, led to the perception that the shah was little more than an American puppet, and contributed to the “deeply anti-American” sentiments which fueled the 1979 revolution and continue to persist today. The subsequent seizing of the American embassy in Tehran and 444-day long hostage crisis burned any semblance of a bridge between the former allies. The Iranian perception of Americans rapidly shifted, and Iran, once deemed an “island of stability” in a sea of turmoil by President Carter, quickly came to be seen by many as a component of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” So too was America nothing less than the “Great Satan” to Iran.

Such unabashed contention between the two parties is why it was nothing short of a miracle that an accord on the scale of the JCPOA was formed in the first place. Nevermind the arduous diplomatic and logistical elements that had to align to bring this marvel of a deal together in the first place; for all intents and purposes, the United States and Iran were enemies, and there was no reason to believe that diplomatic relations of any kind, even backchannel, would resume on such a level necessary to formalize a nuclear non-proliferation agreement. The transmission of information at times more closely resembled the communication structure of the Iran-Contra affair than a legitimate diplomatic effort. If you’re interested in the drama that unfolded behind the scenes during the lengthy deliberations of the JCPOA, Trita Parsi’s work Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy describes the motivations and thought process of each actor in excruciating detail.

But in what ways was the JCPOA a “bad deal” for the United States? Trump wasn’t alone in this opinion. Israel and Netanyahu-aligned Republicans acted as prominent opposition. While Israel favored the strengthening American-Iranian relations during the Iran-Contra scandal, the fall of Saddam Hussein meant that Israel’s regional rival largely shifted from Iraq to Iran. This necessary counterweight and distraction in the context of world affairs was crucial for Israel’s own ammassing of power, and an Iran accepted by the world stage would only serve to make all Israeli activities more prominent. Major complaints hinged on American acquiescence to Iran and the limitations of the agreement to effectively curb Iran’s nuclear activity over the long term; many feared that sunset clauses eventually removing restrictions on centrifuges and uranium enrichment would lead to a sudden turnaround in Iranian nuclear activity. Moreover, conservative leaders were dismayed that the deal did little to address Iran’s missile program or record of sponsoring terrorism. In a situation as delicate as this, though, things have to be negotiated in piecemeal. While the JCPOA wasn’t perfect, it opened wide a door for future contact. 

But now that door has been slammed shut, and so far this is a case of repealing the JCPOA without replacing. It’s impossible to argue that this move was anything but combative and dangerous, considering the original result was a net positive for both the United States and Iran. For all the complaints leveraged against it, the nuclear deal seemed to be fulfilling its purpose. Iran, as far as we know, was complying with the agreement, heavily limiting enrichment activities. Assessments from the IAEA noted that Iran had halted development of their nuclear program properly and in a timely manner. For a while, it even seemed as if a genuine warming of relations was imminent; the release of several American prisoners held in Iranian captivity signaled as much. 

It was a return to the international community of a nation long since exiled from graces of the Western world. Relations between the two countries had been stalled for several American administrations prior to the deal. The younger Bush’s administration halfheartedly attempted roundabout parley with Iran when the country’s nuclear program was still in its infancy. President Clinton’s first secretary of state believed Iran to be capable of nothing more than terror and extremism. But it was clear during the Obama administration that a new effort was being made; the idea of mutual respect, crucial in Iranian diplomacy, was evident in President Obama’s annual greeting videos during the Iranian holiday of Nowruz and the outright ending of advocating for regime change in Iran. Tactics like these went a long way in fostering goodwill leading up to negotiations. 

Since the breakdown of the agreement, however, relations have soured and Iran has gradually shifted away from compliance with the deal. Iranian President Hassan Rhouhani announced in June of 2019 that the country would begin increasing their stockpiles of low-grade uranium and expanding enrichment activities, thus undertaking measures to reduce “breakout” time, expand production of fissile material, and pave the way for development of nuclear weapons. The Trump administration has introduced new sanctions in kind. Any country that imports Iranian oil will also be sanctioned by the United States, as it ended in May of 2019 waivers to several countries such as China, Italy, and Japan that allowed. Recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who acted as Kerry’s counterpart in the talks leading up to the JCPOA, has insisted that because the United States exited the deal first, Iran’s use of prohibited centrifuges and increased enrichment is not in violation of the terms. Experts have warned that Trump’s decision has sparked a global crisis that could lead to disaster. Rhouhani, despite recent escalations, nevertheless has expressed willingness to back down as long as the signatories of the deal comply with their own terms. For the time being, however, the Trump administration seems set in its ways. As relations continue to crumble, forget about filling up with Iranian oil anytime soon. Lamentably, it may never be known what effect the JCPOA would have had on Iran’s nuclear program. Even if it were only a temporary stopgap for a much larger problem, taking some action at all was better than doing absolutely nothing to curtail it. Whereas Obama and Kerry emphasized that war was the only alternative to the nuclear deal, Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo continually stress that war is the only alternative to the deal. If Trump does wish to negotiate a new deal, as he claims, then he better do so with all deliberate speed, because the window to do so is quickly closing.