Written by: Kate Roglieri
Since the first use of an atomic weapon, nuclear proliferation has been an important part of international relations. Nuclear weapons cause destruction like no other weapon humanity created. When nations with conflicting interests use and expand their nuclear arsenal, it puts the international community on high alert, because no one wants to see another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In these situations, it is essential to use diplomacy to prevent the scale of conflict from growing. A modern and poignant example of this dilemma is the global response to the development of a nuclear program in Iran. The United States led the global response to Iran’s nuclear program through aggressive sanctions that would ultimately result in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.
In the context of US foreign policy, the Iran Nuclear Deal was a highly important diplomatic event. The United States and Iran have a long history of tensions and political intervention, which provides an important context for the eventual signing of the nuclear deal. It is important to identify the United States’s interests in Iran. The latter country is situated in the Persian Gulf and rich with resources, specifically oil. To quote Dr. Robert Ghobad Irani of the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, “in terms of population, resources, land, and power potential, Iran and Saudi Arabia remain the two principal centers of power in the Persian Gulf area, with Iran clearly being in the leading position”. The United States gained a strong interest in Iran during World War II, as American troops were stationed in the Persian Gulf in order to aid with Soviet efforts. This involvement illuminated the political and economic importance of Iran as well as signified the need for American attention to the region.
The tensions between the United States and Iran arguably began in 1953 with the American involvement in a coup against the popularly elected Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosadegh. The coup was initiated by the British and supported by the US, as Mosadegh had nationalized Iranian oil fields that the British claimed. This coup removed Mosadegh from power and gave power to the Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose title defined him as a “king of kings” in Iranian society. Pahlavi’s Iran was not one that would foster democracy or grant rights to its people, yet the US continued to support the regime throughout the Cold War in order to block Soviet influence.
After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini was chosen to rule the Islamic Republic in Iran. Although the United States stood by the Shah’s government throughout the revolution, President Jimmy Carter ultimately worked to establish diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran after the revolution. However, Carter allowing the exiled Shah to visit the US for cancer treatment created tension, as the Iranian citizens saw this as a rejection of their revolution. This frustration culminated in the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which a group of Iranian militants invaded the US embassy in Tehran and took several Americans and diplomats hostage for 444 days. Carter imposed sanctions on Iran, but the sanctions did not end the crisis. The hostages were only released after Carter’s failed reelection campaign.
The legacy of differences and strained US-Iran relations have contributed to the development hurdles faced by the Iranian nuclear program. The United States has historically been opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, as the possibility of an Iranian regime possessing nuclear weapons could “directly threaten Israel, destabilize the region, and present a security risk to the US, Europe and other allies”, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Growing international skepticism surrounding Iran’s intentions for its nuclear research and development led to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into Iran’s nuclear activity in 2002. The investigation discovered that Iran had “been conducting clandestine nuclear activities’‘, some of which violated the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that Iran had signed in 1970.
In response to Iran’s violation of the NPT, the United States and the EU issued a series of harsh sanctions on Iran. As a result of these internationally imposed sanctions, the Iranian economy suffered greatly, with former US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew estimating that “Iran’s economy was 15 to 20 percent smaller [in GDP] than it would have been had sanctions not been ratcheted up in 2012 and cost $160 billion in lost oil revenue alone”. In addition, the Iranian unemployment rate skyrocketed, and the country was thrust into a two-year recession. Public pressure to ease the economic pain increased, and the Iranian government began to consider striking a nuclear deal in order to have the sanctions rescinded.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more widely known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was signed on July 14th, 2015 between Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, and China after two years of negotiations. The deal blocked off the “four pathways” through which Iran could acquire nuclear weapons and ensures that the Iran Nuclear Program will never be able to have the capacity to create a nuclear bomb. The four pathways include possessing high amounts of enriched uranium, possessing uranium, possessing enriched plutonium, and allowing for covert attempts to produce fissile material. The signatory nations identified these measures as being absolutely essential to the stabilization of the Iran Nuclear Program. These pathways were blocked through strict and explicit rules and regulations that the International Atomic Energy Association is tasked with enforcing.
The United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 under the direction of former US President Donald Trump despite outcry from American allies in Europe. As a result, the pre-deal American sanctions were re-imposed, bringing economic hardship back to Iran. Trump stated that exiting the deal was done in order to apply pressure on Tehran to negotiate a “better” deal, but there was no indication that Iranian officials would be willing to renegotiate. Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton were known to take a particularly hawkish stance towards Iran as well as another nuclearizing threat, North Korea. Bolton, prior to taking office, went as far as to call for military action to cease Iran’s nuclear programs. Concern about a potential escalation between the US and Iran reached a peak in January 2020, when Trump ordered an airstrike that killed a top Iranian general. Trump claimed that the strike was justified on the grounds that General Solemeini was actively plotting military advances toward the US. Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and then-President Hassan Rouhani vowed that there would be retaliatory action taken against the US following the strike, which alarmed the international community. Trump’s tough stance on Iran escalated fear of an all-out armed conflict, which also could have contributed to Iran’s renewed desire to pursue diplomatic avenues for resolving the tensions around its nuclear program.
In recent months, the Biden Administration has begun talks with Iran and the other involved parties to revive the original 2015 deal.
In 2021, facing immense economic turmoil and public pressure, Iranian officials expressed a desire to engage in negotiations to bring back the JCPOA. These talks lasted throughout June but were eventually stalled until November due to the election of an “anti-Western” Iranian President, Ebrahaim Raisi. Since November, tensions have escalated as Iran’s nuclear capabilities continue to grow. According to NPR, Iran’s nuclear program has reached near capacity of uranium enrichment to procure a nuclear weapon, which put other global powers on alert. The current talks, which have been taking place in Vienna, focus more on how to relax American sanctions on Iran while simultaneously restructuring the Iranian nuclear program similarly to the 2015 deal.
A major concern of the Iranian government is the possibility of the United States backing out of the deal for the second time. Additionally, Tehran is calling for a form of economic relief from JCPOA signatory nations to compensate for economic harm caused by years of sanctions. American diplomats worry that Iran’s recent buildup of nuclear material has reached levels that would now be difficult to regulate or destroy. Iranian diplomats also have used the threat of further nuclear buildup as political leverage in expanding American concessions concerning the deal. According to the International Crisis Group, failure to broker a deal would be a “lose-lose situation”, as Iran does not want its economy to weaken and the United States and its allies seek nonproliferation as a primary foreign policy goal.
The Iran Nuclear Deal is a feat of modern diplomacy; The deal created diplomatic conversations between the United States and Iran, two states that historically have defined their relationship with hostility and tension. Through the use of multilateral sanctions that targeted the Iranian oil industry, the United States and its allies were able to successfully pressure Iran into making its nuclear program more transparent and aligned with international standards of nonproliferation. The renewal of talks to revive the deal after American withdrawal in 2018 signals a global commitment to nonproliferation and multilateralism, signaling the persistence of diplomacy in global relations.