Reflections on JCPOA’s uncertain future and factors that will determine it

Maria Bondareva is a student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and took part in the Erasmus Programme at ISCSP.

This year the international community celebrates the 5th anniversary of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in other words, the nuclear deal, signed in 2015 by the United States, Russia, China, Iran, Germany, United Kingdom and France with the aim of curbing Iran’s nuclear program. However, the actual state of the agreement causes some concerns, that this anniversary may well turn out to be its death.

Following the US unilateral withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and several waves of sanctions against Iran, it refused to fulfill its obligations under the treaty and immediately increased the level of uranium enrichment up to 4.5 % (with the level of 3.67% envisaged by the JCPOA) and threatens to continue increasing it up to 20%, which already makes it possible to reach the level of 90%, also known as weapons-grade, because at this point enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon can be produced.

To make matters worse, Iran renewed the work of the Fordow nuclear facility, which is to be used only for peaceful purposes according to the 2015 agreement. Earlier this year, the two countries were on the verge of a physical conflict, when Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Major General of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard was killed in Iraq by the US air strike. The situation deteriorated even further in early July, when a series of explosions took place in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure objects, the most notable and destructive of them being in Natanz, where the advanced centrifuge plant and the major enrichment facility are located. The accidents are attributed to the USA and Israel, who already committed cyberattacks on the same targets using the Stuxnet virus in previous years.

Thus, the tensions between the USA and Iran are heightening, calling the future of the nuclear deal into question. Therefore, this article aims to determine the key factors in the JCPOA’s survival and estimate the odds of its remaining into force.

What is a real stumbling block is US intentions to prolong the arms embargo against Iran, which is expected to expire in October this year, under the terms of the nuclear treaty. This embargo implies the prohibition of sale, supply, and transfer of weapons and related materials to Iran without the permission of the UN Security Council, which was never given due to objections by the United States. In order to renew the embargo, the USA consider two possible scenarios. The first one, which is more traditional and less contradictory, implies the approval of the resolution by the UNSC to prolong the arms embargo. The draft resolution has already been submitted to the Security Council by the USA late in June. The approval of a draft resolution requires affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the five permanent members pursuant to Article 27 of the U.N. Charter. Russia and China, Iran’s main arms export partners, have already expressed their deep discontent with the US draft resolution. The three European countries – founding members of the nuclear deal traditionally give in to the US pressure in their foreign policy and seem willing to do so this time by voting in favor of the resolution, though they claim to condemn the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.

If the resolution fails (which is the most likely scenario), the US intends to launch a so-called snapback mechanism, mentioned in resolution 2231 and in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the settlement of disputes section. This mechanism implies the renewal of all sanctions against Iran if any other member of the nuclear agreement questions Iran’s compliance with obligations and initiates voting to maintain the status quo of the regime. In this case, Russia and China do not enjoy the veto right, on the contrary, it is the USA that could block the status quo by its vote alone and thus reimpose sanctions and extend the arms embargo. But what makes this scenario more controversial is that the USA can no longer be considered a member of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after its withdrawal from the agreement in 2018. Nevertheless the USA managed to find a legal loophole in this complicated situation: being a member of the United Nations, the country still acts as a ‘’member’’ of the nuclear agreement in the context of resolution 2231, which was adopted on the occasion of the JCPOA signature. And even if the USA don’t want to trigger the snapback mechanism, they are likely to get another state (probably one of the three European states) to do so. In this case, the US success depends entirely on the willingness of its European partners to involve in this political game, perhaps sacrificing their respected position as independent and influential actors in the international arena.

Another factor which is crucial to the future of the nuclear deal is the outcome of the US presidential elections, which are to be held in November 2020. Many pin great hopes on Joe Biden, expecting the United States to return to JCPOA if he is elected president. Perhaps the origin of these hopes comes down to the fact that Joe Biden was the vice president under Barack Obama, who is famous for his efforts to improve relations with Iran, and especially for the signing of the JCPOA.

In fact, in his electoral program, the Democratic party candidate only affirms the importance of easing the persistent tensions between the two countries. As for the conditions under which Biden considers the return of the US to the nuclear agreement, anything different from Donald Trump’s position can hardly be found: if Iran returns to full compliance of the JCPOA, the USA may renew their participation in the agreement. As a matter of fact, the new president, whoever it is, will not be able to change the country’s political line beyond recognition, because such an action would symbolize the flawed character of the previous government, which “made the wrong decisions”. And it goes without saying, that for the USA, the prestige of the state and its national interests are always of the utmost importance. Furthermore, it comes as no surprise that campaign promises often vanish as soon as the election is over.

The JCPOA’s survival will to a great extent  depend on the domestic situation in Iran. It seems that some steps made by the USA were aimed to provoke a violent response, sort of a retaliation from Iran, which will escalate the tensions and may even cause the overthrow of the incumbent regime in Iran. Among these steps, apart from apparent measures such as anti-Iranian sanctions, are the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and its timing in particular, and the submission of the above-mentioned resolution by the USA. It was obvious from the very beginning that Russia and China would not support the resolution to extend the arms embargo. However, it didn’t prevent the USA from proposing such a resolution, which leads us to think that the end game was not to extend the arms embargo (the USA are not that naive to believe that Russia and China will change their minds), but to tease Iran and prompt its retaliatory actions. So, regime change in Iran proves to be one of the goals of American policy towards the country. But what the Iranian regime that will replace the current one will be is a big question, because the ruling Iranian President is considered a moderate reformer. At the same time, hardliners are integrating the political leadership of Iran, having already seized two branches of power, namely the parliament and the supreme court. If this tendency persists, Iran may pose real menaces to the entire world. Speaking to the media, the President gave a hint of what the Iranian hardline stance may look like: some retaliatory measures may include withdrawal from the JCPOA, followed by withdrawal from the NPT treaty and limitation of inspections by the IAEA in Iran. All these steps are certain to undermine the non-proliferation regime, which has been built step by step by several generations of diplomats and scientists.

On the balance, citing Andrew Baklitskiy, a Russian expert on Iran’s nuclear program, “the nuclear agreement is in superposition” (a physics term to describe an object that is found in two opposite conditions at the same time). On the one hand, the JCPOA has been consistently violated by the USA as well as by Iran, and there are several factors that determine its inevitable fading. On the other hand, despite all the obstacles on its way the nuclear agreement is still in power, which makes us believe that this product of the joint efforts of the JCPOA’s founding countries has a long way to go.

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