By Hooshang Amirahmadi, PhD; Professor, Rutgers University
The JCPOA: From Despair to Hope
The North Korean crisis has pushed the future of the 2015 nuclear deal among Iran and the 5+1 (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China), commonly referred to as the Joint Compressive Plan of Action (JCPOA) into the background. Yet, this temporary situation will soon reverse itself as a powerful storm is gathering around the subject. The JCPOA, which was intended to reduce tension between the US and Iran, has been criticized repeatedly by President Donald Trump as a highly deficient agreement, and this change in the White House's attitude under a new president is the primary cause of this developing storm. Indeed, US-Iran relations have unexpectedly become highly explosive in the post-JCPOA period. President Donald Trump's speech at the UN was a clear indication of this new situation. To mitigate this emerging danger, the policy community must overcome complacency, act with urgency, offer an even-handed and realistic analysis, and propose a fair solution.
President Trump, has said that the deal is "bad" and that the JCPOA and all its underlying tenets and documents must be strengthened through renegotiation. Otherwise, he has threatened to scrape the deal or demand significant modifications to it. To Trump's pleasure, and Iran's dismay, the French President Emmanuel Macron, who wishes to maintain the JCPOA (his country has already made significant inroads into the Iranian economy), supports the idea of strengthening the JCPOA by extending its sunset timeline, and introducing new requirements for controlling Iran's missile program and regional influence. Conservatives in the U.S. have even charged that the former President Barak Obama concluded the deal largely to create a "legacy" for himself rather than protect the US national interest. Just like many other "signature accomplishments" of Mr. Obama, President Trump's ideal will be to overturn this one as well.
On the opposite side, Iran has argued that the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement that has been ratified unanimously by the UN Security Council, and is essential for the preservation of peace, and must be thus preserved. Tehran is nervous about a possible negative action by Mr. Trump because it has made the JCPOA a source of national pride, and has depended on the deal to rebuild its economy. Tehran's expectation is that Mr. Trump will challenge Iran's compliance, send the deal to the US Congress, and re-impose sanctions that were lifted. It is no wonder that Iran is making every effort to convince other parties to the JCPOA to continue honoring the deal. However, leaders in the Islamic Republic have made confusing statements about what they might do in reaction to Trump's scraping of the deal.
Tehran has publicly objected to renegotiation the deal but it might be convinced to renegotiate if its terms can be well established in advance. Iran fears that renegotiating the deal will open a "Pandora's box "of renewed pressure and more "unacceptable concessions. To save the JCPOA, President Hassan Rouhani government is hoping to convince Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Leader, to accede to an extension of the sunset clause beyond 2025 and allow limited monitoring of its military sites. Concession on missiles will not be possible now but even that might be open for negotiations if some of Iran's security and economic demands are met. Tehran will also be most concerned with the publicity of such concessions as they could lead to opposition by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and political upheavals by the Islamic "hardliners" and patriotic Iranians.
Notwithstanding these concerns by Tehran, President Trump is adamant that the deal be openly renegotiated and its defects fully corrected. Indeed, Mr. Trump and associates want to make the JCPOA a permanent deal or scrap it, and see Iran's missile power diminished and its military sites opened to intrusive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The organization is tasked to ensure that Iran is complying with its technical commitments in the JCPOA. Contrary to the publicly held view, Trump is unlikely to scrap the JCPOA initially. Rather, he will maintain it as a killing trap for Iran by tough sanctions and military threats. The purpose of this coercive process will be to force Tehran to accede to Trump's demands, weaken Iran, and ultimately change its theocratic regime, which Trump derided harshly during his address to the UN General Assembly.
In this essay, I will discuss current US concerns with the JCPOA including the deal's sunset clause, and Iran's missiles as well as what it sees as the broader issue of Iran's regional "misdeeds". I will also describe Iran's rebuttal but show that Washington will not be convinced and that Trump is expected to persist in his demands. Mr. Trump might even append the push for renegotiation of the JCPOA with a policy of regime change if Tehran continues its current policies and regional posture. I will also outline some of the key measures, including crippling new sanctions, that the US might introduce to make Iran accept a new nuclear deal or exit the JCPOA. Iran's possible counter-measures will also be discussed.
While Trump's coercive measures will not be immediately effective, Tehran may find it hard to persist if Europeans join the US, which is likely given that some of the US concerns are also echoed by France, Germany and the UK. Yet, as I will argue, and the JCPOA experience indicates, a resolution that is based on coercive measures will not be in the long-term interest of either side and cannot be sustained. A more amicable resolution will require that both parties consider realities on the ground and accept a paradigm shift in the way each sees the other. I will outline some of such realities and explain areas where serious rethinking has become imperative. The concluding section will speculate about the likelihood of a comprehensive settlement.
US Critiques: The Flawed JCPOA and Iran's Misdeeds
From the perspective of Mr. Trump and some of his associates, including National Security Advisor R.T. McMaster, the JCPOA is flawed for many reasons. The deal has a sunset clause of around 10 years for Iran to begin increasing centrifuge counts and 15 years to begin stockpiling enriched uranium. Beyond these dates, Iran will be allowed to gradually return to a "normal" nuclear enrichment operation on its soil. Mr. Trump wants a permanent deal and hopes to dismantle Iran's remaining nuclear infrastructure. He does not trust Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Leader, despite the latter's declaration that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic." President Trump also discounts Iran's commitment in the JCPOA that, "it will never and under no circumstance" develop or possess a nuclear bomb.
The US is also worried that the nuclear deal does not disarm Iran of its nuclear bomb-making potential because it does not mandate the IAEA to monitor Iran's military and other "suspected" sites on a regular basis. Iran has not yet ratified the IAEA's Additional Protocol, which allows for snap inspections. The deal also falls short of any effective control over Iran's growing missile program, and the UN Security Council's Resolution 2231, dealing with the matter, is vague and inadequate. Mr. Trump is also unhappy that the IAEA is not given a clear mandate to monitor Iran's technological modeling of bomb-making. Trump remains concerned about the IAEA's ability to fully monitor Iran.
The fact that the JCPOA is not a comprehensive deal also alarms Trump. He believes that the deal should have comprised many crucial issues that stand between the US and Iran, including Iran's backing of terrorism against Israel, support for Bashar Assad of Syria, interventions in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, and its human rights violations at home. Iran discriminates against religious and ethnic minorities and is currently holding several dual US-Iran citizens in its prisons on espionage charges. Thus, Trump insists, the deal leaves Iran with a free hand, and provides it with billions of dollars to expand the operations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its Quds force across the Middle East.
For Mr. Trump, who hopes to build his presidential legacy on boosting the US economy, the JCPOA is of little use. The deal opens Iran's lucrative emerging market to trade and investment relations with the rest of the world, including the US rivals in Europe and Asia, while its scope for expanded US-Iran economic relations remains highly limited. While this objection is not publicly stated, it is implied in the administration's efforts to discourage multinational firms and large banks to transact with Iran, and to curb Iran's expanding economic ties with Europe, China and Russia.
Iranian Defense: The JCPOA is a "Win-Win" and Working
Iran disagrees with US objections and defends the deal for many of its positive attributes. The JCPOA is a "win-win" agreement and has successfully resolved the long-standing nuclear disputes between Iran and its nemeses. The other issues standing between the two countries have been purposefully left outside the deal to make a resolution to the nuclear dispute simpler and faster. The JCPOA was also intended to build confidence between the two governments and thus help in a resolution of such other issues. US' objections now threatens to erode any trust that was built during the negotiations.
Iran insists that the deal is working and General Jim Mattis, US Secretary of Defense, has also confirmed that it serves the US security interest. According to periodic reports issued by the IAEA, Iran is meticulously implementing the JCPOA and these findings have been confirmed by the US intelligence and military officials. Iran says it intends to continue in this path of rigorous implementation under the intrusive monitoring of the IAEA. By accepting to voluntarily implement the Additional Protocol now and to ratify it in 2023, Iran will be subjecting itself to the toughest permanent monitoring and surveillance regime that the IAEA has ever undertaken in any country. Iran also notes that the monitoring of its nuclear sites is the sole responsibility of the IAEA, and that the US cannot interfere in the Agency's monitoring task.
In Tehran's view, while the JCPOA has a sunset clause, Iran's commitment to not build or possess a bomb is permanent as per the JCPOA and the Leader's determination. Even after Iran's enrichment restrictions end, the intrusive monitoring system in place will continue indefinitely, making it impossible for Iran to divert its civilian program towards military use. Thus, Tehran believes, US concerns regarding the sunset clause of the JCPOA are misplaced and irrelevant. Tehran also insist that its foreign policy outlook views possessing nuclear weapons as being detrimental to Iran's national security.
Iran has also complained that the implementation of the JCPOA has already cost it billions of dollars in dismantled centrifuges and their infrastructure, shipment of over 10 tons of enriched uranium to outside the country, dismantling of its heavy water reactor, and a significant reduction in its nuclear-related R&D and centrifuge-building activities. For the US to demand renegotiation of the deal now that Iran has sacrificed so much is unacceptable and unjust. As Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has noted, if Mr. Trump wants to renegotiate the JCPOA, he must first compensate Iran for these losses.
From Tehran's perspective, the UN Resolution 2231 is independent of the JCPOA, and its wordings does not support the US claim that Iran's missile testing is a violation of its spirit or intent. Iran's missile program is solely for defensive and deterrent purposes and it is not aimed at any group or nation. Indeed, Iran's missiles are weaker than those of its main rivals in the region, and they are not designed to carry nuclear warheads, which Iran cannot build as per the JCPOA. Tehran has also said that its missile activities are non-negotiable, partially because they are not controlled by Iran's civilian leaders and fall under the authority of the IRGC.
Tehran has also forcefully argued that its support for Assad regime and "friendly groups" in the region, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, its involvements in Iraq, and its human rights situation all predate the JCPOA, and, therefore, they were assumed to remain outside the deal. Now that the JCPOA is concluded and is being implemented, the US cannot claim that the deal must be linked to these other issues. Besides, a significant part of Iran's activities in Syria and Iraq, Tehran argues, are aimed at defeating ISIS, which benefit the US as well.
Iran also maintains that The JCPOA is not an obstacle to American firms willing to trade with Iran or engage in investment projects in the country. The challenge comes from other US sanctions. Otherwise, Tehran would have welcomed such economic relations and has issued invitations to US firms to participate in Iranian tenders. If Mr. Trump wishes to expand economic relations with Iran, all he must do is to remove the US sanctions. Iran's prime example is the Iran-Boeing multi-billion-dollar deal for civilian planes, which has faced tough Congressional obstacles for implementation.
Trump's Approach: Applying Coercive Tools
President Trump has shown little inclination to listen to Iran. He appears bent on imposing all the coercive measures he can on the Islamic Republic including sanctions, political isolation and public censure to make Tehran submit to his will. He is already disputing the findings of the IAEA concerning Iran's full implementation of the JCPOA. Washington has said that the IAEA does not have enough information regarding all of Iran's nuclear activities to make such determination. The IAEA may disagree but some 60 percent of its monitoring budget is paid by the US. Niki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, has already asked that the IAEA visit Iran's military sites and "undeclared" locations, and Mr. Yukiya Amano, Director General of the IAEA, has "rejected Tehran's claim that its military sites were off-limits to inspection.
Mr. Trump is also contesting Iran's missile program. He has already gained support from the UN Secretary-General, Britain, France and Germany. In a recent communique, these countries joined the US in issuing a demand on Iran to stop testing new missiles. They have accused Iran of violating the Resolution 2231. The UN Secretary-General and Security Council have also echoed a similar concern. The US and its European allies have specifically noted in their communique that the "technologies" Iran has used in a non-military space launch vehicle (Simorgh) on 27 July "are closely related to those of ballistic missiles development, to those of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles."
The use of the word "technologies" is a new warning to Iran that it will not be allowed to advance in certain technologically advanced fields. Unless Iran is ready to make compromises on the missile front as well (as in the case of its nuclear enrichment), it is expected that more sanctions will follow and Europeans may even join or at least observe such American sanctions. The issue of missiles can prove to be a time bomb in US-Iran relations and for the future of the JCPOA. While the Leader Khamenei used his "heroic flexibility" to let Iran's nuclear enrichment infrastructure to be largely dismantled, he may not have the same flexibility with respect to the nation's missile programs. Tehran insists that its missile program is defensive and non-negotiable.
Every three months, President Trump is required by law (the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) to certify to the US Congress that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA for the lifted nuclear-related sanctions to remain in force. The US State Department has prepared a list of options for the President. All evidence to date suggest that Mr. Trump has no intention to recertify the JCPOA on October 15. If he refuses to recertify, then Congress can act to impose new sanctions on Iran. This will be a major blow to Iran, as it will jeopardize the deal, can make the nuclear-related sanctions to "snap back" as per the JCPOA, and discourage other nations and major companies from working with Iran as well. All these will cause serious problems for Iran's weak economy and its delicate domestic political balance.
To reduce pressure from European allies on himself and to avoid being blamed for scraping the JCPOA, Trump plans to have the US Congress involved in the future of the deal. A major issue which Trump wants Congress to address is the deal's sunset clause. If involved, Congress is also expected to scrutinize Iran's missiles and regional policy. For Iran, Congressional involvement is nothing short of a nightmare. This is the same Congress that the Obama and Rouhani governments isolated to reach the nuclear deal. Even if Congress were to maintain the JCPOA, it would do so after crippling it through more sanctions and lengthy uncertainty-infusing debates about its future.
The Trump administration, along with Congress, seem determined to impose more non-nuclear-related sanctions on Iran and to tighten the existing ones. The Obama administration initiated the post-JCPOA sanctions on Iran, and the Trump administration has already imposed a few more sanctions. The new planned non-nuclear sanctions w ill include sanctions on Iran for supporting Bashar Assad of Syria and radical groups like Hezbollah of Lebanon and Hamas of Palestine, testing new technologically advanced missiles, and for human rights violation in the country. The administration also plans to impose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran for violation of the JCPOA's "spirit" (the expectation that in post-JCPOA, Iran would stop acts contrary to American interests and those of its allies).
The US is already putting pressure on countries and firms to refrain from engaging in trade and investment relations with Iran. This act of the US is expected to intensify and become more public as the JCPOA is further discredited and more sanctions are imposed on Iran. Many large banks and companies have remained reluctant to engage with Iran, and a few that have entered Iran are expected to pull out as US pressure increases. In the past, a good number of large firms and banks have paid large penalties to the US Treasury Department for busting US sanctions. Indeed, the expected foreign investment after the JCPOA has not materialized for Iran, and a good part of the country's frozen oil money remains unavailable to it, accessible to Iran only through barter trades with countries holding the funds.
Iran's Approach: Stand Firm and Hope for the Best
Tehran's mood has been one of wait and see and hope for the best. It still expects that, by some miracle, Trump will not, or cannot, do what many thinks he will do, that is, to scrap the JCPOA. Leaders in Iran believe that Trump can be isolated. For now, he has no support for scraping, or even renegotiating, the deal from other members of the 5+1 group, the UN, and the IAEA. The world public opinion is also against him for his post-deal "illegal" maneuvering to extract more concessions. Iran also argues that the JCPOA is a UN-backed multilateral deal that the US must observe as otherwise its credibility would be jeopardized. While these obstacles exist, Iran must also know that Mr. Trump is genuinely against the deal. As President, he has tremendous power, and the US Congress is controlled by his Republican Party. Together, they can destroy the deal if they want.
Tehran also hopes that economic interests will make other members of the 5+1 group to stay with the JCPOA even if the US walks out. They expect Europe to stay and assume an even more forceful support from Russia and China. Tehran is counting on its large emerging market, and is providing unprecedented incentives to lure countries and firms to engage in trade and investment with Iran. However, the response to Iran's economic outreach has not yet been very successful. Besides, while these countries have not yet supported Mr. Trump publicly, it is very possible that they change heart to protect their vast economic interests in the US, especially when, as expected, Trump makes the issue of missiles the source of a new major dispute with Iran. They may also be inclined to agree with the US argument for the need for extending the sunset clause of the deal. Europeans can also be persuaded with a call for restricting Iran's regional deeds and human rights.
In response to a possible unraveling of the nuclear agreement, Iran is also threatening to restart its nuclear program and quickly return it to the pre-JCPOA condition. They hope this possibility will make Trump "think twice" before he destroys the JCPOA or acts to fully erode Iran's economic benefits from the deal. Tehran's hope in this regard may prove wishful thinking as the US has already begun sanctioning Iran for reasons other than the nuclear dispute. Washington also knows well that Iran has dismantled much of its nuclear infrastructure, and it faces serious technological hurdles to reviving its program quickly. Besides, threats will beget threats leading to a crisis between the two nations much bigger than the dispute over the JCPOA.
On missiles, Iran is arguing that other regional powers are heavily armed with even more advanced missiles, and that Iran's military expenditures are a fraction of its main regional rivals. Iran also maintains that its missiles are for deterrence. Tehran hopes that these reasons will persuade Mr. Trump and his military advisors, who better understand Iran's defensive needs, to temper their opposition to Iranian missiles. Iran also hopes to gain support for its missiles from other parties to the deal. These expectations are certainly misplaced because current US military leaders despise the IRGC and its regional arm, the Quds Force, and European powers have already raised concerns about Iran's missile advances, and Mr. Trump is under heavy pressure from US allies in the region to roll back Iran's missile program.
The Islamic Republic has constantly bragged about its regional reach and power, including its irregular military forces in several countries, and support from the regional Islamic radical groups loyal to Tehran. The Islamic Republic has always hoped to use such show of force and propaganda to persuade Washington to work with Tehran rather than opt for confrontation. While Iran is a regional power, it is also under stress because of various ongoing conflicts in its vicinity, a fact also known to Washington. As in the past, the US may even use Iran's regional power in specific conflict theaters, but it also wants to weaken the country and change its theocratic system. Thus, Tehran may not be able to dissuade Washington from scraping the JCPOA simply because it is a regional power.
Tehran has been extensively using a "fatwa" or religious edict propagated in the name of Ayatollah Khamenei to convince the world leaders that "nuclear bombs are forbidden in Islam." Leaders in Tehran have hoped, and continue to hope, that the religious decree will mitigate fear and help build trust. Iran also committed in the JCPOA that it will "never" and under "no circumstances" build or possess a bomb. Tehran hopes that this commitment, along with that fatwa, will convince the 5+1 group, Mr. Trump in particular, that Iran's real sunset clause for bomb-making is permanent. This hope may not be all that relevant as it was not also relevant when Mr. Obama negotiated the nuclear deal. Trump's approach will also be "distrust but verify," and he is expected to insist that the current sunset clause be extended indefinitely.
The Way Forward: From Delusion to Reality
The arguments presented above show that both sides are somewhat delusional and tend to ignore reality for wishful thinking. Indeed, it is this mindset that has brought them to the current perilous stalemate. To emerge from this impasse, one respectable approach will be for the parties to shed their mutual misconceptions and begin to understand each other better. Only then they can move beyond their short-sighted approaches, and towards a new paradigm of rational and strategic thinking. In the following pages, I will outline some of the key truths each side might recognize as a precondition towards a fresh start.Truths the US Must Recognize for a Fresh Start
Truths Iran Must Recognize for a Fresh Start
No amount of Iranian incentives to international firms can persuade them to transact with the country if the US were to reimpose old sanctions or introduce new ones. Such an environment will only make Iran lose more and face possible future court challenges from firms that might have to pull out during their operations. Currently, Iran is in court with a few firms which had to suspend operations due to US sanctions or Iran's domestic politics.
Accepting these provisions is a precondition for successful negotiations towards improved US-Iran relations as well as preserving the JCPOA. However, for full applicability of these stipulations, they must be admitted voluntarily and with the understanding that they will serve the respective national interests and world peace. Neither side should be threatened. Negotiating under duress of sanctions and war, just like what happened during the nuclear negotiations, is contrary to the national interests of both parties, and coercive diplomacy cannot produce lasting solutions.
The author of these lines , a 30-year veteran of US-Iran relations, hopes that both sides will listen to voice of reason, and by improvising and adopting the said provisions, begin resolving issues that stand between them. Their animosity has huge cost s, directly and indirectly, as billions of dollars in economic damage and many lost lives attest. Getting the parties to shed their strongly held mutual delusions is not going to be easy. Yet, it is always imaginable to change the impossible into probable , and it is this hope that must be upheld.
Meanwhile, a few past breakthroughs in US-Iran relations should reinforce that hope. For example, the US did extend an apology to the Iranian people for the past policy mistakes (including the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup in Iran), and the Iranian Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, used his "heroic flexibility" to make serious concessions on Iran's nuclear program. What makes this author even more optimistic about a transformation of US-Iran thinking and reaching a "global settlement" is the fact that their inimical relationship has become more dangerous while the regional and global environments have become increasingly volatile. A global settlement of US-Iran disputes towards an improvement in their relationship has become an imperative.
About the author:
Hooshang Amirahmadi is a professor and former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. He holds a PhD from Cornell University and is the founder and president of the American Iranian Council. He is also a Senior Associate Member at Oxford University in the U.K. His publications include The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars, Revolution and Economic Transition, and three other books in Persian on civil society, industrial policy, and geopolitics of energy. Dr. Amirahmadi is also editor of ten books on Iran and the Middle East, and 16 conference proceedings on US-Iran relations, as well as numerous journal articles. A frequent contributors to international media and conferences, Dr. Amirahmadi’s advice has been sought by major multinational agencies and international corporations around the world. www.Amirahmadi.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
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