By Owen Saunders
The United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran have endured continued tensions over the last forty years. The relationship has often been strained by disagreements over values, government structures, foreign interference, and ideological beliefs. A primary threat perceived by the United States in recent years has been Iran’s emerging capacity to produce enriched uranium, which can be used in the creation of nuclear weapons. The formulation and negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which ended successfully in 2015, principally as a result of track two dialogues beginning in the early 2000s, was intended to address these latest pressures.
As background to the JCPOA, the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and the re-election of President Obama in 2012 presented an opportune moment wherein both sides were looking for new ideas and new ways forward in order to kickstart formal discussions around reaching a nuclear agreement. The JCPOA, in essence, was a deal whereby, in exchange for the lifting of the US’s longstanding and crippling economic sanctions, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear capabilities. For example, the agreement stated that Iran could have no more than 300 kilograms of enriched uranium at a maximum of 3.67 percent, and that the attainment of such quantities was to be verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Besides the two disputants, other parties to the JCPOA included all members of the Security Council (China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom) and Germany.
After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, his Administration targeted the JCPOA as one part of its agenda of projecting American strength and embracing isolationism. Trump was opposed to what he saw as the unnecessary compromises made by Obama, in much the same way that he was committed to undoing much of Obama’s domestic and other foreign initiatives. In regard to the JCPOA, Trump stated that:
‘The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence, bloodshed and chaos across the Middle East. That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambition. They have not lived up to the spirit of their agreement.’
Trump went on to say, that if these issues were not resolved, the United States would withdraw from the agreement. Israel was another harsh critic of the deal, with Prime Minister Netanyahu arguing that Iran was able to circumvent the deal and would significantly increase production of a nuclear weapon.
American and European supporters of the JCPOA argued that the agreement was critical in upholding four objectives: nuclear nonproliferation, regional stability in the Middle East, restoration of U.S.-Iran bilateral relations (as well as the reintegration of Iran into the international community), and the promotion of ‘western’ human rights and democracy inside Iran. Critics, however, argued that the primary problem did not lie in the details of the agreement, but rather in what was left out of it, that being the threat posed by Iran’s geopolitical ambitions towards U.S. allies in the region. As for providing regional stability, they argued that Iran could not even effectively stabilize itself. Other criticisms focused on the possibility of U.S.-Iranian normalization, with some arguing that the animosity from and toward the United States would constitute an intractable obstacle in attempting to rectify their relationship. Finally, critics also purported that the Iranian regime was unreformable when it comes to human rights and democracy. As one critic noted, Iran is “a police state, incapable of reforming itself while drowning in corruption and economic ineptitude.”
These latter views had attracted little support during the Obama administration, but found strong support in the Trump administration, and the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. Once withdrawn, Trump not only re-imposed the previous sanctions but added new ones as well. As a result, Iran began to breach the constraints outlined within the JCPOA and has, since 2018, exceeded numerous limits on the stockpiling of low enriched uranium.
U.S. disengagement and the concurrent reaction by Iran has raised major concerns for the remaining signatories of the JCPOA and has led to increasing tensions between Washington and Tehran. Most recently, the Trump administration’s assassination of Iran’s General Qassim Soleimani, a powerful figure in Iran’s politics, sparked outrage and inflamed relations. After his death, Iran announced that it was abandoning the “final limitations in the nuclear deal,” which prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. However, Iran also stated that it would continue to cooperate with the IAEA and return to the original agreement should an American administration lift the economic sanctions and abide by the JCOPA. Iran’s Foreign Minister Zavad Zarif said that if the Biden administration lifts the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, and provides assurance that the United States will not leave the agreement in the same manner as the previous administration, the Iranian government would be willing to re-enter negotiations.
On the U.S. side, Biden is open to re-joining the pact, but the issue is under what conditions and how to do so. The new U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is expected to meet with the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom to discuss the United States’ re-entry into the agreement. The Biden Administration has also appointed Robert Malley, a senior official under both the Obama and Clinton Administrations, as an ‘Iran Envoy’ to aid in the effort. The primary challenge as re-negotiation moves forward will be to what extent the Biden Administration can push amendments to the original agreement, what degree of pushback will there be from the other parties to the JCPOA?
A successful re-entry into the agreement is, however, still uncertain. President Biden seeks to continue to rebuild the reputation of the United States on the world stage. The challenge will be to negotiate and successfully re-enter the agreement within a very short time frame – by the 2022 midterms, the domestic landscape, international challenges, and congressional makeup could likely look very different. Although Biden is still in the first weeks of his mandate, time is already running out. Biden’s recent authorization of offensive air strikes on Iranian backed militias in Syria could create further tensions between the US and Iran, impacting the successful re-negotiation of the JCPOA.
Owen is pursuing his MA in International Peace and Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His interest in researching this topic developed from a Track Two Diplomacy course by Dr. Peter Jones at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Find him on Twitter @owensaunders26