Amidst scepticism, the US return to the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is again making rounds in the media and diplomatic circles. The Ukrainian crisis has provided the necessary trigger to allow the Iranian oil and gas in the international market to meet the shortfall resulting due to the boycott of Russian energy. Hence the talk of the US’s return to the JCPOA.
There are reports that both the US and Iran have ironed out their differences, especially on the Iranian demand that the US should guarantee that the coming US administrations would not scrap the agreement. However, the American interlocutors have been adamant that being a democracy, they cannot tie the incoming president to adhere to the deal with Iran. According to the Foreign Affairs magazine, given the rivalry in American politics, “the revived deal may last only as long as a Democrat is in the White House since key Republican leaders have already publicly committed to killing the deal if a Republican is elected in 2024.”
When President Trump announced withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran reacted sharply. It started enrichment of Uranium to above 60 percent level, which alarmed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its European signatories. After much haggling through the European mediation, Iran has reportedly dropped its guarantee demand on the agreement’s durability. However, Iran’s compromise implies its resolve to enhance enrichment levels should the US abandon the JCPOA.
From the word go, the JCPOA has had a bad start as the Obama administration has been reluctant in fulfilling its part of the deal. The US continued its sanctions against Iran, although it allowed non-American entities to resume normal relations with Iran. Consequently, Iran received an encouraging response from Europe, which resumed normal trade relations and explored investment opportunities in Iran, especially in the energy sector. The bilateral trade between Iran and Europe jumped to USD 23 billion in 2016.
Even if revived, the JCPOA will face myriad challenges. Therefore, its success would mean a lot of commotion in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and Israel are leading the charge in opposing the agreement or the US’s return to the deal. According to Tehran Times, a rare public assessment carried by Hebrew language media, the Israeli spymaster Barnea has described the nuclear deal as ‘very bad for Israel’ and would amount to a ‘strategic disaster’ for Tel Aviv. He warned that “Tel Aviv will not be obligated by the terms of a revived JCPOA and will act in whatever ways it sees fit to counter the threat posed by Iran.”
Second, the revival of JCPOA would be taking place when the Ukrainian crisis has pushed the world to the brink of a new Cold War. The rise in oil and gas prices has caused unnecessary problems for the world. In such a situation, the US hope that the Iranian oil and gas would be made available to the European buyers is an optimistic view of the Iranian propensity to conform to the American wishes. Given its strategic partnership with Russia and China, Iran is unlikely to ditch Russia or be a part of the American game plan. Moreover, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the Ebrahim Raisi government’s preference to look to the East, not the West. From Tehran’s vantage point, the world has become irreversibly multipolar, creating an environment in which Iran’s geopolitical prospects as a significant regional power are set to improve.
Third, the American insistence on rejecting a binding agreement on the pretext that it would tie the hands of future presidents is shallow and raises the question of American credibility in honouring international agreements. The US did not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the disarmament realm. At the same time, elsewhere, it unsigned the International Criminal Court (ICC) agreement on the pretext that it does not recognize the jurisdiction of this legal body. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA became a tool in the hands of Iranian leaders who questioned the credibility of American commitments to international treaties and agreements.
Fourth, the nuclear deal is also challenged by the hardliner clergy in Iran, which sees the IAEA’s surprise inspections as an infringement of Iran’s sovereignty. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has occasionally warned to beware of the American machinations in binding Iran to the nuclear deal. Through its deft diplomacy, Iran has earned the respect of its detractors by sticking to the nuclear deal and allowing IAEA to conduct inspections.
Fifth, Russia and China support the Iranian contention that the US should return to the JCPOA without conditions. This stance has strengthened Iran’s position amongst the JCPOA’s signatories and the developing countries. The US intransigence after the Ukrainian crisis has created a clear divide in international politics, where ‘Look East’ is a fast-growing trend. Iran is emerging as a part of this trend; being an oil and gas producing country, Iran can emerge as a formidable voice if the US tussle with China-Russia continues.
Iran has effectively used its diplomatic options in the nuclear milieu in forcing the Biden administration to return to the negotiating table on the JCPOA. While adhering to the nuclear deal, Iran has thrown a spanner in the works by disclosing that it has attained the know-how to weaponise its nuclear programme. Kamal Kharrazi, former Foreign Minister and a senior advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Al-Jazeera TV in July that his country was capable of making a nuclear weapon “but a decision whether to do so has not yet been made.” Mr Kharrazi added: “In a few days, we were able to enrich Uranium up to 60 percent, and we can easily produce 90 percent enriched uranium…. Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb, but there has been no decision by Iran to build one.” Experts watching the Iranian nuclear programme believe that Iran has reduced the “breakout time”; it can become a nuclear weapon state within six to nine months rather than the original 12 months.
Mr Kharrazi’s disclosure must have raised alarms in the major Western and Middle Eastern capitals. The question arises whether the US knew about this development. If so, the entire Middle East will likely go for the nuclear route. Israel is already a de facto nuclear power with advanced delivery systems. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE may follow suit. There could be absolute anarchy in the disarmament regime which already suffers paralysis.
By now, the US must have realized that President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA turned out to be a blessing for Iran, which allowed the latter to rejuvenate its nuclear fuel cycle to higher levels of enrichment—even to the weapon grade—to prove to the US and other detractors that sanctions may not always work with desired results.
Note: This article appeared in BOL, dated 02 September 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.