The state of the Iran nuclear deal

Both the US and Iran have turned their backs on the JCPOA, once a triumph of compromise, while the EU is left hoping they’ll return to the negotiating table
Illustration by John Holcroft

By Sean Craig

Sean Craig is a business and investigative journalist who has contributed to The Daily Beast, the Financial Post, BuzzFeed News and Vice

09 Feb 2023

When you’re the President of the United States, there is no such thing as casual chitchat, as the European Union and other American allies were reminded of last December.

A previously unseen video of President Joe Biden appeared on social media, showing a constituent asking him at a November 2022 rally if he could “please” announce that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the groundbreaking nuclear deal with Iran that counts the European Union as a signatory, is dead.

Most politicians would watch their words carefully in a case like this, with the glare of cameras on par with a paparazzi frenzy outside a Los Angeles steakhouse, but Biden has alternatingly succeeded and failed in politics by being a chatty man.

“It is dead, but we are not going to announce it,” he said. “Long story.”

When the video circulated over a month later, the EU ended a roller coaster year of negotiations with an apparent confirmation that the US administration feels it is done with the Iran deal, leaving the future status of Tehran’s nuclear programme up in the air and one of the single greatest diplomatic achievements to curb nuclear proliferation on ice.

EU officials concede – given the diplomatic temperature and country-wide protests over women’s rights in Iran which have created even greater complexities – that the JCPOA is in a bind, but believe it is still the best chance for a constructive resolution.

“The current developments in and around Iran put the JCPOA in a very difficult situation, but the EU still believes that when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation, there is no alternative to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Peter Stano, spokesperson for the European External Action Service, said in a statement to The Parliament. “The JCPOA remains the best option to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons and its nuclear programme remains under international oversight.”

Once a triumph of compromise and the product of years of work, hope for the deal’s future could rest on the fact that it was a bumpy road to get there in the first place.

The Iran nuclear deal can trace its origins to 2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered that the country had secretly enriched uranium in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA, the United Nations agency responsible for inspecting nuclear facilities, called for Iran to come into compliance and co-operate with an investigation.

Three years later, in 2006, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding Iran suspend uranium enrichment activities and cooperate with the IAEA. The Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iran, but the country’s leaders continued to order the enrichment of uranium and ran around the IAEA's investigation.

The US led a new round of negotiations with world powers, in 2013, to try and resolve the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, namely fears that it could develop nuclear weapons, once and for all.

It took two more years of negotiations, but in July 2015 came the JCPOA. Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium, dismantle most of its nuclear infrastructure and accept stringent limits on its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The deal also included provisions to allow the IAEA to monitor and inspect Iran's nuclear facilities to ensure compliance with the agreement. In exchange, Iran received billions in sanctions relief.

Throughout the process, Europe’s diplomatic role was essential. European powers Germany, France and Britain were active in nuclear negotiations with Iran from 2003 to 2006, and a failed 2004 agreement opened the door to the possibility that a successful one might one day be feasible.

The E3, as these states were known, alongside the EU’s then High Commissioner, Catherine Ashton, would ultimately be involved in drafting the main tenets of the JCPOA, a deal that was finally agreed on EU soil, in Vienna. This made the agreement one of the most important achievements of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, first established in 1993 under the Maastricht Treaty.

JCPOA was widely seen as a major diplomatic achievement. Many experts argued that the deal had effectively stopped Iran from developing nuclear weapons, at least for its 15-year duration.

Then, of course, came the Donald Trump administration in 2017. From the start, the Iran nuclear deal faced opposition from critics, particularly Congressional Republicans, who argued it didn’t go far enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in the long term or that the lifting of sanctions was too lenient.

Trump announced the US withdrawal in 2018, citing “the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement”. The US reinstituted economic sanctions on Iran and imposed additional ones, leaving the other parties to the deal holding a piece of paper suddenly worth very little.

After Biden took office with a less abrasive foreign policy agenda than Trump, there were flashes of hope that flickered until only a few months ago. Talks to restore the 2015 deal kicked off in April 2021 and, in August 2022, EU negotiators produced a “final” draft of an agreement that led to musings of a diplomatic miracle in some quarters.

But the increasingly detestable behaviour of the Iranian regime appears to have put the JCPOA in what the International Institute for Strategic Studies called a “worsening coma”.

Beginning in September, Iran’s government unleashed violent crackdowns on domestic protests for women’s and civil rights – at least 516 protesters have been killed, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency. The regime has also transferred uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) and missiles to Russia, which have been used in indiscriminate attacks in Ukraine. These activities made the idea of sanctions relief essentially toxic to US officials.

By October, the US envoy for Iran Rob Malley previewed Biden’s “dead” remark by saying the administration would not “waste time” on the Iran nuclear deal given Tehran’s crackdown on protesters and support for Russia’s war.

Rapprochement, officially, seems off the table. In December, the EU imposed new sanctions against the Iranian regime over the crackdown on protests, including targeting the country’s leaders with travel bans, asset freezes and cutting off their access to goods and funds. More sanctions are under consideration, and some foreign ministers in the bloc including Germany’s Annalena Baerbock have floated the idea of labelling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a “terrorist organisation”.

“In spite of the fact that the nuclear deal remains in a stalemate and the escalation of Iran’s nuclear programme is of great concern, we will continue to engage as much as possible trying to revive this deal,” added the EEAS’ Stano. “High Representative Borrell – in his role as Coordinator of the JCPOA negotiations based on the tasking from the United Nations – will continue working towards restoring the JCPOA.”

In recent history, the EU has had more open diplomatic channels with Iran than the US, something the nuclear deal and its demise have shown. Some experts have suggested the JCPOA’s collapse, therefore, suggests a weak EU influence on its American partners.

Some experts have suggested the JCPOA’s collapse suggests a weak EU influence on its American partners

“A sad conclusion is that the EU, despite its promises, is unable to negate punitive US actions,” Robert Czulda, a professor of international relations at the University of Lodz, wrote in a paper for the Atlantic Council. “The EU has failed to achieve anything spectacular, even though the JCPOA was supposed to be a flagship achievement of the EU’s common foreign policy and a symbol of the organisation’s growing strength. In fact, recent developments clearly show that the EU is still just a paper tiger.”

In the meantime, Iran has shut off cameras at nuclear sites that the IAEA used to monitor its enrichment programs and resumed interfering in inspections. Previously, the JCPOA limited Iran to enriching uranium to 3.67 per cent of the U-235 isotope, or what’s needed to fuel nuclear power plants and to keep a stockpile of under 300 kilograms of this low-enriched uranium.

Now, the UN nuclear watchdog says it estimates Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is more than 18 times the limit set under the JCPOA, and that the country is enriching uranium to levels higher than the previous 3.67 per cent limit.

The threat of sanctions has weakened, too, according to some analysts, who point to economic estimates, including from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that show Iran’s economic growth hasn’t been significantly deterred as sanctions resumed.

The IMF forecasts Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by $91bn or two per cent in 2023 to $1.7tn, and that the country’s GDP per capita will increase by $865 to $19,528 in 2023 from $18,663 in 2022.

“President Ebrahim Raisi looks well poised to preside over faster real GDP growth during his current term (2021-24) than the annual average of 1.2 per cent seen under his predecessor,” wrote Katherine Bauer and Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy last year. “It seems unlikely that Iran’s hardliners will attribute the coming growth to a renewed nuclear deal – and it may be difficult to persuade Iranian citizens that the hardliners are wrong.”

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