The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was agreed between the P5 (United Kingdom, United States, France, China and Russia) +1 (Germany) in 2015, after years of sanctions and diplomacy. The deal put Iran’s nuclear program on hold by restricting its uranium enrichment and monitoring nuclear activity at its facilities through the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), a neutral UN body at a Glance, 2018). Since the signing of the deal, Donald Trump has criticised its limitations and short-term nature, which lets Iran accept temporary restrictions for permanent benefits, eventually allowing it to develop nuclear weapons and grow economically. During his presidential campaign, Trump highlighted the deal’s failure to address Iran’s non-nuclear missile program, its regional aggression and the expiration of restrictions and checks under the sunset clauses.
US withdrawal and its consequences
President Trump fulfilled his election campaign promise of withdrawing the US from the deal due to its deficiencies in May 2018. The UK, France and Germany (E3) and Iran announced that they would stay committed to the deal despite US withdrawal (World leaders react to US withdrawal from Iranian nuclear deal, 2018). What followed were accusations from Iran about the EU not meeting their end of the bargain and Iran gradually breaching its commitments under the deal. In January 2020, days after General Qasem Soleimani was assassinated, Iran announced its fifth and final breach of JCPOA commitments, bringing it down to zero operational restrictions. Following renewed concerns about Iran returning to developing nuclear weapons, the E3 announced the formal triggering of the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism. This mechanism, which was to take two months, would either compel Iran to respect its commitments under the JCPOA or restore UNSC sanctions on Iran.
Change in dynamics due to COVID-19
The unexpected outbreak of COVID-19 has put the process in limbo and brought additional factors to the matter, raising uncertainties about the future of the JCPOA. Several factors that affect the future of the deal are:
The sanctions reinstated by the US in 2018 – particularly the ones on energy, shipping and financial sectors – have dried up foreign investment in Iran and hit oil exports. The sanctions imposed in 2019 were specifically intended to shrink Iran’s oil exports to zero, denying the regime its principal source of revenue. Consequently, Iran’s economy shrank by 4.8% in 2018 and 9.5% in 2019. The sanctions have also affected Iran’s medical facilities, resulting in shortages of life-saving medicines and crippling its pharmaceutical industry.
COVID-19 is a global pandemic which is placing enormous pressure on the healthcare infrastructure and national economies around the world. With lockdowns currently being the primary means to fight the disease, most advanced economies of the world are expected to enter recession. The enormous impact of COVID-19, along with US sanctions on Iran places additional pressure on Iran’s economy, medical infrastructure and government. This would mean that Iran will be desperate for its economy to recover from the disaster as soon as possible. This could result in, either compliance with, or extreme defiance of American demands. The latter would result in an acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program.
Lockdowns and attempts at containing the virus are also making IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities difficult, providing Iran with a smokescreen for its activities. This precludes the international community from keeping check on Iran’s rate of compliance or violation of the deal, amplifying Western distrust in the Iranian administration.
The IAEA released two important reports in March. The first was a regular quarterly report on Iranian uranium enrichment activities, which showed a rapid spike over the last several months. The second report highlighted Iran’s non-disclosure of information about undeclared activity and sites from nearly 20 years ago under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards – a treaty that Iran has recently been threatening to abandon. Such non-disclosure also adds to suspicion of Iran’s hidden nuclear activities and capabilities.
China, Russia and Iran have strengthened their relationship, as illustrated by joint naval exercises between the three countries. In contrast, increasing disagreements appear to reflect weakened relations between the US and Europe.
How do all these dynamics affect the JCPOA? What does the future hold for the JCPOA? These questions are being raised worldwide. The deal was seen as a historic moment for the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Although parties to the deal are struggling with the COVID-19 outbreak, the new developments in Iran cannot be ignored if the deal is to be saved.
Fallout due to COVID-19?
However, given recent events, it is evident that all parties are being forced to move further away from their commitments under the JCPOA, and it is becoming harder to uphold the deal. But, with the Iran-US relationship deteriorating by the day, the responsibility to respond rapidly lies with the E3. For example, Iran recently rejected the aid it was offered by the US to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. This distrust is primarily due to the hypocrisy of the US offering aid, while simultaneously imposing “vicious” sanctions which exacerbate Iran’s struggles in dealing with the pandemic. These increasing tensions, when coupled with Iran’s hostility towards the proliferation regime, can put Iran on a path to developing nuclear weapons. This is an outcome the international community should aim to avoid at all costs due to its unsettling effects on regional stability, international security and the non-proliferation regime. Therefore, given that the dispute resolution mechanism has already been triggered, the restoration of UNSC sanctions would be crippling for Iran. As an intermediary between both parties, the E3 nations should swiftly open diplomatic channels with Tehran as well as Washington. But what should future action entail?
Can, and should, the deal be saved?
The most difficult question for the E3 is whether the JCPOA is worth saving, despite the sunset clauses and expiration of several terms in the near future. Alternatively, the E3 could give in to US pressure and back attempts at establishing a new, robust, more long-term deal. The E3 should try to capitalise on its unique position as a mediator and coordinate actions between Iran and the US, like President Macron attempted in September 2019. If the E3 decide to begin negotiations for a new deal, Russia and China’s growing relations with Iran may prove to be potential roadblocks. Europe has also skirted US sanctions to send COVID-19 aid to Iran, but what would its consequences be for EU-US relations at the end of this pandemic?
Given the deteriorating situation revolving around the JCPOA, it seems as though attempts to save the older deal are currently futile. It would be more beneficial for all parties to enter new negotiations for a new deal. This may come across as the world being bullied by the US. Therefore, unity between other states to ensure that the US does not get away with an unfair bargain will be paramount. The biggest question now is the result of US elections scheduled for November this year. This uncertainty could explain why new rounds of negotiations are being avoided right now. Several states will wait to see the outcome of the US elections before engaging in diplomatic efforts since the future of JCPOA and the dialogue around it will be influenced by the future of US leadership.
Anant Saria is a freelance writer with a Journalism major. He is particularly interested in International Relations and Human Rights. He is studying his Masters in International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London.