A Nuclear Deal with Iran Remains the Least Bad Option

by Peter Jenkins

Abbas Araghchi was in London last week. Araghchi, one of Iran’s deputy foreign ministers, was a negotiator of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the July 2015 agreement designed to resolve international concerns about the nature and intent of Iran’s nuclear program.

Toward the end of an interview with the BBC on February 22, he was asked whether the JCPOA would “collapse if the United States [were] not part of it.” In reply, he re-affirmed Iran’s nuclear non-proliferation commitment but hinted that a US withdrawal would provoke an Iranian withdrawal unless Europe could ensure that Iran received the benefits due to it under the agreement—which he doubted:

We are not convinced that the deal can survive without the US. It is up to the other participants of the JCPOA to show and to convince Iranians that they can deliver JCPOA even without the US. This is not our understanding for the time being. If the US is out, we would also actually go out because there is no deal anymore…As we see, Europeans are trying to prevent that…We are prepared for every scenario which may happen….If there is no deal anymore obviously there is no restrictions in our nuclear programme anymore. Don’t forget that we agreed in the JCPOA to impose some restrictions on our nuclear programme for the sake of confidence-building for a period of time between eight years to 15 years. When these years are finished, it doesn’t mean that Iran is allowed to go for nuclear weapon. No, Iran would become a normal member of NPT by that time, after eight to 15 years of confidence-building measures. Iran would still be committed to its obligations and still obliged not to go for nuclear weapons….Iran’s commitment not to ever seek or acquire or produce nuclear weapons is permanent.

Was Araghchi depicting Iranian withdrawal as likely in order to encourage Europe to do its utmost to avert a US pull-out? That would be a classic tactic. But Paris, Berlin, and London have shown no sign of needing such encouragement. On the contrary, having failed to persuade President Donald Trump to take their advice more seriously than the counsels of those who pretend that the JCPOA is flawed, they have been searching for compromises to keep both the United States and Iran on board.

So it is just as possible that Araghchi meant what he implied: Iran will withdraw if the United States pulls out, or even if President Trump does no more than continue to deprive Iran of its full measure of benefits (by instructing the Treasury to withhold licences and by stoking uncertainty in the business world as to his intentions).

One can think of reasons why Iranian withdrawal would amount to a self-inflicted wound. It would “make the day” of President Trump, his friends in Jerusalem, and his dancing partner in Riyadh. It would deprive Iran of a basis for building confidence in its nuclear program (unless Tehran were to continue volunteering the nuclear safeguards measures and the restrictions on its program for which the JCPOA provides). It would render Iran more vulnerable to disinformation about its nuclear intentions.

But withdrawal would not be out of character. In 2006 Iran reacted to a referral to the UN Security Council (UNSC) of safeguards violations by reducing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to its program, and by acquiring uranium enrichment capabilities that lent credence to claims that Iran sought nuclear weapons. Tehran was convinced that the referral was unjust and held the other parties to an October 2003 nuclear agreement guilty of a breach of faith. For Tehran, allowing such injuries to pass unanswered was unthinkable.

So President Trump and his advisers ought to ask themselves whether it is in the U.S. interest to run the risk of Iranian withdrawal. Seen from the other side of the Atlantic, running that risk looks dumb.

One of Iran’s options will be to dig out the 2006 playbook and start expanding its enrichment capabilities, using far more efficient centrifuges than were available in 2006. Before long the United States will find itself back where it was when President Barack Obama decided that negotiating an agreement was his least bad option: facing an Iran that could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb in a few weeks.

This time, however, widespread sanctions on Iran will not be an option. Having pulled out of the JCPOA, the United States will be unable to activate the “snapback” provision of UNSC resolution 2231, Russia and China will veto a fresh UN sanctions mandate, and few if any US allies will see any justification for imposing unilateral sanctions on an injured party (Iran) at a cost to their economic interests.

Worse will be the impact of the JCPOA’s demise on the lingering desire of many Americans for a leading role on the global stage. In most parts of the world the JCPOA looks fit for purpose, not flawed. IAEA members and NPT parties see it as an agreement that allows the IAEA ample access to Iranian sites, including military sites when justified. Thanks to that access, the IAEA can verify the absence of illicit nuclear activity in Iran. These states can also see value in the program restrictions that Iran has volunteered, even if years ago they took the view that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons and even though many of them treasure the right of all states to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Will these states admire and respect the United States—will they be eager to follow US leadership—if President Trump causes the collapse of the JCPOA? Or will they see that as evidence of character traits that call into question the desirability of US leadership?

Worse still, there is no need to address the so-called sunset provisions of the JCPOA at this stage. The restrictions on uranium enrichment are only due to lapse between 2026 and 2031. Araghchi said in London that Iran will be open to discussing a follow-on agreement if the JCPOA turns out to have been a success (by which he meant, seemingly, if all parties will have respected their commitments). He also stressed that any expansion of Iran’s enrichment capacity after “the sun has set” will have to have a commercial justification: it will be to meet reactor fuel needs.

Climbing down is never easy. But the case for recognizing that it would be a mistake to pull the United States out of the JCPOA in 2018—or to provoke Iran into withdrawing—is overwhelming.

Photo: Abbas Araghchi (Wikimedia Commons).

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. “This time, however, widespread sanctions on Iran will not be an option.”
    Wrong. The US controls world banking and its sanctions would dominate. In fact the mere threat of the US pulling out has affected Iran’s financial world. This fits the US strategy of promoting civil unrest and regime change in Iran. Israel is asking no less from the USG.

  2. Thank you for another excellent and sane article about the Iranian nuclear agreement. Apart from the fact that violating the agreement does not make any sense from a non-proliferation point of view, it is also counterproductive from political and economic points of view. As an important Middle Eastern country with a large, educated and still mainly pro-Western population, it is important to keep Iran in the Western camp or at least to prevent her from forming strategic alliances with Russia and China. However, despite Iran’s repeated overtures to the West, if the country is repeatedly rebuffed it will have no option but to turn to the East.

    In 2015 Iran’s clerical leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that the nuclear deal was a test to see if negotiations with the West could yield positive results. He told Iranian negotiators that he did not trust the United States, but was willing to go along with the deal to see if America would abide by her commitments. He said: “If the other side stops its usual obstinacy, this will be an experience for us and we will find out that we can negotiate with it over other matters as well.” Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has confirmed Khamenei’s suspicions of America’s intentions, and has blocked the path to more meaningful agreements with Iran on a whole host of issues.

    Foreign Minister Zarif said at the time that the nuclear agreement was the base not the ceiling of agreements that Iran could reach with the West, but Araghchi rightly pointed out in London that to reach agreement on other issues would require a measure of trust between Iran and the West, and the way that the United States had dealt with the agreement had eroded that trust.

    From an economic point of view, too, with the largest gas and the second largest oil reserves (the fourth largest if one includes the shale oil) in the world, and with a population of 80 million people anxious for development, Iran provides one of the best opportunities for trade and investment in the Middle East. China and Russia treat Iran as partners, not as a subordinate. A president who portrays himself as a deal maker should seize the opportunity and start a new era of dialog with Iran on political and economic issues, but if he fails to do so Europe should make sure that they abide by the deal and will not push Iran further away from the West until such time when America is ready for a serious engagement.

  3. Good logical thinking here.
    But the issue is hegemony in the Middle East. The tough challenge is to frame the argument for Washington why staying with JCPOA supports blocking Iran‘s regional moves and supports US influence. Keeping Iran‘s pathways to nuclear weapons blocked should be the rationale, and that argument needs development.

  4. Excellent analysis! It’s all about money, selling arms and creating jobs in the west and Israel! These are the US economic objectives in the ME and by pronouncing Iran as a regional threat and a US enemy the objectives are justified! Unfortunately Iran, to a certain degree, encourages the west in its direction and the west encourages Iran to join the Eastern blocks! Common sense on both sides has not prevail yet and it may take many more years before they find the right path!

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