by International Crisis Group
That the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has so far survived the May 2018 U.S. withdrawal is remarkable, owing much to the other signatories’ efforts to keep it alive. But with Washington actively undermining the deal through reimposition and aggressive enforcement of sanctions, with increasing risks of spillover from growing regional tensions, and reports that some U.S. officials want a confrontation, the agreement remains highly vulnerable. Iran might well persist with its present approach of complying with the deal and waiting out the Trump administration, but it will require continued efforts by Europe in particular, as well as Russia and China, to provide it with diplomatic and economic incentives. Tehran could facilitate these efforts by enhancing its banking standards and demonstrating its ability to play a more constructive role in the region, starting with pressing the Houthis in Yemen to fully implement the initial deal brokered by the UN special envoy. Democratic candidates in the 2020 U.S. presidential election should affirm their intent to rejoin the deal.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that the JCPOA, entering its fourth year of implementation, is serving its primary objective. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran’s nuclear program remains contained within the limits imposed by the deal. Yet the deal’s core bargain (ie, sanctions relief in return for nuclear restrictions and monitoring) has unraveled, as the reimposition of U.S. sanctions has deprived Iran of most of the promised benefits. While unilateral, U.S. sanctions are proving effective: they have left Iran with rapidly dwindling oil revenues and contributed to skyrocketing inflation.
While Washington’s ultimate goals are not entirely clear, the U.S. administration appears determined to push Iran’s economy down to the ground, international investors and traders out of the country, and the Iranian people into the streets. For some officials, the objective is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table; for others, to pressure it to curb its regional actions and ballistic missile program; and for still others, to destabilize or even topple the regime.
The JCPOA’s fate now seems to depend on a three-way race against the clock: the U.S. is trying to bring maximum pressure to bear on Iran in the minimum amount of time in the hope that Iran’s economy crumbles; Iran is exercising patience in the hope that the Trump administration fails, becomes distracted or is ousted from power in 2020; and Europe has embarked on an earnest but largely symbolic scramble to prevent the deal’s derailment by offering Iran enough economic and diplomatic incentives for it to remain in the deal without deepening the trans-Atlantic rift.
Against the low probability of renegotiation, given Tehran’s reluctance to validate Trump’s pressure policy, or of regime change, and considering Iran’s extensive experience in surviving economic duress and suppressing dissent, Washington might succeed in strangling Iran’s economy without achieving any of its goals. Instead, it could lead Iran to evade the deal’s nuclear constraints or to use its proxies to target U.S. assets in the region. Both steps in turn could provoke a military confrontation. To add another element of uncertainty: political jockeying in both capitals is likely to increase in the run-up to Iran’s 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections (and a potential transition to a new supreme leader), and the U.S. presidential election in 2020.
Even assuming the deal survives until these potential turning points, reverting to the status quo ante might not be sustainable. If Trump wins re-election, it would be hard to imagine Iran weathering another four years of crippling sanctions. If a Democratic candidate were to prevail, he or she might well agree to resume U.S. compliance with the deal, but also face strong pressure to fortify the JCPOA, given that in 2024 the sun will set on key limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity.
In other words, at some point in the future there is a high probability that a successor agreement building on the JCPOA will be required. While Iran does not wish to contemplate this scenario at present, the fact is that none of the parties to the JCPOA is fully satisfied with the deal – neither Iran, because even under the Obama administration sanctions relief was insufficient, nor the U.S. or Europe, because certain nuclear constraints will expire relatively quickly and the deal does not limit Tehran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities. The next two years could thus be well spent exploring options for a more sustainable successor arrangement that advances all sides’ interests.
Ultimately, the same calculus that brought Iran and world powers to com-promise after thirteen years of standoff and two years of intensive negotiations, and which has led remaining JCPOA signatories to preserve it without the U.S., still holds: the alternatives to this agreement – a race between sanctions and centrifuges that could culminate in Iran obtaining the bomb or being bombed – would be much worse. They still can and should be avoided.
This executive summary of a new report by the International Crisis Group is reprinted with permission.