The United States Can’t Have Its JCPOA and Eat It Too

by Shireen T. Hunter

Last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), has many detractors in the United States and elsewhere, including U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. They have always maintained that the deal benefits Iran more than the United States and its allies. Many of these detractors have thus argued that the JCPOA should be renegotiated or simply cancelled.

Now, however, many of them are singing a different tune. Following the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal or violation of the agreement has become real. Suddenly, many of the agreement’s earlier detractors have become its fans. They are finally admitting that the United States and other countries, which want to forestall the possibility that Iran might build nuclear weapons, actually got a good deal. Despite claims by the Iranian government that it could easily turn the nuclear switch back on, it would be hard for Iran to resume its activities without facing intensified economic sanctions, by the United States and many other countries, not to mention the serious risk of a military confrontation or even open conflict with the U.S. Perhaps because of this fact, after a meeting in Tehran with the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukio Amano, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Iran will not be the first to leave JCPOA.

Iran: Still Waiting for Its Benefits

Thus far, however, Iran has gained few benefits from the agreement. It is true that it can sell its oil on the international market and hope to be paid for it. Some Western countries are also prepared to sell it formerly-embargoed goods while insisting that they are doing Iran a favor. But in many cases, the principal benefits go not to the Iranian economy and Iranian workers, but rather to those of the selling countries. Two cases in point are pending sales to Iran of European Airbus and American Boeing aircraft – assuming that the latter deal actually goes through. But, in the view of the former-opponents-now-converts to the JCPOA, Iran should not expect any substantial investments nor should it be allowed in exchange into the international financial system. Moreover, while finally recognizing that the JCPOA achieves its former detractors’ main objective—preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear-weapons capacity—they continue to support punishment for other aspects of Iran’s behavior, at home and abroad, to which they object. They argue that the United States can always adopt harsh policies towards Iran and pressure it on many fronts without jeopardizing the nuclear deal.

There is a basic flaw in this argument: the JCPOA, like any other international agreement, has two sides to it and two components. In agreeing to drastically curb its nuclear program and thus acceding to the wishes of the United States and its negotiating partners (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia), Iran received a parallel commitment that certain strictures would be lifted, notably most of the sanctions that had crippled the Iranian economy, including withholding monies that were rightfully hers in payment for oil exports. But barriers to the transfer of funds, orchestrated mainly by the US government, remain in place. Thus, one might reasonably ask, if sanctions on Iran are not lifted and barriers to investment in the country remain unchanged, what incentive would Tehran have to stick to its side of the JCPOA bargain?

Adherents to this line of thinking in the United States believe they can keep the JCPOA intact while at the same time continue pursuing harsh policies toward Iran. They apparently assume that Iran does not have much choice, that it will continue to abide by the JCPOA no matter what. Otherwise, it would be faced with a return of the so-called crippling sanctions and the specter of a US military attack.

Pressuring Iran May Backfire

Certainly, the scuttling of JCPOA, whichever side initiates it, would harm Iran, and that is why so far Iran has been patient. However, the proponents of the thesis that they can pocket the JCPOA and pressure Iran to make more concessions ignore four cardinal points:

First, there can come a time when pressure reaches the point of diminishing returns. If Iran’s compromises and concessions do not yield the desired result in terms of reciprocal benefits, why would Iran continue doing it?

Second, a policy of increasing pressure, like any escalation of tension, tends to reach a point where it must be resolved, either through more drastic measures, such as the use of force, or through compromise. Clearly, Iran will suffer more than would the United States should the two go to war. However, the U.S., even if only indirectly, would not escape unscathed. A U.S. war against Iran is most unlikely to stay localized. If Iran is to go up in flames, it would make sure that others would also get thoroughly burned. In fact, the entire Persian Gulf and a good part of the South Caucasus would be affected by such a Iran. Further, the West has already suffered the consequences of the destabilization of much of the Middle East that was set off by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The impact of a war against Iran would likely be even worse and more widespread. At that point, America’s Arab allies in the Persian Gulf would learn just how much Iran has been exercising self-restraint in the face of assaults on Shia populations, such as Saudi Arabia’s interventions in Bahrain, its devastating military campaign in Yemen, its support for Sunni radicals in the southeastern part of Iran, and its championing of the Iranian terrorist organization, Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), which presses for regime change in Tehran.

Third, by their actions if not by their words, the United States and its allies equate Iran’s “good behavior” with what in fact would be its unconditional surrender to all their demands. They refuse to recognize that, like any other nation, Iran also has legitimate national interests in its region and both cannot and will not ignore them. No state and nation can agree to such demands.

Fourth, Iran has been burned in the past. Every time it has made concessions, as in Afghanistan in 2001, when, after delivering the Afghan Northern Alliance to Washington, it was called part of an “axis of evil.” Its 2003 offer to negotiate a “grand bargain” with the U.S. on the full range of issues that divided the two countries was also ignored. And now, while it has fully implemented its obligations under the JCPOA, it has not yet gained the agreed-upon sanctions relief, in major part because of the U.S. Treasury’s failure to reassure European banks that they would not face U.S. retaliation if they did business with Iran. What guarantee would Iran have that, even if it accepted all Western demands, it would not face new demands and new threats?

Indeed, all those Iranians in the country itself and in the diaspora who have preached moderation and compromise to the leadership in Tehran are now facing a crisis of credibility. Hardliners are saying “we told you so.” In fact, the unfolding of the post-JCPOA period has bolstered the arguments of those in Iran who have maintained that Washington could never be trusted and that only a nuclear capacity can protect the country.

More Carrots, Fewer Sticks

In short, if the United States wants Iran to moderate its domestic politics and behave in ways more congenial to U.S. interests, it should demonstrate that such changes will be rewarded. The U.S. government’s handling of the post-JCPOA period does not inspire such confidence, particularly given the prospect of a far more hostile Trump administration.

Finally, Washington and its Western allies should take a more balanced view of regional problems in terms of assigning guilt. Laying all of the Middle East’s troubles at Iran’s doorstep and absolving other regional players of any wrongdoing will neither solve these problems nor encourage Iran to change its behavior. On the contrary, even if Iran were to disappear from the map, other problems would remain. Palestinians and Israelis will not make peace; Sunni-based terrorism, like that of the Islamic State, will continue; Turks and Kurds won’t end their feuding; Saudi Arabia will continue to throw its weight around, scaring the lesser sheikhdoms into a union they don’t want; and Arabs will remain as divided as ever.

The bottom line is that the United States “can’t have its JCPOA and eat it, too.” If it wants the nuclear agreement with Iran to work, it has to do its share—or prepare for the possibility, however remote it may now seem, of another messy Middle East war.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Very fine article, but I still don’t quite understand what Iran is doing that should threaten U.S. interests, or why or where it should agree to further compromises.

    After all, Iran did not have a WMD program- the 2007 NIE said as much in the unanimous voice of 16 or 17 U.S. Intelligence agencies, and may not have even had one up to 2003, according to Gareth Porter’s extensive research, since the intelligence indicating it was dodgy, and is believed to have originated with the Mossad.

    So, Iran ended up agreeing to tight controls (many of which already existed) because of its assumed capability to develop something it never had, and presumably did not otherwise intend to develop. I’d say it was ‘such a deal’ for the U.S.

    As for what might happen if the U.S. reneges on the deal, IMHO I don’t believe it would develop nuclear weapons, but instead would rely on Russia and Russia’s protection of its nuclear plant investments in Iran as part of its defense against military threats. And on the economic front Iran is cutting deals in rials and rubles, and rials and renmin, just as the Russians are cutting deals in rubles and renmin with the Chinese, all to avoid the U.S. sanctions. Moreover, the Russians are also involved in new investments with Iran to store and transport natural gas to India. Furthermore, the U.S. would be pushing the envelope the Europeans, if it reversed itself and forced them to renege on the deals they’ve already cut, and refrain from further trade or investments.

    The fly in the ointment, or elephant in the room, as it has been for decades, is Israel and its aggressive and intransigent expansionist policies with the Palestinians and its neighbors. That may keep the pot boiling indefinitely, but the balance is now in favor of Iran and an improvement in its economy and position in the region, notwithstanding U.S. sanctions, unless, for example, the naysayers can pull off a coup in Turkey and force changes in Turkey’s foreign policy with Iran and Russia.

  2. ‘Third, by their actions if not by their words, the United States and its allies equate Iran’s “good behavior” with what in fact would be its unconditional surrender to all their demands’

    ie the USA, the criminal acts of whom seem never-ending, keeps wanting to blame Iran for acts which are not threats, and brings on “sanctions” to a sovereign country for spurious reasons. The real threats to peace and harmony, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are “allies”.

  3. Excellent article professor Shireen Hunter.
    The Hardliners in Iranian regime won’t survive without an enemy and the US is making it easy and clears the path for them to survival. As far as I can tell Iran will never surrender nor will kiss up to US because of the US past and current behavior and attitude! Until the US begins to recognize, understand and respect the Iranians psyche the current situation will continue and in return Iranians will keep poking Israel by using Hezbollah, Syria if it continues to survives and Hamas to less of an extend since Hamas changed direction and began begging for money from the Saudis!

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