What does an Iranian nuclear deal look like?

Image by Kamran Gholami via Unsplash

By Raina Kasera

US-Iranian efforts to reach a consensus on Iran’s nuclear programs have a long history. While the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to address Iran’s nuclear capabilities was reversed under President Donald Trump, with the arrival of President Joe Biden, the US has expressed a stated intent to rejoin the treaty.[1] In fact, the Biden administration has been engaging in discussions with Iran in Vienna to develop a framework for establishing a revised agreement.[2] An agreement or lack thereof with Iran has tremendous implications for US national security and international peace. One simply cannot overstate the horrors of another conflict in the Middle East, nor can one ignore the costs of such an engagement. According to a study by Brown University and Boston University, from 2001 to 2020, the US spent $6.4 trillion in costs related to post-9/11 wars and military action in the Middle East and Asia.[3] To put this into perspective, US GDP in 2019 was $21.4 trillion.[4] Although President Biden’s decision to renegotiate the JCPOA is laudable, there are potential pitfalls and caveats that the administration must pay attention to. And at the very heart of it all, this requires a new chapter of trust-building between the US and Iran.

Implemented on July 20, 2015, the JCPOA was a joint agreement established by  Iran and the P5 + 1—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[5] Deemed “the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated” by President Barack Obama,[6] the JCPOA demanded that Iran limit its nuclear capabilities in exchange for the lifting or modification of economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US, UN, and EU. Among the key terms that would be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran consented to reducing its total number of active centrifuges by 18%, limiting its enrichment of uranium-235 to 3.67%, and reducing its uranium stockpile to 300 kg.[7] The plan also introduced restrictions on Iran’s R&D programs in addition to shutting down the Arak reactor, a heavy water reactor thought to produce enough plutonium every year to create one or two nuclear bombs.[8] In return, the US would withdraw harsh economic sanctions levied against Iran’s oil and banking sectors and allow for a greater exchange of goods and services between the two countries.[9] The UN and EU similarly pledged to reduce the length of a variety of arms and ballistic missile embargos.[10]

In May 2018, however, President Trump officially withdrew from the agreement, reinstating sanctions on Iran.[11] When President Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, he declared two new key changes: 1) he would implement additional sanctions on Iran and 2) he would sanction any country that provided Iran with nuclear weapons.[12] As expected, the withdrawal put the entire world on edge about potential consequences. Would the US’s strongly open anti-Iran bias be the spark to ignite another war in the Middle East? Even though all other parties have since remained in the agreement, US withdrawal prompted Iran to selectively abide by the provisions of the deal a year later, beginning with minor transgressions in 2019.[13] In the first breach in May, Iran stopped complying with limits on heavy water and uranium enrichment, breaching the agreement’s uranium stockpile limit by June 2019.[14] Since then, the country has resumed R&D efforts as well as enrichment at the Fordow facility, and as of January 2020, Iran has announced that it will “no longer be bound by any operational limitations of the JCPOA.”[15]

While withdrawing the US from the JCPOA was undoubtedly bold and provocative, this is one decision President Trump made for justifiable reasons because of the agreement’s disregard for factors apart from nuclear capabilities that pose a threat to US national security. Although the JCPOA imposes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, it ignores crucial elements of Iran’s warfare capabilities, namely ballistic missile testing and the country’s support for non-state actors across the region.[16] It is already believed Iran is producing ballistic missiles able to reach as far as Western Europe and possibly the US.[17] If Iran can create them aptly enough, the US and its allies must consider resulting shifts in power dynamics. Moreover, Iran actively supports Hezbollah, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and Iraqi Shia militias that have conducted attacks on US personnel, among others.[18] The country also supports President Bashar-al-Assad and is militarily engaged in the Syrian civil war.[19] The war has been ongoing for over 10 years with an estimated death toll of over 400,000 people.[20] Not only is Assad responsible for these countless deaths and havoc wreaked on the country, but he used chemical weapons against Syrians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, resulting in over 80 deaths and 500 injuries.[21] Why should the US actively support the JCPOA when the agreement ignores Iran’s involvement in such acts? Because the US must prioritize which issues pose the greatest threat to its national security, and this may involve letting go of some issues described here.

There is also the issue of reliably monitoring and enforcing the terms of the JCPOA. While the IAEA conducts routine inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities to verify Iran’s compliance, Iran may have additional nuclear programs unknown to them.[22] Over time, the numerous sanctions levied against Iran have hardened the country, making them adept at skirting them. Through a combination of informal payment systems not reliant on the international banking system known as SWIFT[23] and the maintenance of trade with regional partners undeterred by the threat of US retaliation, the Iranian economy has managed to stay afloat even through US pressures.[24] Increased domestic production of industrial equipment, machinery, and a variety of products has further aided the country’s economy in being self-sustaining, saving the country $2.2 billion within the industrial parts sector in 2020.[25] Furthermore, sanctions seem to have hit everyday citizens the hardest, limiting access to medical care and equipment, food, and other humanitarian needs.[26] The reduced effectiveness of the sanctions on the Iranian government is possibly a good reason for rapprochement, as is the growing influence of China and Russia who have aligned themselves with Iran. The Chinese agreement to invest $400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years in return for a steady supply of Iranian oil already pierces the sanctions’ armor.[27] Russian involvement in the Iranian nuclear program cannot be rolled back as Russians clearly want to maintain influence in Iran to sustain a stronghold in Tartus where they have their only Mediterranean naval base.[28] European businesses have similarly been desperately trying to gain a foothold in a country they know well. Switzerland, for instance, has been a haven for Iranians since 1873 when they signed a friendship and trade treaty, leading to a 1934 permanent residence treaty.[29] The US must carefully consider how growing ties between China, Russia, and the Middle East can cause larger shifts in global economic and power competitions between the countries.

On a political note, it is important to note that the JCPOA was not passed through the routine US policy process that requires a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate and presidential approval. Instead, it was an executive order by President Obama, and President Trump took advantage of this same workaround when pulling out of the agreement.[30] It remains difficult to say whether the majority of Americans supported or opposed US involvement in the JCPOA. President Biden can encourage success for any revisited agreement if it is bipartisan and embraced by the US Congress.

A bigger concern, however, is that the Iranian government does not view America as a reliable partner. US-Iranian relations have not always been poor. In fact, the US, together with the UK, assisted in the 1953 coup to overthrow Mohammed Mosaddegh,[31] and in return, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi signed the Consortium Agreement of 1954 to provide Western powers with a 40% stake in Iranian oil.[32] Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program gave birth to the Iranian peaceful nuclear program.[33] Unfortunately, though, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which ousted the Shah, the US and Iran have been engaged in bitter and divisive conflict—the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, the Beirut barracks bombing, the Palestinian conflict, Hezbollah, the killing of Qassim Soleimani, the JCPOA withdrawal, and the US preference for Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia over the Shia majority Iran represent some of the more notable examples of these tensions.[34] For Iran, reliance on American foreign policy objectives or security guarantees is hard to justify when considering other relations between the US and Middle Eastern countries. A case in point  is the back and forth  of US support of a friendly country such as Egypt in the wake of the Arab spring.[35] Alternatively, consider the US’ refusal to come to terms with Libya even after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi condemned 9/11 in unequivocal terms and allied with America.[36] In order for trust to be established, the Iranian regime will need to believe that the US does not intend to overthrow them. Publicly at least, it seems that the Iranian government may be willing to strike negotiations with the US, but only if the US is legally bound to such a new deal.[37] As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described, President Trump’s reneging on the JCPOA was a sign of “lawlessness.”[38] Iran has stated its intent to return to the “full implementation of the JCPOA” so long as US sanctions are lifted.[39] With the entrance of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi into office, the possibility of striking a successful deal seems duller than before.[40] Not only do the president’s hardliner policies towards the US lessen the case for reconciliation, but over the past couple of months, the country has taken steps to produce small amounts of uranium as well as enrich uranium past previous limits–both of which are in violation of the terms of the JCPOA.[41] The recent Iranian drone attack on the Israeli-manned Mercer Street tanker further complicates the situation, as the US risks killing all hopes of diplomacy by publicly declaring Iran to be the perpetrator.[42]

To rebuild US-Iranian relations, the US will have to make some difficult decisions, and the US does indeed have the capability of converting once adversarial relations to strategic alliances. A case in point is America’s evolving relationship with India. During the cold war, India was a foe.[43] President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in 2000, the first US presidential visit to the country in over 20 years, changed that.[44] A similar rapprochement may be possible with Iran under the Biden administration. It will likely involve a reasonable degree of accommodation while allowing for Iranian civil society to play a greater role than US sanctions have made possible. Iran is an ancient progressive civilization with a strong sense of national belonging and great pride in its cultural heritage. Its enmity with the US has made Iran’s leaders highly prone to establishing predatory relations with China and Russia. It is in Iran’s benefit to be more economically diverse and not rely solely on these countries as major trading partners. Moreover, the Iranian political establishment is not monolithic in its hatred for the US, nor are the Iranian people. An opening exists for the Biden administration to demonstrate their commitment to rebuilding trust with Iran. The US will also have to convince and work with Israel to increase goodwill between them and Iran. Especially following the recent cyberattack on the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz[45] and the assasination of nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh[46], US support for Israel continues to be a threat to Iran. Possible measures may also require the US to be a bit more even-handed in the Palestinian conflict and reassess its existing relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as arms exports to other countries in the region.

The US is at a crossroads in its tensions with Iran. President Biden is correct in his attempts to resolve this difficult and complex relationship and mend fences, but this will require time and a genuine commitment of good faith from the administration to make some long-lasting policy shifts and changes in alliances. If the US can view Iran as at least not a foe, if not a friend, then rapprochement is indeed possible and achievable.

Raina Kasera is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley studying Chemical Biology (Class of 2023). She would like to thank Professor Michael Nacht, Manseok Lee, and the BPPJ Editorial Team for their helpful comments and feedback on this article. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

[1] “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” U.S. Department of State, accessed May 1, 2021, https://2009-2017.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/index.htm#:~:text=October%2018%2C%202015%20marked%20Adoption,Implementation%20Day%20of%20the%20JCPOA.

[2] Dan Murphy, “Iran welcomes ‘new chapter’ in nuclear talks as Washington seeks to heal ‘profound differences’ in Vienna,” CNBC, April 7, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/07/iran-and-us-seek-new-chapter-in-vienna-nuclear-talks.html.

[3] Neta Crawford, “United States Budgetary Costs and Obligations of Post-9/11 Wars through FY2020: $6.4 Trillion,” Brown University Watson Institute, November 13, 2021, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2019/US%20Budgetary%20Costs%20of%20Wars%20November%202019.pdf.

[4]  “GDP (current US$),” The World Bank, accessed May 1, 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?most_recent_value_desc=true.

[5] Jennifer Williams, “A comprehensive timeline of the Iran nuclear deal,” The Brookings Institution, July 21, 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2015/07/21/a-comprehensive-timeline-of-the-iran-nuclear-deal/.

[6] S. J., “What is the JCPOA?” The Economist, January 28, 2020, https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2020/01/28/what-is-the-jcpoa.

[7] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/JCPOA-at-a-glance.

[8] Samuel M. Hickey, “How Iran’s research reactors prove the nuclear deal is still working,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, August 11, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/08/how-irans-research-reactors-prove-the-nuclear-deal-is-still-working/.

[9] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/JCPOA-at-a-glance.

[10] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association.

[11] Mark Landler, “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned,” The New York Times, May 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html.

[12] Landler, “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned.”

[13] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/JCPOA-at-a-glance.

[14] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association.

[15] “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association.

[16] Mark Landler, “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned,” The New York Times, May 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html.

[17] Robert Einhorn and Vann H. Van Diepen, “Constraining Iran’s missile capabilities,” The Brookings Institution, March 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/constraining-irans-missile-capabilities/.

[18] “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019,” U.S. Department of State, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/.

[19] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019.”

[20] “Civil War in Syria,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/civil-war-syria.

[21] “Syria chemical ‘attack’: What we know,” BBC, April 26, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39500947.

[22] Arms Control Association, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance.”

[23] Michael Peel, “Swift to comply with US sanctions on Iran in blow to EU,” Financial Times, November 5, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/8f16f8aa-e104-11e8-8e70-5e22a430c1ad.

[24] Jackie Northman, “Why Iran’s Economy Has Not Collapsed Amid U.S. Sanctions And ‘Maximum Pressure’,” NPR, January 16, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/16/796781021/why-irans-economy-has-not-collapsed-amid-u-s-sanctions-and-maximum-pressure.

[25] “Domestic manufacturing of industrial parts, equipment saves Iran $2.2b,” Tehran Times, January 21, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/457434/Domestic-manufacturing-of-industrial-parts-equipment-saves-Iran.

[26] ““Maximum Pressure” US Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health,” Human Rights Watch, October 29, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/10/29/maximum-pressure/us-economic-sanctions-harm-iranians-right-health.

[27] Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers, “China, With $400 Billion Iran Deal, Could Deepen Influence in Mideast,” The New York Times, March 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/27/world/middleeast/china-iran-deal.html.

[28] Henry Foy, “Russia to invest $500m in Syrian port of Tartus,” Financial Times, December 17, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/f52bdde6-20cc-11ea-b8a1-584213ee7b2b.

[29] “Bilateral relations Switzerland–Iran,” Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, accessed May 1, 2021. https://www.eda.admin.ch/eda/en/fdfa/representations-and-travel-advice/iran/switzerland-iran.html.

[30] “Executive Order — Revocation of Executive Orders 13574, 13590, 13622, and 13645 with Respect to Iran, Amendment of Executive Order 13628 with Respect to Iran, and Provision of Implementation Authorities for Aspects of Certain Statutory Sanctions,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, accessed May 1, 2021, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/16/executive-order-revocation-of-executive-orders-with-respect-to-Iran.

[31] Stephan Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

[32] “Iran Tells Oil Consortium Pact Will Not Be Renewed,” The New York Times, January 24, 1973, https://www.nytimes.com/1973/01/24/archives/iran-tells-oil-consortium-pact-will-not-be-renewed-companies.html.

[33] Ariana Rowberry, “Sixty Years of “Atoms for Peace” and Iran’s Nuclear Program,” The Brookings Institution, December 18, 2013, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2013/12/18/sixty-years-of-atoms-for-peace-and-irans-nuclear-program/.

[34] “Timeline: U.S. Relations With Iran,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-relations-iran-1953-2021.

[35] Shadi Hamid, “Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the Failure of America’s Do-Nothing Policy in the Middle East,” The Atlantic, October 9, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/middle-east-egypt-us-policy/409537/.

[36] Ray Takeyh, “Has Gaddafi Reformed?” The Washington Post, August 19, 2003, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2003/08/19/has-gaddafi-reformed/485997f5-606c-4230-866e-b52820877aad/.

[37] “Zarif calls on U.S. to end JCPOA lawlessness,” Tehran Times, May 9, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/460742/Zarif-calls-on-U-S-to-end-JCPOA-lawlessness.

[38] “Zarif calls on U.S. to end JCPOA lawlessness.”

[39] Julia Marnin, “Iranian Delegate Reiterates That New Nuclear Deal Dependent on Lifting U.S. Sanctions,” Newsweek, May 12, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/iranian-delegate-reiterates-that-new-nuclear-deal-dependent-lifting-us-sanctions-1590856.

[40] Amanda Macius, “Iran nuclear deal talks are stuck after substantial progress, negotiator says,” CNBC, August 3, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/03/iran-nuclear-deal-talks-are-stuck-after-substantial-progress-negotiator-says.html.

[41] Francois Murphy, Humeyra Pamuk, and Arshad Mohammed, “Iran takes steps to make enriched uranium metal; U.S., Europe powers dismayed,” Reuters, July 6, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-informs-iaea-plans-produce-enriched-uranium-2021-07-06/

[42] Robert Satloff, “How Iran’s Deadly Tanker Attack Is Linked to the Nuclear Deal,” Foreign Policy, August 11, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/11/iran-nuclear-deal-drone-attack-mercer-street-tanker-jcpoa-blinken-maritime-security/

[43] “Timeline: U.S.-India Relations,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-india-relations.

[44] Council on Foreign Relations, “Timeline: U.S.-India Relations.”

[45] Patrick Kingsley, David E. Sanger, and Farnaz Fassihi, “After Nuclear Site Blackout, Thunder From Iran, and Silence From U.S.,” The New York Times, April 12, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/world/middleeast/iran-israel-nuclear-site.html.

[46] Kylie Atwood, “US official says Israel was behind assassination of Iranian scientist,” CNN, December 2, 2020,  https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/02/politics/iran-scientist-israel-assassination-us/index.html.