Clément Briens is a second-year undergraduate student in War Studies & History with an interest in Cybersecurity and Nuclear Proliferation.
On October 15th, Donald Trump must decide in front of US Congress whether to certify that Iran is complying with the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) signed in 2015. After more than 20 months of negotiations, P5+1 countries (the Security Council Permanent 5 members+ Germany) signed a deal with Iran limiting their nuclear weapons development program in exchange for tightened economic sanctions. The JCPOA became integrated into US Law with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed in May 2015.
This act asks for re-certification from the US President every 90 days that Iran is, in fact, complying with the deal; if the POTUS refuses to certify, then a period of 60 days opens up in which US Congress may decide to reintroduce sanctions against Iran, hence formally marking an exit of the United States from the JCPOA. President Trump has recently made headlines by threatening to decertify the deal during the next hearing this October, which might lead to a collapse of the deal with Iran.
Donald Trump has always strongly opposed this deal and has been extremely vocal about his opinions regarding the regime, especially during his presidential campaign. However, President Trump’s first UN speech in September was particularly brutal and was of unprecedented violence: he described the Iran deal as being “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” He even qualified Iran of being a “corrupt dictatorship” hiding as a democracy. “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it”, he warns.
A potential exit of the United States from the deal would be disastrous for all parties. This includes US firms seeking to conduct business in Iran, America’s allies, as well as provoking irreversible damage to an already strained relationship between Iran and the United States.
It is also foolish to believe that it is the JCPOA’s aim to completely stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; our best hope is to slow down Iran’s program while we repair relations with what used to be a crucial regional ally. As declared by, Robert Einhorn, a US academic who was partly behind the American negotiation of the deal, “opponents have had to scale back their criticism, in large part because the JCPOA, at least so far, has delivered on its principal goal—blocking Iran’s path to nuclear weapons for an extended period of time.” Therefore it is important for us to review what this deal’s objectives as they were designed by policy-makers are before threatening to cut it off and measure the benefits and shortcomings before assessing whether President Trump should jump the trigger of decertification.
Can we really stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons?
Signed in Vienna on July 14th 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action marked an agreement between P5 countries and Iran that it would limit its nuclear enrichment activities (that would eventually lead them to gaining access to nuclear weaponry) in exchange for the lifting of various embargos and economic sanctions put in place by the Security Council since 2006. Here are the simplified terms of the agreement:
- Arms embargo until at least until 2020. Ballistic missile technology embargo until at least 2023.
- Limitation of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 300kg until 2030.
- Redesigning of the heavy-water Arak Reactor so it does not produce weapons-grade plutonium as waste. No building of further heavy-water reactors until 2030.
- Inspections and security measures until 2040.
- End of economic sanctions on Iranian assets and end of embargo (UN Resolution 1737)
- Redesigning of the heavy-water Arak Reactor so it does not produce weapons-grade plutonium as waste. No building of further heavy-water reactors until 2030
So what sense can we make of these terms? Do they stand to actually stop Iran from developing nuclear devices in the near future?
Firstly, the most obvious and the most alarming to some is how these agreements are limited in time, with quantitative limits over-enrichment and ballistic weapons research that last until approximately 2030, effectively delaying Iran’s “breakout time” instead of avoiding it. Adversaries of the deal, such as President Netanyahu, have called these limits a “sunset clause”. Former Israeli ambassador to the US Michel Oren declared in July that Israel and the US would cooperate “to ensure that the sun never sets on the sunset clause until there is a different Iranian regime.”
Secondly, one may wonder how it would be possible to enforce these measures. While redesigning a reactor might be possible to be publicly proven by Iran, what stops them from building secret, undetectable reactors or nuclear enrichment facilities under mountains in the Iranian countryside?
This is where the IAEA comes in. This international agency is a key factor in the enforcement of this deal, as they are the ones that provide the reports concerning Iran’s compliance with the deal. Their main framework for these reports is the Additional Protocol (AP) a treaty signed by Iran in 2003 in supplement to the NPT which allows IAEA inspectors to visit any nuclear facilities in a very short notice (as to avoid hiding evidence of nuclear enrichment) and most importantly is legally binding for the signatory. 
Therefore, trust is an inherent factor in Iran’s compliance with security measures. This may explain the West’s approach at the Vienna summit: if the West successfully negotiates a delay in Iran’s nuclear programme, then it buys time for the West to rebuild economic and diplomatic ties with Iran, in order to ultimately persuade Iran that it does not need nuclear weapons, to begin with. Real change comes within. Being coercive with a key regional power is not the solution to achieve nonproliferation.
Upholding the agreement is a divisive question even in the POTUS’ camp. Both Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State, and General James Mattis, his Secretary of Defence, are both rumoured to defend the deal. Mattis, in particular, has been very vocal about his support of his deal, despite his beliefs that it can be reinforced. “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement, and I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran,” Mattis claimed in front of a Senate hearing.
So is the Iran deal really one-sided?
To many observers, this deal stood out as being mutually beneficial, as Iranian compliance allowed for peace of mind for Western leaders regarding Iran’s nuclear activities as well as dropping economic sanctions which effectively opened Iranian markets to foreign investment. Boeing is poised to make an estimated $16.6bn from a first deal made in December 2016 for more than 80 planes, with a project for a second deal worth $3bn in the works. European rivals Airbus have also exploited this golden opportunity and have passed a similar deal worth $20bn. Of course, what President Trump will omit from his speech on October 15th is the 18,000 jobs that are said to be created from this deal for American workers in Boeing plants all over the country. His 2016 campaign was, of course, heavy with slogans of “bringing jobs back to America”.
Many private actors in other domains have also benefitted from this opening, such as rail and road infrastructure, potentially $25bn and $30bn markets respectively. Iran has also benefitted from this economic opening: they have claimed to have made “more than $100bn” from the end of economic sanctions.
One look at the Iranian economy tells us why: oil represents more than 80% of the country’s public revenues. The Iranian economy is volatile, as any country whose economy depends on market prices for natural resources- this is why they would also benefit from a situation of trust and stability, as it is easier to find clients in a time of crisis.
Iran is not only valuable as a potential geopolitical ally, but also a potential customer and economic partner. Trust is not only the key to diplomatically persuade them from developing nuclear weapons. It is also the key to the stability of their economy. An economy that, if it finds the right diversification under the right leadership, can transform Iran into a global power, and a powerful ally to the United States.
President Trump is right in that the international community should be uncompromising concerning Iran’s violations of human rights and sponsoring of terrorist groups such as Hamas, which are issues that should not be ignored and need to be solved. America’s commitment to its alliance with Israel is also crucial in the President’s decision. However, threatening to decertify the only sensible solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions should not be on the United States’ agenda, and is of an unprecedented magnitude of violence concerning his speech.
Unfortunately, the West will not be able to stop Iran from getting the bomb short of invading them. The economic and political benefits to the JCPOA far outweigh any sanctions, as well as having the potential to make Iran reconsider their bright future as one without nuclear weapons. Trust is once again a key factor in both economic relations but also in the ability for the IAEA to enforce its security measures, hence allowing the international community to verify Iran’s compliance. Trump’s comments about Iran being a “rogue state” was detrimental to this effort and clearly shows his intent in decertifying- one may only hope that the remainder of the P5 powers will remain sensible and attempt to uphold the agreement despite America’s divided leadership.
 International Atomic Energy Agency
 Non Proliferation Treaty