To save the Iranian nuclear deal, more than arms control is needed

In 2015, Iran and P5+1 negotiating parties (UN Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia, US plus Germany), the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded a landmark arms control deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to hinder the development of the Iranian nuclear weapons programme, in exchange for sanctions relief for Iran.

Negotiations about Iranian Nuclear Programme

Negotiations about Iranian Nuclear Programme. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the two years since its implementation, JCPOA has successfully achieved its core objective of constraining Iran’s nuclear ‘break-out capacity’ (meaning, the time it would take to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon). But despite technical compliance, accusations of breaches on both sides and lack of broader dialogue means the agreement is failing in its real purpose – to thaw relations between Iran and the international community. Urgent efforts are needed to bolster the ‘spirit’ of JCPOA, or else risk back-sliding in fragile diplomatic gains and the ultimate collapse of the agreement.

The Agreement

JCPOA was the result of nearly 2 years of arduous diplomatic negotiation, and under the resulting agreement, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of enriched uranium, substantially reduce its number of centrifuges and desist from other activities on the path to a nuclear weapon. To verify Iran’s compliance, the IAEA has extensive powers to monitor and inspect Iranian nuclear facilities.

The urgency of such an accord was dire – at the time parties sat down to negotiations, it was estimated Iran was as little as 6-8 weeks off acquiring a nuclear weapon. In exchange for arms control conditions, the US, EU and UNSC agreed to remove all nuclear-related economic sanctions, providing much needed relief to Iran’s resource-reliant economy, which had been crippled by sanctions.

Compliance

The IAEA has consistently found Iran to be in compliance with the terms of the agreement. US Congress must certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with JCPOA; President Trump signed off the latest report in July 2017. While the IAEA has noted some minor technical discrepancies, these were quickly identified and rectified, indicating the verification system is indeed working. Iran, it appears, is keen to follow the JCPOA to the letter. As such, Iran deal has fulfilled its nuclear arms control purpose.

Technical compliance is not enough

But the problem of compliance lies with the ‘spirit’ of the agreement. One worrisome development is that Iran has used the relaxation of the UN arms embargo to develop it missile defences, and since signing JCPOA has developed and tested ballistic missiles. Some analysts suggest such a missile capability intends to defend Iran from potential US airstrikes, including on nuclear facilities. This is coupled with Iran’s increasingly bold involvement with regional conflicts and broader destabilisation in the Middle East, which has further increased tensions with the US.  In response, in May the US State Department announced the US would continue to waive economic sanctions under the JCPOA, while simultaneously implementing a new set of sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile programme. In July, the day after signing the Congressional report certifying Iranian compliance with JCPOA, the US issued new non-nuclear sanctions on 18 Iranian individuals, group and networks. Iran claims these new sanctions are in violation of JCPOA and the US is therefore not complying with the terms of the accord.

Economic development in Iran has been frustratingly patchy since sanctions were lifted. President Rouhani championed JCPOA domestically on economic grounds, but polls show limited positive economic impact on the lives of ordinary Iranians. Trade in oil and infrastructure has seen massive improvement, but lack of movement on banking and foreign direct investment in Iran has been disappointing, and has hindered Iran’s engagement with the world. Iran has accused EU officials of not doing enough to reassure the banking sector. The US Treasury has been discouragingly opaque in providing information to businesses on legal matters pertaining to sanctions. Other sanctions remain in place for Iran, such as on human-rights and terrorism, and the overlapping rules present complex hurdles for potential investors. The danger is that lack of economic improvement in Iran, and increased tension with the United States, could ultimately convince Iranian leaders that pursuing a nuclear programme is worth the consequences of stepping away from the deal.

Beyond arms control: building trust

The Iran nuclear deal was always intended to be a transactional, limited agreement to buy time for broader rapprochement; opening the space for political and diplomatic efforts to improve international relationships with Iran. But this has not eventuated. The international community needs to convince Iran of the benefits of diplomatic and economic integration, rather than existence as a pariah state. This includes promoting trade, commercial and banking relationships, and diplomatic engagement on other areas of common interest, including conflict in the region. Both sides need to do more to bolster trust. As such, arms control alone is not enough, and the real measure of the success of JCPOA will be as a building block for ongoing relations.

Dr Kristie Barrow is currently studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. 

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