The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a culmination of sorts for a marathon of nuclear negotiations with Iran. In broad terms, the agreement among six nations plus Iran would restrict key elements of Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions.
Recently, incremental violations of the JCPOA by Iran have aggravated old wounds, and President Trump has threatened to withdraw from the deal on grounds that Iran is not held accountable to the extent that it should and continues to get more out of the deal than Washington does.
While those in favor of the JCPOA in its current form argue that it prevents the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon for the next decade, it is important to keep in mind Iran’s past and present activities when considering the fate of the deal.
Why Are We So Concerned With Iran?
While some may argue that all countries have legitimate nuclear interests, Iran has been singled out for good reason. Their long-standing violation of nuclear safeguards has left the West leery of trusting Iran’s activities and intentions. In the past, Iran has clearly shown itself as less than fully forthcoming with their nuclear activities. Worse, its program has received significant foreign assistance from Pakistan, Russia, China, and even North Korea. The first revelations were in 2002; proving that Iran had been scaling up its nuclear program throughout the ‘90s. Another major source of concern came in 2009 via a letter from Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of an undisclosed enrichment plant at Fordow buried under a mountain (near the holy city of Qom). Analysts say that the reason Iran came forward with this admission was to get ahead of the Western disclosure; they knew U.S., British, and French officials had gathered enough evidence to bring forward an accusation. While initially non-operational, Iran was developing the Fordow plant parallel to Natanz. Soon after the revelation, Iran begun enriching uranium at Fordow, in contravention of multiple UNSC resolutions.
Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is only intended for peaceful purposes as a civilian energy program. However, a decade long game of cat and mouse with the IAEA and development of a vast arsenal of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles suggests otherwise.
Is the JCPOA Effective Enough?
In 2015, the JCPOA was adopted in an effort to better keep tabs on Iran’s nuclear program. It outlined an agreement that would allow the IAEA to regularly inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities, and limit their uranium-enrichment activities to a single facility for 10 years. Other facilities would be converted to avoid proliferation risks. In exchange for these stipulations, Iran would be granted certain relief from sanctions previously imposed upon them.
While the JCPOA may have opened up civil communications and dealings with Iran, critics of the deal feel the restrictions were not harsh enough. Mark Dubowitz of FDD says that the agreement allows Iran to continue nuclear development, albeit at a slower pace. He also adds that as the deal ages, “sunset clauses” come in to play that would ultimately allow Iran to engage in nuclear enrichment at near-zero breakout times. All the while, Iran thumbs its nose at the international community and skirts punishment (sanctions) since its violations of the deal aren’t deemed “egregious.” But what happens as these incremental violations build up over time? Mark Dubowitz of The Foundation for Defense for Democracies points out that Iran has not stopped their development and subsequent test launches of ballistic missiles. Though the UNSC resolution implementing the JCPOA does contain language limiting ballistic missile activity, critics have argued that a renegotiated, or “fixed,” deal should tighten these provisions.
When will Iran be held accountable not just for egregious violations, but incremental ones as well? We have yet to see an honest turn-around in Iranian behavior, and if the JCPOA continues in its current form, we should have no reason to expect otherwise.