In 2015, Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany reached an agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA declared that Iran would “dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief” (Robinson 2021). Nevertheless, the relation between Iran and the US began to be tense when formal US President Donald Trump officially withdrew from the agreements in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions. Consequently, Iran returned to its nuclear activities.
Current US President Joe Biden has announced his willingness to re-enter into negotiations and to be part again with Iran in the JCPOA. Nevertheless, there have been unconfirmed reports saying that Iran has continued to use its nuclear program outside of the JCPOA restrictions and has declared it will not restrict its activities unless the US will lift the sanctions. On the other side, President Biden has announced that he will not lift the sanctions before Iran will cease with the nuclear program (Wright and Duster 2021).
Therefore, it becomes important to ask what are the factors and what effect do they have on this agreement. Accordingly, the next article will analyze the JCPOA, its conditions, and how Iran reduced its nuclear activities, in order to understand what factors might play in a future negotiation for the re-entry of the JCPOA. Secondly, the article will explore the current tension between US President Biden and Iranian President Rouhani, as they both are not taking the first step in the negotiations and are waiting for the other side to take the first action. In this topic, the geopolitical consequences of this current status quo will be analyzed in order to further find out what might be beneficial to undertake. Additionally, it will be argued that, given their history of cooperation, the deal is more than necessary to halt Iran from developing nuclear material and avoid destabilizing the entire region from fear of attacks or retaliation. As such, given the importance of both countries, it will be more cautious, if both the US and Iran would take the first step at the same time and reach an agreement.
2015: THE JCPOA
Since Iran announced in 2002 its nuclear program in, many Western states imposed several sanctions in order to slow down as much as possible the development of nuclear weapons. As a consequence, the Iranian economy has been severely crippled down, thus lowering the quality of life of the Iranian population as well (BBC News 2015). As an example, according to estimations, Iran lost 2012 and 2016 around “£118bn in oil money” (Rahman-Jones 2018). Consequently, in order to return to a prosperous life and economy, Iran agreed to take part in the JCOPA deal with the Western states.
The JCPOA was an agreement signed by Iran and the Western states with the objective to slow down Tehran’s nuclear activities, so that Iran if wanted, could finish assembling a nuclear weapon in a minimum a year, and not in a few months like US intelligence officials assessed. In this way, the agreement gave more time for the Western powers to acknowledge the situation and to act on time.
The agreement restricted Iran from its extended nuclear activity. The Iranian government indeed “agreed not to produce either the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium that could be used in a nuclear weapon” and guaranteed that the nuclear facilities in Fordow, Natanz, and Arak would focus on civilian research. In addition to that, besides limiting the “number and types of centrifuges, […] the level of its enrichment, as well as the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium”, the agreement enabled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to send its inspectors to examine the facilities and see if Iran held to its agreements.
Source: BBC News, 11.06.2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33521655.
In exchange, the other signatories agreed to remove most of the sanctions against Iran, including those on oil exports, but other US sanctions remained in force, like the sanctions on a financial transaction. In addition to that, the Western states agreed to “list an existing UN ban on Iran’s transfer of conventional weapons and ballistic missiles after five years if the IAEA certifies that Iran is only engaged in civilian nuclear activity” (Robinson 2021). Nevertheless, although the cooperation was going well and was fruitful with positive results, former President Trump withdrew in 2018 from the agreement and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. This action was justified by the wish of President Trump to re-negotiate with Iran and enforce new rules to “halt its development of ballistic missiles”, which Iran refused (BBC News, Deal, 2021). Consequently, Iran announced in 2019 that it resumed its nuclear activities, “exceeding agreed-upon limits to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium”.
The JCPOA gave also more economic help and boost to Iran. Prior to the agreement, Iran’s economy deteriorated due to several economic issues, including inflation and sanctions. Thanks to the JCPOA, in which the Western states would lift sanctions in exchange for cooperation, and consequently to the revival of oil trade, the economy boosted. Nevertheless, the economy soon plummeted, as the US left the JCPOA and put into force a series of sanctions that crippled and damaged again the economic situation of Iran (Robinson 2021).
2021: BIDEN AND IRAN
Following the US Presidential elections of 2020, the newly elected President Joe Biden declared that he would not lift the sanctions that former President Trump imposed until Iran agrees to cooperate with the Western states and with the former JCPOA. At the same time, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei announced that the government would comply only if the American government lifts the sanctions first (BBC News, Deal, 2021). The relationship between Iran and the US have been put under more pressure, as the IAEA confirmed at the beginning of January 2021 that “Iran has resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity”, which can also be used for nuclear bombs or nuclear weapons, usually needing 90% pure uranium.
Following the announcement, Iranian President Rouhani justified his actions by saying that the government has passed a law, which demands 120kg of 20%-enriched uranium every year for civil-related purposes. On the other side though, other countries near and far from Iran have been getting concerned about the new status. Following reports, President Biden has been pressured already during the presidential election and after his nomination to re-join the JCPOA and limit Iran’s nuclear activities, as the new activities of Iran in this program have been seen as an “intention to develop a military nuclear program” (BBC News, Fordo, 2021).
Another upcoming event that will clearly play a central role in this situation is set to take place on February 21, when the Iranian parliament will set into force a law, which will “stop allowing intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency unless there is an easing of US sanctions” (The Times of Israel 2021). Nevertheless, the US government has restated that they will not lift the sanctions before Iran complies with the JCPOA agreements.
2021: NEW YEAR OF TENSIONS OR NEW YEAR OF COOPERATION?
The current situation between Iran and the US has been escalating a real crisis that involves and influences nowadays more countries than these two.
A former European Union diplomat has explained that the 21st of February is a prominent date in this crisis, as the line should not be crossed and the countries should immediately use diplomacy. This is also viewed by Russia and China, two countries that also signed the JCPOA, but are closer to Iran than the US. Linked to this, many experts think that President Biden should make the first move and “lift some sanctions to show good faith” (The Times of Israel 2021). This would eventually lead to Iran limiting its nuclear activities and return to the JCPOA. This action is further pushed by another prominent factor: the upcoming Iranian elections on June 18, 2021. In fact, moderate President Hassan Rouhani will not be able to be re-elected and there is only one declared Iranian presidential candidate as of now, Hossein Dehghan, which has an extensive military background. During an interview, Dehghan has admitted that the US needs to lift the sanctions first. Additionally, by seeing President Biden’s government and mentality the same as former President Trump’s, Dehghan has announced that “Tehran [would be] preparing retaliatory measures to force Washington to change its diplomatic territory” (Middle East Eye 2021). As such, there is a certain pressure on President Biden’s government to work through with Iran before the elections, as President Rouhani has been collaborating with the Western countries to negotiate the deal before and the new presidential candidate has been described as a “hardliner” and there is a greater risk for escalations. Nevertheless, there are also other experts, like Arvin Khoshnood from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, which warn that “lifting the sanctions […] would tighten the regime’s grip on the Iranian people and proved a boost to its destabilizing operations across the Middle East”, as the sanctions themselves have been lowering the defense and intelligence budget lately (Khoshnood 2021).
On the other side, given the escalating crisis and the importance of collaboration between the two countries, many experts declare that the collaboration should start immediately at the same time by both countries. In fact, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif suggested that “the US and Iran take synchronized steps leading to Iran’s return to full compliance and the reversal of Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA”. As such, experts are encouraging President Biden to allow Robert Malley, a Middle East expert who has been chosen to take part in the US special envoy for Iran, to “open a channel of communication with Tehran” (Press Herald 2021).
Overall, experts have been warning of the consequences of the inability to start to negotiate or reach an agreement any time soon. First, Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, warns that if Iran will stop accepting random IAEA inspections from February 21, there would be a lack of certainty, which would “fuel speculation that Tehran is engaged in illicit activities” (The Times of Israel 2021). Strictly linked to this, the pressure on both countries to reach a deal and start negotiating is paramount, as “a nuclear-armed Iran would destabilize the region, provide the Islamic Republic with dramatically more influence and likely inspire other nations in the region to pursue their own nuclear ambitions”. Moreover, there might be a danger that, if Iran indeed could develop and possess nuclear weapons, “it might be tempted to use them in a crisis – or the fear that it could do so might lead other countries to launch a pre-emptive strike” (Press Herald 2021).
Iran has been at the center of attention for many years, as they have been using uranium not only for civil purposes but also to allegedly develop nuclear weapons. This has led the US, Iran, Germany, France, China, Russia, and the UK to reach in 2015 an agreement, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This agreement, signed by the moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Western states, made Iran agree to open its facilities for public inspections by the IAEA, as well as disable a large part of its nuclear program and use the rest for research and peaceful civil purposes. In exchange for that, the Western states agreed to lift their sanctions on Iran, which have been crippling down the economy of the country as well as its society. Thanks to the JCPOA, Iran’s economy boosted, as it was allowed to trade oil and become a central player in the market and the international society. Nevertheless, former US President Trump withdrew the US in 2018 from the JCPOA and imposed heavy sanctions again on Iran, as the latter refused to undergo additional negotiations to stop its complete development of ballistic missiles. Consequently, Iran began on its own from 2019 to resume nuclear activities, arriving in January 2021 with enriching uranium to 20% purity. Although Iran has declared that it is used for storage for civil-related objectives, other countries have been suspecting that Iran has been attempting to develop and build nuclear weapons.
With the election of President Biden in 2021, much of the pressure has been put on both heads of state, as on February 21, Iran will stop allowing inspections of the nuclear facilities by the IAEA, and Iran has been continuing to develop enriched uranium. As such, many countries have been getting tenser and worried about what will happen with Iran and its plans with nuclear. Therefore, experts are suggesting that one of the countries should act first so that both will reach an agreement again. President Biden refuses to lift first the sanctions, as Iran should make first the move and show that they are willing to comply again with the JCPOA agreements, while Iran says that the US should act first and lift the sanctions. Many experts have been pressuring President Biden to act first, as it can show good faith, which will lead to fruitful and peaceful cooperation between the two countries. Another idea would be that both countries will take the first step at the same time so that no one will be able to declare that they acted because they felt they were forced. This would make the negotiations easier and could bring their cooperation closer than ever.
Nevertheless, both countries and the countries nearby are feeling the current tension and the escalating crisis and will more likely try to negotiate and work on the new deal. If unsuccessful, Iran would be continuing to develop nuclear material, will likely destabilize the entire region, and put more fear and tension in the neighboring countries for fear of attack or retaliation with nuclear weapons. This will on its own lead other countries to develop their own nuclear program and they might use it for security concerns with Iran.
Written by Stefania Rinaldi
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