Iran Nuclear Deal: A Tough Path Ahead

Co-authored with Yusuf Buluc (*)

February 1, 2021

From the very beginning of his presidency Mr. Trump’s principal foreign policy target was the Iran nuclear deal, described by many as his predecessor’s “signature achievement”.

Thus, the US announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018. A month later, on June 12, 2018 Mr. Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Following the summit, he held a press conference and said, “My meeting with Chairman Kim was honest, direct, and productive. We got to know each other well in a very confined period of time, under very strong, strong circumstance. We’re prepared to start a new history and we’re ready to write a new chapter between our nations.”

Targeting the JCPOA and cozying up to Kim Jong-un was a contradiction albeit a tolerable one under Trump administration’s broad Middle East policy which combined action on two fronts, the cornering of Iran and support to Israel. Mike Pompeo was in charge of the former and Jared Kushner of the latter.

On August 15, 2020, a US draft resolution seeking to extend the 13-year-old UN arms embargo on Iran beyond October 18, 2020 failed at the Security Council. Only the US and Dominican Republic voted for the draft. Russia and China voted against. France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia, and Vietnam abstained.

Having failed at the Security Council, the US immediately attempted to trigger the sanctions “snapback” clause of the JCPOA against Iran under Resolution 2231.

On August 20, in response to Mr. Pompeo’s notification to the Security Council, Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, and the UK published a statement saying:

“France, Germany and the United Kingdom (“the E3”) note that the US ceased to be a participant to the JCPoA following their withdrawal from the deal on 8 May, 2018… We cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPoA…”

With a new administration in Washington, attention is once again focused on the JCPOA.

On January 22, 2021, in a Foreign Affairs article titled “Iran Wants the Nuclear Deal It Made, Don’t Ask Tehran to Meet New Demands” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif explained his country’s position with clarity.[i]  He said:

“The new administration in Washington has a fundamental choice to make. U.S. President Joe Biden can choose a better path by ending Trump’s failed policy of ‘maximum pressure’ and returning to the deal his predecessor abandoned. If he does, Iran will likewise return to full implementation of our commitments under the nuclear deal. But if Washington instead insists on extracting concessions, then this opportunity will be lost”.

Mr. Zarif admitted that Iran has significantly increased its nuclear capabilities since May 2019—but it has done so in full conformity with paragraph 36 of the nuclear agreement, which allows Iran to “cease performing its commitments” under the deal should another signatory stop performing its own. He also said if the Biden administration were to begin unconditionally removing, with full effect, all sanctions imposed, reimposed, or relabeled since Trump took office, in turn, Iran would reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

Five days later the response to the Zarif article came from Amos Yadlin and Ebtesam al-Ketbi, representing the Israeli-led anti-Iran bloc.[ii]

Again, in a Foreign Affairs article they said, “For the United States to simply return to the nuclear agreement would be a major strategic blunder.” If a future Iran policy is to avoid producing a similar outcome, they argued, it must counter Iran’s malign regional activities and resist the temptation to try to game Iran’s political dynamics. They said the new administration is likelier to achieve its objectives, while safeguarding the strategic interests of its regional partners, with a two-stage approach. The first stage would be to reach an interim agreement (JCPOA minus) that is more limited than the original nuclear deal, and the second would be to conclude an agreement that surpasses the original and closes its loopholes (JCPOA plus).

Moreover, former and present Israeli officials are threatening military action against Iran to prevent it from manufacturing a nuclear weapon in case the US rejoins the JCPOA.

Mr. Trump has been “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House” to use Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words. Thus, Israel secured the Abraham Accords. That was hailed as a positive development for Middle East peace. Moreover, Mr. Trump chose to withdraw from the JCPOA. But that was seen as a negative development for the Middle East and was supported by no one.

Iran’s regional influence referred daily as “Iran’s malign regional activities” by Mr. Trump’s sanctions lieutenant Mr. Pompeo, has indeed grown during the past two decades. What enabled Iran was the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the regime change project in Syria. Gulf countries also took part in the latter project and failed to match Iran. Without a shadow of doubt, another military conflict would bring unprecedented instability to the Middle East, already plagued by the wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

It seems that with the changing of the guard in Washington, the anti-Iran regional bloc is now trying secure itself a place among the P5+Germany, if not formally at the negotiation table, through an intensive consultation process with Washington. In other words, the Biden administration would now have to engage in two parallel negotiations, one with Iran the other with Israel. And which one would prove a more arduous task remains to be seen.

In response to a question at a press conference on January 27, Secretary Blinken said,

“With regard to Iran, President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing and then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we called a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran.

“But we are a long way from that point. Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance in time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. So we’re not – we’re not there yet to say the least…”

In addressing the possibility of Washington’s return to the JCPOA observers often refer to “US rejoining the Iran nuclear deal”. Tehran and Washington coming to an agreement is a huge challenge. But “rejoining the JCPOA” will not be a unilateral US decision like the withdrawal. It would require agreement not only of Iran but also the P4+Germany.

Under the heading “Dispute Resolution Mechanism”, paragraphs 36-37 of the JCPOA refer to a Joint Commission designed to take up issues of non-compliance. So, at some stage, Washington’s return to the nuclear deal would have to be taken up by this Commission. But getting there may not be the end of the story. One may assume that France, Germany, and the UK would likely be receptive to Washington’s return. But what Peking and Moscow would have to say may also depend on the direction their relations would take with the Biden administration.

In his afore-mentioned article, Mr. Zarif said the following on Washington rejoining the JCPOA:

“The administration should begin by unconditionally removing, with full effect, all sanctions imposed, reimposed, or relabeled since Trump took office. In turn, Iran would reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The remaining signatories to the deal would then decide whether the United States should be allowed to reclaim the seat at the table that it abandoned in 2018. International agreements are not revolving doors, after all, and it is not an automatic right to return to a negotiated agreement—and enjoy its privileges—after one simply leaves on a whim.”

The foregoing would prompt the reader to question the stake, if any, Turkey might have in the resuscitation of JCPOA. The short answer is that Turkey as a regional country sharing a border and engaging with Iran in diverse fields of statecraft has vital interest in how the fate of this deal will pan out.

While the two countries take pride in not having engaged in military conflict for four centuries, there is no hiding that their relations would best be qualified as self-imposed mutual accommodation and restrained competition. If Iran were to add to its inventory a deliverable explosive nuclear device, that will fundamentally undermine the historical balance of interests underpinned by reasonable compromises.

It is no secret that Iran has already acquired nuclear weapon technology which cannot be unlearned, but were it to produce a nuclear bomb, the regional strategic landscape would be altered in ways that bear potential catastrophic consequences, including Turkey being compelled, like some others, to develop its matching nuclear capability. 

Iran’s declaratory policy professing that it neither intends nor finds morally permissible to acquire nuclear weapons does not and cannot go far enough to reassure its neighbors, the broader Middle East and beyond. The JCPOA is the singular political instrument on the market that has the promise that such an eventuality could be avoided. Its contractual commitments, verification measures and punitive clauses render JCPOA a keystone in preserving the delicate status quo and building on its foundation, as promised by its protagonists, a more comprehensive agreement that seeks to remedy some of its shortcomings and to bring Iran into the positive embrace of international community. That is where Turkey’s vital national interests lie. It is only to be hoped that the latest visit of Foreign Minister Zarif to Turkey would have occasioned the two states to confirm and consolidate their mutual goal to go the distance to preserve the JCPOA.

Returning to the JCPOA would be one of the many challenges facing the Biden administration and its traditional European allies. Prominently among the others are relations with Russia, China, and Turkey.

Last Friday a White House statement on National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s Head of Cabinet Bjoern Seibert said the former underscored President Biden’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance and his intention to repair and revitalize the U.S.-EU partnership, including trade and investment relationship. The statement then read, “They discussed the importance of close U.S.-EU cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic and global health security, as well as the global economic recovery and climate change. They also agreed to work together on issues of mutual concern, including China and Turkey.”

Some in Turkey must have felt proud.




(*) Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy

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