Restoring the JCPOA

April 5, 2021

On July 14, 2015 the P5+1 and Iran agreed on the JCPOA.

The deal represented a sea change for Iran. It came out of the negotiation process as a successful interlocutor for the P5+1 giving a boost to regime’s legitimacy. It moved from being an adversary to a potential partner for the West. The gradual removing of the sanctions brought dynamism to its economy. Foreign companies flocked into the country. GDP growth rate surged from -1.3 % in 2015, to +13.4 % in 2016.

On May 8, 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA.

The decision was followed by sanctions targeting Iran’s energy and banking sectors. Iran’s oil exports plummeted. The Iranian rial lost value. GDP declined. Inflation and unemployment surged. Sanctions under  the policy of “maximum pressure” kept coming. Then arrived Covid-19 making life harder.

The effectiveness of international sanctions has been debated for long. The general conclusion is that despite the talk about “all options being on the table”, in the absence of diplomatic and military solutions, they are a last resort. They have an impact if they are universally applied. But, in the final analysis, it is the peoples who suffer.

On July 26, 2010, the BBC published an analysis titled, “Do economic sanctions work?” by Jonathan Marcus, a diplomatic correspondent.[i] The following is from his report:

Professor Adam Roberts is a research fellow at Oxford University – one of the great British figures in the study of international relations.

“There are very few cases where you can definitely identify sanctions as having had a success, except sometimes in combination with other factors,” he says…”

“And as Nicholas Burns, the most senior professional US diplomat in the Bush Administration says, as far as Iran is concerned this is just not happening.

“Many countries are effectively ignoring them or, like China, undercutting them,” he says.

“Indeed, he argues that China has become the largest trading partner with Iran since these UN sanctions have come into effect.

“They are a very difficult and sensitive policy instrument”, he concludes and, echoing Adam Roberts’ view, he says “there are very few examples looking back over the last 25 to 30 years where sanctions have actually succeeded”.

“In many ways sanctions also have a poor track record in terms of their impact upon a country’s economy.

“They have tended to hit home against the ordinary people – the ruled – rather than against the rulers who are often the real target for pressure.”

On March 27, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership deal between the two countries.

Xinhua news agency reported that calling China as a reliable partner on the JCPOA, Zarif said Iran is willing to work closely with China to put the deal back on track. “Wang said that the current situation of the Iranian nuclear issue was caused by the unilateral withdrawal from the pact by the United States. He urged the United States to lift its illegitimate sanctions against Iran, cancel its measures of long-arm jurisdiction over third parties, and resume the implementation of the JCPOA comprehensively and unconditionally,” Xinhua added.

China has signed similar agreements with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in the past. But the agreement with Iran is more significant coming days before the talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement.

China, world’s top crude oil importer, has carefully refrained from getting involved in Middle East conflicts. But the signing of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement with Iran may signal a change. This is not to say that Peking is going to get involved in regional conflicts like the US and Russia by sending troops or engaging in proxy wars. But it may shift into a higher gear as a global power.

Last Friday a meeting of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was held. It was attended by representatives of China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and Iran. A statement by the  Chair after the meeting said  that the participants recognized the prospect of a full return of the US to the JCPOA  and underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort. 

The statement also said, “Participants agreed to resume this session of the Joint Commission in Vienna next week, in order to clearly identify sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures, including through convening meetings of the relevant expert groups. In this context, the coordinator will also intensify separate contacts in Vienna with all JCPOA participants and the United States.”

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

Tomorrow, US representatives will be in Vienna but will not participate in the talks. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted last Friday that the aim of the Vienna talks was to “rapidly finalize sanction-lifting and nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures.” He added: “No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary.”

Minister Zarif’s use of the word “choreographed” is worthy of attention and may be the key to progress. Hopefully, the Vienna ballet competition would end the US-Iran brinkmanship of the past two months. But the question “who is to take the first step?” aside, simply going back to July 14, 2015 without any understandings with Tehran on Iran’s ballistic missile program and Middle East issues would be a tough choice for the Biden administration. Moreover, Iran is to hold elections in June to determine President Rouhani’s successor further complicating the picture.

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[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-10742109

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