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Iran’s Nuclear Quandary

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 21, 2020

    The July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been in a precarious position ever since President Donald Trump announced in May 2018 that he was withdrawing from the agreement. The deal’s flaws for Trump included a weak inspections regime overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the agreement’s ‘sunset’ clauses — which did not place sufficient restrictions on Iran’s future nuclear ambitions, and Iran’s continued testing of ballistic missiles.

    Trump was obviously not impressed by the then IAEA Director General, Yukiyo Amano’s repeated affirmations that Iran was subject to the world’s most robust verification regime.1 Even Trump’s closest advisors, like then Secretary of Defence Gen. James Mattis, termed IAEA verification of the JCPOA as ‘robust’.2

    As for Iran’s ballistic missile tests, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015, which recognised the JCPOA and removed UNSC sanctions on Iran, ‘called on’ Iran not to undertake such activities until eight years after JCPOA Adoption Day (October 18, 2023) or until the time that the IAEA gives the ‘broader conclusion’ determination regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.3

    The IAEA gives such a certification when it is satisfied about the ‘completeness’ (absence of undeclared activities) as well as the ‘correctness’ (non-diversion from declared nuclear activities) of a country’s nuclear programme. In 2018, the IAEA gave a broader conclusion determination for 70 out of the 129 states that had the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) and the Additional Protocols (AP) in force.4 Given Iran’s past concealment activities and lack of transparency, such a determination could have possibly taken longer than eight years but the IAEA was regularly affirming that Iran was living up to its JCPOA commitments when Trump withdrew. 

    Iran on its part affirms that its ballistic missile activities are an essential feature of its security profile and that there was no binding requirement prohibiting such tests either in the JCPOA (which by the way deals exclusively with its nuclear programme) or in the UNSCR 2231.

    The US, France and the UK (unlike Russia and China), however do not accept Iran’s justifications but note that testing of medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) like the Shahab-3 is a serious concern, as it is a Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Category-I system, ‘technically capable of delivering a nuclear weapon’.5 Iran’s regional behaviour has also been cited by Trump as a factor that impinged on his decision to withdraw from the deal.

    ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign

    After the Trump withdrawal, unilateral restrictive measures targeting Iran’s oil exports, among others — waived as part of the deal, were re-imposed. US officials assert that these restrictions have led to a massive loss of oil revenue, of up to $50 billion per year.6 Other than China and Syria, no other country is currently importing Iranian oil. The access of Iranian banks to the SWIFT network was cut off by the Belgian-based entity in November 2018. Many other European companies, including automobile manufacturers, have gone back on their plans and agreements entered into in the aftermath of the JCPOA, fearful of the repercussions of US secondary sanctions.

    The European Union’s (EU) efforts to put in place alternate payment mechanisms for Iran oil trade have not been successful. The Instrument for Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) was formed in January 2019 and its Iranian counterpart came into being in April 2019. However, reports note that no trade exchanges have taken place as part of the mechanism so far.

    Apart from such restrictive economic measures, the other pegs of the administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran include what US officials have described as ‘re-establishing deterrence’ vis-à-vis Iran.7 The killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 is held as an essential element of this policy. Iranian proxies like the Hezbollah meanwhile have been designated as a terrorist organisation by countries like the UK, Argentina, and Guatemala among others in recent months, on account of sustained US diplomatic pressure.  

    ‘Trump Deal’?

    UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while acknowledging that he recognised Trump’s concerns about the JCPOA, has called for negotiations to begin on a ‘Trump deal’ to replace it.8 However, it is not clear what the contours of such an agreement could be. In January 2018, Trump insisted that his aim is to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon – not just for 10 years but forever.9 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May 2018 put forth 12 demands required of Iran. These included a change in Iran’s regional behaviour (ranging from Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine and Syria) to halting the launch or development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Iran stopping its enrichment activities.10 Former Obama administration officials have called Pompeo’s demands a ‘wish-list based on a pipe dream’.11  

    The US State Department’s Special Representative on Iran further affirms that the UN standard of no enrichment has to be restored.12 While it is true that the UNSC in its resolutions beginning from 2006 required Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities, this injunction was always part of a broader bargain ‘to allow for negotiations in good faith, in order to reach an early and mutually acceptable outcome’.13

    Further, the JCPOA allowed Iran to enrich uranium, though with severe restrictions pertaining to total stockpile, limited to 300 kgs of uranium hexa-flouride (UF6) and enrichment levels (3.67 per cent). Iran breached both these commitments in July 2019, two months after President Hassan Rouhani stated as much on May 8, 2019, a year after the Trump withdrawal. 14

    Between May and December 2019, Iran’s uranium stockpile more than doubled from 174 kgs to 372 kgs, out of which about 160 kgs is enriched to 4.5 per cent U-235. While these numbers are far less than the quantities Iran had in its possession at the time the JCPOA came into being (over 8700 kgs of UF6 enriched to five per cent and nearly 450 kgs of UF6 enriched to 20 per cent U-235), Iran’s opponents will surely point to them as posing rising proliferation danger. 

    Iran has since breached the JCPOA commitments related to its heavy water stockpile and prohibition on enrichment at the Fordow plant (both in November 2019). In January 2020, in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, Iran announced that there would be no restrictions on the numbers of centrifuges and that it will not follow any operational restrictions on its nuclear programme.

    In response to Iran’s violations, the EU-3 invoked the Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM) of the JCPOA on January 14, 2020, as they held that these violations had ‘non-reversible proliferation implications’.15 Iran on its part has been insisting that these steps, taken after a gap of every two months beginning from May 2019 to January 2020, are ‘reversible upon effective implementation of reciprocal obligations’.16

    Iran meanwhile not only rejects the possibility of a ‘Trump deal’, and as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on January 26, 2020, but also insists that it is Washington which has to return to the negotiating table as well as compensate it for the economic and other damages it has suffered since May 2018.17

    Negative Implications

    Trump’s unilateral upending of the multi-laterally negotiated agreement has not only negatively impacted regional stability but has worked against the administration’s stated goal of reducing US commitments in the region. An uptick in US-Iran tensions in the past 15 months for instance has led to an increase in US regional force posture and commitments. Israeli analysts meanwhile insist that only a physical destruction of Iranian nuclear installations will prevent an Iranian bomb. 18

    It will be hard for Iran to reverse its JCPOA violations unless it gets some economic relief in return. Trump administration officials meanwhile are especially worried about the upcoming deadline of October 18, 2020, when the UNSCR 2231 stipulation of Iran requiring UNSC approval for conventional arms imports will expire.

    Prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough between Tehran and Washington, brokered by mediators like Oman or the EU, seem dim at the moment. Iran’s legislative elections on February 21, 2020 are expected to place hardliners in control of the parliament, which could further constrict President Rouhani’s negotiating space. The EU-3 and Iran are indeed up against formidable odds to keep the JCPOA alive till at least the November 2020 US presidential elections, and hope that the American electorate will resolve their deep quandary.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.