The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, made headlines across the globe in July 2015 as a landmark historical agreement between extreme opponents.
Just three years later, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal on the grounds that it failed to curtail Iran's missile program or its influence on its neighbors. Iran responded by restarting its nuclear program.
Early in his administration President Joe Biden and Iranian leaders both signaled a willingness to restart the original deal. However, recent events in Iran, including that nation's support for Russia in its war against Ukraine, make a resumption of talks extremely unlikely as of late 2022.
- The Iran nuclear deal was intended to curb Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions on Iran.
- In May 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the deal and reissue sanctions on Iran.
- After Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in early 2019, Iran announced its withdrawal from the accord.
- The willingness of the U.S. to revive the deal was quashed by Iran's support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine, among other geopolitical and human rights concerns.
Understanding the Iran Nuclear Deal
The Iran Nuclear Deal was a signature foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama's second term. The accord came after months of preparation and two weeks of final intensive discussions in Vienna.
The deal was intended to limit Tehran's nuclear ability in return for lifting international oil trading and financial sanctions placed on the nation. It laid out a lengthy process spanning 15 to 25 years, to be supervised by an eight-member committee including Iran, the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union.
In May 2018, President Donald Trump canceled the agreement and issued fresh sanctions against Iran.
Whether it can ever be revived remains unknown as of the end of 2022.
Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
Based on the revelations of an Iranian exile group in 2002, Iran was suspected of having nuclear facilities. Following inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and subsequent discoveries confirmed these suspicions.
Iran continued to proceed with its nuclear program despite international opposition. In 2006, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iran. These were followed by similar actions from the U.S. and the European Union.
A bitter war of words broke out between Iran and the world powers.
The sanctions—primarily on Iran's oil business, weapons sales, and financial transactions—severely harmed Iran’s economy. As one of the world's largest producers of crude oil, prices went through a volatile period with the outcome largely unknown.
The Parties Involved
The deal was negotiated between Iran and a group of counterparts that included the U.S., Russia, the U.K., Germany, France, China, and the European Union (EU).
The supporters of the nuclear deal affirm its benefits, which include the best-possible guarantee from Iran that it will refrain from producing a nuclear arsenal.
It was, at the time, an important step toward establishing peace in the Middle East region, particularly in the context of ISIS and the role of oil in Middle East economies.
How to Limit Nuclear Capabilities
To make nuclear bombs, uranium ore mined from the earth needs enrichment to either uranium-235 or plutonium. Uranium ore mined from the earth is processed using devices called centrifuges to create uranium-235. Uranium ore is processed in nuclear reactors, which transforms it into plutonium.
Under the deal, Tehran would reduce the number of centrifuges at the Natanz uranium plant to 5,000—about half the number known to exist at the time. Nationwide, the number of centrifuges would be reduced from 19,000 to 6,000.
The enrichment levels would be brought down to 3.7%, which was much lower than the 90% needed to make a bomb.
The stockpile for the low-enrichment uranium would be capped at 300 kilograms for the next 15 years, down from a known stockpile of 12,000 kilograms.
All these measures served to restrict Iran's capability to make a nuclear bomb and would ensure nuclear power usage would be limited to civilian use.
Next Steps and Timeline
As the deal was finalized, a UN Security Council resolution was agreed upon.
By Aug. 15, 2015, Iran submitted written responses to the questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its nuclear program and developments.
Additionally, it allowed monitoring of its facilities by IAEA inspectors on or before Oct. 15, 2015.
Removal of Sanctions
First, the oil embargo that prevented the export of oil from Iran was removed. The U.S. and EU lifted oil- and trade-related sanctions.
Foreign companies began to purchase oil from Iran. U.S. companies located outside the United States were authorized to trade with Iran. Imports of selected items from Iran were permitted, which had a particular effect on international business.
Simultaneously, sanctions on Iran’s banking and financial systems were dropped. This enabled the immediate release of about $100 billion lying frozen in Iranian bank accounts overseas.
Immediately after the announcement, government officials from major European countries began visits to Iran to explore business opportunities.
Some of the main challenges faced by Iran during the sanction period were a shrinking GDP, high inflation, and isolation from the world's economic systems. All such economic challenges dramatically improved after the agreement.
Lifting sanctions allowed the movement of huge supplies of oil from Iran, which was thought to be sitting on large stockpiles after years of sanctions. International oil companies like France’s Total and Norway’s Statoil (now Equinor) operated in Iran for years before the sanctions were imposed, changing the tide for those countries and other top oil producers.
European car manufacturers including Peugeot and Volkswagen were market leaders in Iran prior to the sanctions.
However, despite such notable exceptions, foreign businesses have had a limited presence in Iran since its 1979 Revolution. Opportunities in Iran remained largely unexplored by international businesses across many industry sectors.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama claimed that the deal would make the U.S. and the world a safer place. However, concerns remained.
Challenges included administrating and monitoring the atomic facilities and developments in Iran. Complete transparency was required about the existing labs, establishments, underground sites, research centers, and military bases associated with nuclear developments.
Though Iran agreed to provide the IAEA with higher levels of information and deeper levels of access to all nuclear programs and facilities in the country, the picture remained murky.
Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal
Although welcomed by many nations, the Iran Nuclear Deal had opposition from a few prominent world leaders. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal "paves Iran's path to the bomb." His vehement opposition was based on Iran’s record of being a nuclear-capable challenge for the Middle East region.
Netanyahu argued that the deal was a platform to fund and nurture a nuclear-capable, religious-extremist country, saying a strengthened Iran could hinder peace and security in the region.
Former President Donald Trump and Iran
After Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, proponents of the deal feared the agreement, which they saw as a win for world peace, would be in jeopardy.
They were right.
In May 2018, President Trump announced that the U.S. would pull out of the deal and by the end of the year had reinstated sanctions on Iran. European countries, including Germany, France, and the U.K. disagreed with the imposition of sanctions.
Iran's economy struggled, leading to protests in the streets.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that the country was rolling back some of the restrictions that had been agreed to under the deal.
Iran would stop complying with the caps for stockpiles of enriched uranium. The Iranian president also announced the country would also halt any sales of surplus supplies overseas.
In early 2019, President Trump ordered the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, who was one of Iran's top military leaders. In response, Iran announced it would no longer comply with the nuclear deal that President Obama had signed in 2015.
In May 2019, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization stated that they would quadruple the production or output of low-enriched uranium, which was later confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
President Joe Biden and Iran
President Joe Biden was said to be intent on restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran early in his administration.
White House officials were said to be reviewing each sanction that former President Trump put in place against Iran. (Towards the end of Trump's term, there were more 700 sanctions in place.)
Since the end of the agreement, Iran has produced nuclear material that could be used for bombs and has increased its enrichment levels. Both of these actions are violations of the original pact.
The resumption of sanctions by the U.S. and its European allies had the effect of driving Iran into a closer relationship with Russia. As others shunned both, the economic, political, and security ties between the two countries all grew substantially.
And there is another barrier to any relations with Iran: The revulsion towards Iran's repression of women was greatly intensified by the wave of anti-government protests that swept the nation in 2022.
At the end of 2022, any renewal of the Iran Nuclear Deal remains unlikely.
Why Can't the Iran Nuclear Deal Be Revived?
Iran is locked in a vicious cycle that has cut it off from the international community, except for Russia.
“The more Iran represses, the more there will be sanctions; the more there are sanctions, the more Iran feels isolated,” said Rob Malley, the US special envoy on Iran, at a conference in Rome.
Does Iran Support Russia?
Russia has become Iran's top trading partner since the reimposition of sanctions by the U.S. and Europe cut the nation off from most of its markets.
Economic dependence makes political bedfellows.
Iran has supplied Russia with drones that were used in the assault on Ukraine.
Admittedly, it has remained cagey about its role in Russia's invasion. It admitted only in November 2022 that it had supplied Russia with drones but said that they were limited in number and were sent before the war. Iran is officially neutral on the war.
Did the Iran Nuclear Deal Eliminate All Sanctions on Iran?
Some sanctions remained on Iran and probably will remain even if the Iran Nuclear Deal is revived. These include:
- Sanctions on conventional weapons sales to Iran
- Designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism
- Potential sanctions on any acts by Iran that destabilize the Mideast region
The Bottom Line
The pros and cons of the landmark Iran Nuclear Deal were hotly debated. Its cancellation was equally controversial.
For the time being, it appears that the Iran nuclear deal will not be revived, and that nation's isolation from most of the world's powers will continue.