The Elusive Iran Nuclear deal

It is believed that tragedy can unite people no matter how inherent their differences may be. The monochrome scenes of the nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have shocked the global community into a consensus on the non-proliferation of nuclear arsenal. However, virtually 80 years since the apocalypse that completely levelled the two cities, the phantasmagoria of nuclear Armageddon still haunts humanity. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal has been subject to politicization more so since the unilateral exit of the United States carried out by the Trump Administration in 2018. In the mise en scene of distrust amongst key regional and international players, what was hailed as a landmark agreement in 2015 by many could still potentially work as a framework to prevent Iran from secretly developing nuclear weapons faster than the reaction time of the international community.

The path to the resurrection of the said deal comes without a tabula rasa and is fraught with roadblocks that aren’t easy to surmount. For starters, the political milieu in Iran has significantly altered since the ultra-conservative jurist, Ebrahim Raisi was elected as President in 2021. A hardliner in office serves as a complication multiplier vis-a-vis negotiating the revival of the nuclear deal. Presently, the anti-US hardliners possess clout over Tehran’s nuclear posture, and had been critical of the reformist approach espoused by the former centrist President Hassan Rouhani. Moreover, the current Beltway politics isn’t looking favorable either, since the US Congress encapsulates bipartisan objection to the revival of the deal. Republicans who have been fiercely skeptical of the JCPOA are expected to secure the Senate majority this coming November, presaging a powerful hurdle for the stop and go JCPOA revival. Interlocked with this are the sanctions imposed on Iran during Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. The number of Iranian entities on the US blacklist rose to 944 during the Trump Presidency, souring ties between the two countries.

Additionally, an impasse exists over Trump’s decision to designate Pasdaran-e-Inqilab or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian Army, as a terrorist entity in 2019. Tehran retorted with its own national classification of the US Central Command as a terrorist organization. The Iranians believe that in order to salvage the deal, the Biden administration needs to backtrack from this decision, stating that when the JCPOA was signed, the IRGCwas not declared a terrorist outfit; therefore, it was not part of the original deal and is an unfair intransigence on Washington’s part. The Biden administration may not have a lot of political capital to burn considering how recently, a non-binding resolution (NBR) left little room for maneuver, restricting the President in removing the IRGCfrom the list of foreign terrorist organizations in order to revive the JCPOA.

The conspicuous bipartisan support to kill the deal’s restoration also manifested in the US Senate last month, when a motion by Senator Ted Cruz to sanction the Central Bank of Iran was approved. The idea behind sanctioning the aforementioned bank is not only to curtail terrorism allegedly linked with Iran, but also to limit transactions between China and Iran, which is in line with Washington’s China containment policy. Ironically, an overwhelming number of members of the US Congress and politically hardline Iranian factions are seemingly in unison over their opposition for the JCPOA revival.

Furthermore, the 2015 nuclear deal could be hailed as a feat of diplomacy by the P5+1 as the key regional players namely, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE all had major reservations over the degree of consultations done with them by the Obama administration, prior to the last deal. This time around, Biden treads a tightrope as the aforementioned countries, also essential allies of the US, are pushing to go beyond the sunset clause and negotiate an inclusive deal that targets Iran’s military capabilities, especially the ballistic missile program that could work as a fail-safe. Such a demand could push the revival into a logjam.

A battle of nerves has ensued between Washington and Tehran, as Biden has stated point-blank that the US will rejoin the JCPOA on the condition that Raisi fully complies, starting with radically reducing uranium levels to under 5 percent, while Iran wants lifting of sanctions as a forerunner to catalyze the revival. Despite what the detractors say, the potential revival of JCPOA could have a palpable impact on the Global Non-Proliferation Regime (NPR) as the return of Iran, a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) during the Pahalvi dynasty’s reign, would be the return of a pariah state agreeing to operate within the confines and monitoring of the international law, instead of in a silo.

Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also begs the question that had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons following the fall of the Soviet Union to join the NPT, under the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, the invasion would not have been a sound policy option for the Kremlin; so this argument dilutes the entire concept of the NPR. Conversely, the deal could work both as a silver lining in this context and strengthen the resilience of the NPR. It is also worth mentioning that the JCPOA provides a much more exhaustive template to scrutinize any other nation which plans to enrich nuclear material.

However, proponents of non-proliferation will have to curb their enthusiasm since revival of the nuclear deal cannot pave the way for a similar agreement with another pariah state beyond the nuclear threshold, i.e. North Korea.

On the other hand if the revival process doesn’t come to fruition, the Middle Eastern Cold War will turn for the worse. If Iran continues on the path of becoming a nuclear power, it will be to the battle stations for the likes of Saudi Arabia and Israel. The latter has targeted alleged nuclear sites in Syria and Iraq. Iran poses a more explicit existential threat, therefore Israeli leadership can be expected to make use of all military options at their disposal to cripple Iran’s nuclear program. The “no deal” scenario could thrust the region and perhaps the world towards a cascade of proliferation; Saudi Arabia could attempt to match up Iranian nuclear capability, which in turn could further flare up the proxy warfare in the already volatile region. The stakes here could persuade Biden not to punt the question of the JCPOA’s revival. They might also prevent him from repeating the policy myopia of the 90s viz-a-viz North Korea, where North Korea was promised economic relief in return for joining the NPT and abandoning its rogue nuclear program, a promise the US did not make good on. The revival also appears to be on the cards since bringing Iranian oil into the global market could, in tandem, help with the energy crisis and allow for taking more stringent action against Russia; in other words while some consider the Ukrainian war as adding a layer of complication, it may perhaps work as a much-needed deus ex machina.

The Elusive Iran Nuclear deal

About Muhammad Firas Shams 1 Article
The writer is currently pursuing an MPhil in Public Policy from the Center of Public Policy & Governance, FCCU. He was formally associated with the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).

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