The nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany was one of the more significant international achievements of the past few years. It was a victory for diplomacy that prevented conflict and produced a politically acceptable outcome for each signatory related to Iran’s nuclear activities. It was also a milestone for the global nonproliferation community, and may create opportunities for expanding and extending its provisions to other countries. But friction between Iran and the United States, particularly since the election of President Trump, creates some lingering uncertainties about the chances of the main elements of the agreement lasting for 15 years.
This essay considers the politics of the agreement in the near to medium term, in Washington, Brussels and Tehran with the politics in Moscow and Beijing factored in as well. It considers three possible outcomes: the agreement remains in effect for the duration as originally conceived; the agreement is modified through a process of renegotiation; or the agreement is prematurely terminated or severely compromised, most likely by unilateral action.
Remains in Effect
The most likely scenario is that nothing formally changes. Each party abides by its commitments, even if there are occasional disputes and public disagreements over compliance by Iran and/or sanctions relief by the other parties to the agreement. Even in Iran and in the United States, the two countries where skepticism about the merits of the agreement are expressed by prominent political figures, there is reason to believe that continuity is the likeliest outcome.
The results of the May 19, 2017 elections in Iran certainly support the notion that the government does not face popular pressure to abandon or revise the agreement. The reelection of President Hassan Rouhani by a large margin (57 percent to 38 percent for Ebrahim Raisi) provides a mandate to sustain the agreement and demonstrate full compliance with requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The nuclear agreement is only one piece of Rouhani’s platform of opening Iran to greater international engagement and more liberal policies at home, but it has important value for him and his followers.
In Washington, the Trump administration has reluctantly conceded that sustaining the agreement is the least bad option, for now. With the legal obligation to report to Congress every ninety days on Iran’s compliance, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the certification in mid-April, but clouded it with sharp criticism of Iran on non-nuclear issues of terrorism and intervention in the region’s hot conflicts of Syria and Yemen. He warned that after a policy review, which could be completed in the summer or later in the year, the administration might take a different position on the agreement.
For Europe, and Russia and China as well, sustaining the agreement is of paramount interest, for diplomatic and political reasons. The European Union was proud to lead the diplomatic effort, and has the most at stake should Tehran or Washington rethink its position. Brussels will almost certainly muster any leverage it has to persuade Washington to preserve the agreement on its merits, absent any egregious change in Iranian compliance. Russia and China may be less focused on the details of inspections and technical provisions, but certainly see continuity as the best path forward.
Is Revised or Modified
It remains possible that the Trump Administration will, as a result of its Iran policy review, call for some specific changes to the terms of the agreement. The president’s language, on this issue as on many others, has been inconsistent and vague. At one end was a campaign promise to “kill” the agreement, while at other times, just a promise of tougher implementation. During the president’s May trip to the Middle East, most attention was on Iran’s “interference” in the internal affairs of Arab states. The one noteworthy reference to the nuclear deal was in a joint statement in Saudi Arabia, “that the nuclear agreement with Iran needs to be re-examined in some of its clauses.” With a host that has urged a much tougher approach to Iran, this language suggests that modification, rather than full repudiation, is under consideration, but even that is not a sure thing.
As for Congress, the demand for a tougher Iran policy can probably be satisfied with a more robust approach to Iran’s regional role, rather than insistence on renegotiating any of the technical provisions of the JCPOA. Iran skeptics do not accept Iran’s rhetorical pledge in the agreement to eschew nuclear weapons permanently, but some realize that changing the terms to that end may be politically and practically unachievable.
Europe and Russia would react very warily to any proposal to return to the negotiating table. They might prefer to use the dispute resolution mechanism in the agreement if that would accommodate the concerns of the US, rather than take the risk of new formal negotiations. That dispute resolution mechanism is one of the functions of the Joint Commission, which meets quarterly and is responsible for working through many of the complicated issues that play out over the years of the agreement, such as reviewing the design for a new heavy water research reactor at Arak or projects at Fordow that Iran will have to present when ready.
Iran, too, could ask for revisions, most likely to permit it to conduct more research or to achieve more sanctions relief. But so long as Rouhani retains the nuclear agreement file, he would be quite reluctant to take the risk of giving hardliners an excuse to abandon the pact, and would likely prefer a less formal mechanism to raise such demands.
Should US-Iran relations become more confrontational over other issues, however, the agreement could become a pawn as both sides seek to prove the untrustworthiness of the other. Iran’s political class might see the agreement as a sign of weakness and compromise of its sovereignty.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ambassador Tom Pickering’s essay in this series proposes a way to build on the JCPOA for a larger nonproliferation success. In a best case scenario, Iran might agree to revised language that would make the agreement’s provisions more open-ended, if other countries were to adopt the model to prove their own nonproliferation bona fides. Iran might see using the JCPOA as a new global standard as a way to enhance its prestige and status, joining some other historic cases of countries walking away from nuclear programs to achieve lasting domestic and international gains. One can imagine the Rouhani and Zarif camp embracing this ambitious initiative, but it would be a harder sell to the more conservative elements of the system.
Is Terminated Prematurely
This outcome has to be considered, even if it is the least likely, because it was one of Trump’s campaign promises. Will the JCPOA have the fate of the Asian trade agreement, from which the US formally withdrew, or of NAFTA, where the president was persuaded to change course and accept the agreement? The president’s advisors share his belief that Iran is a source of instability overall, but they have also counseled him to keep the agreement in place, as a flawed but useful constraint on Iran’s activities.
The JCPOA text, which is a voluntary agreement, not a treaty, does not contain formal language about termination by specific actions or by the consent of the parties, as many treaties do. There is language that addresses Iran’s position: “Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” But such language is not agreed to by the other signatories or binding on them.
The termination language in the text refers to the natural completion of tasks and commitments that will occur at specific intervals, such as the termination of EU regulations and US executive orders once certain steps have been achieved. And should it run its course successfully over the fifteen years, the agreement itself will be terminated and the UN system will no longer “be seized of the matter.” Iran will then be a full-fledged UN and IAEA member with no stigma of non-compliance.
But the formal aspects of the agreement, and the diplomatic protocols that govern interstate negotiations and communications, would be no match for a major geopolitical crisis. The very real risk of an escalation in US-Iran tensions would at a minimum call into question the good will and intentions of those two parties. The Trump administration’s discourse on Iran that comes close to questioning the legitimacy of the regime could provoke a hardline response, and tensions could further escalate. The nuclear agreement might not be formally repudiated, but conditions could make it very hard to continue implementation, through its formal meetings of the Joint Commission and other diplomatic encounters.
This outcome is still a low probability, but it cannot be ruled out. Some recent signals from senior Trump administration officials about possible contact with their counterparts, such as Tillerson’s comment that he would be open to dialogue if it would be productive, suggest that Trump’s Iran policy is not predetermined.
In most countries, the politics favor the continuation of the Iran agreement, even if publics and politicians have low expectations of any real normalization of relations with Tehran. Of all the signatories, the US may be the most unpredictable, alternating between wanting to deal more forcefully with the threat from Iran, and defaulting to established forms of security cooperation that only influence Iran’s conduct and ambition on the margins. Iran, for its part, will have to decide if it can do more to address the deep anxieties about its regional role, and in so doing, make the nuclear agreement even more consequential for Iran’s long-term security and prosperity.
Ellen Laipson is a Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus of the Stimson Center and a former Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council.