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The Opportunities Iran Loses in the Absence of the JCPOA

19 Sep 2022
By Kourosh Ziabari
Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director-General, met with Dr. Ali Bagheri Kani, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Mr. Mohammad Reza Ghaebi, Charge d’ Affairs, Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Vienna, during their official visit at the Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria. 15 February 2022. Joining the Director General in this meeting are Diego Candano Laris, Senior Advisor to the Director General and Ionut Suseanu, IAEA Section Head, Non-proliferation and Policy-Making, Office of Legal Affairs.  Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA

Without the nuclear deal in place, Iran struggles with the sanctions imposed by the US and other Western nations. This has led to severe social, political, and economic consequences.

No matter how groundbreaking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was as a diplomatic achievement when it was signed in 2015 and codified in the Security Council resolution 2231, it is now cratering. It is now quite possible that the JCPOA will be whittled away until it is irrelevant to international relations.

The aim of the nuclear deal was to normalise Iran’s trade and political relations with the world, while creating a viable technical framework to ensure Iran’s nuclear program was exclusively peaceful. Both objectives were being accomplished with the good-faith implementation of the accord, and Iran, which had for years treated its nuclear enterprise with life-and-death urgency, had rolled back substantive aspects of its nuclear activities.

But the nonproliferation gains for the international community and the economic reprieve for Iran were soon reversed when the former US President Donald Trump walked away from the deal and reinstated crippling sanctions. With no further incentives for the Islamic Republic to disown its nuclear leverage, and after a year of exercising “strategic patience,” Iran started scaling back its contractual obligations in 2019. Ever since, Iran has made alarming advances, including producing highly fissile material and 60 percent enriched uranium.

The moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani that brokered the JCPOA and was prepared to expend the necessary political capital to vouch for it is gone. The Western-educated technocrats who were working to subvert the nation’s lingering isolation piecemeal have been replaced by young hardliners who have a skewed reading of the world. They are clearly under the illusion that they are on a mission to vanquish global imperialism but find the day-to-day running of the country a daunting task that eclipses their ideological ambitions.

President Ebrahim Raisi, following months of handwringing, recommenced JCPOA revival talks in November 2021. Several rounds of negotiations were markedly lengthened by Iran’s refusal to engage with the US directly and its reliance on Russia and the European Union to exchange messages with the Americans. As a consequence, not only is the JCPOA anywhere close to restoration, but it is highly likely it will plummet into the abyss.

The Islamic Republic keeps publicity around the nuclear talks as limited as possible, and Iranians rely mostly on speculation on to figure out what the government stance is. However, last week’s statement by the trio of European signatories to the JCPOA, namely Britain, France, and Germany, was issued in a stern tone and has much to say about the wobbly state of the accord. The statement asserts Iran’s demands insisting that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)recant its position that Tehran’s Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards commitments “raises serious doubts as to Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome on the JCPOA.” The statement concludes with a subtle threat: “Given Iran’s failure to conclude the deal on the table we will consult, alongside international partners, on how best to address Iran’s continued nuclear escalation and lack of cooperation with the IAEA regarding its NPT safeguards Agreement.”

This statement and remarks made by US and European authorities over the recent weeks evince ominous signals that the road ahead remains bumpy, and the recovery of the foundering deal is not within immediate reach. But what is at stake if the JCPOA is not rehabilitated and the deal collapses?

Indeed, JCPOA is externally a non-proliferation accord, and in this sense not exceptional or unprecedented – even though the inspection regime it enforces and the guardrails it puts in place had never been applied to any other country. But the ramifications of the agreement – the culmination of some two decades of intense and often inconclusive diplomacy – exceed the boundaries of arms control and nuclear disarmament.

Iran’s foreign policy since the early 2000s has been inextricably tied to its nuclear pursuit, and few countries in the world have defined their relations with the Islamic Republic irrespective of this controversial enterprise. The US assumed the mantle of the frontrunner in countering Iran, unleashing all options to ensure it would not develop a nuclear bomb.  With a few exceptions, the international community rallied around the US, either to contain a noncompliant player or ward off Washington’s wrath.

This means that Iran’s foreign trade, economic opportunities, diplomatic ties, prospects of development, and international privileges have been exponentially curtailed and its people consistently punished because their government remained at odds with the major powers. It is against this backdrop that the JCPOA emerged as an inflection point. Tehran recouped a degree of normalcy in its relations, trade increased, and new openings for socioeconomic productivity arose, healing some of the nation’s wounds.

A typical metric of how Iran’s dust-up with the West over nuclear proliferation has impacted the lives of its people is the ruinous state of the nation’s aviation industry. Over the past four decades, under the sanctions, the Iranian government has barely been able to purchase any brand-new aircraft.. An estimated 2,000 people have died in air accidents involving Iranian airlines since 1979, often attributed to the poor state and declining safety of the aging planes.

Literally every facet of life in Iran has been upended by the sanctions. The housing sector is inchoate because global real estate developers are not investing. Agricultural production is stagnant because modern machinery cannot be imported. Healthcare is laggard as medical equipment and even some basic pharmaceutical products cannot be brought in. The beating heart of the national economy, the oil industry, is in tatters with refineries and tankers that are almost obsolete.

To be sure, even people-to-people exchanges, academic opportunities for the youth, and social mobility have been ruffled by the sting of the sanctions. An unspeakable number of Iranian students have seen their admission offers and scholarships from European and US universities compromised because of late visa issuances or visa refusals, and their hopes dashed in the interim.

The JCPOA was supposed to be the foundation, not the ceiling, of Iran’s broader global integration. Had its full implementation not been disrupted, it would undoubtedly incentivise  further agreements, with the potential of making the oil-rich Persian Gulf state an imperative part of the international community. This could include diversifying Iran’s economic partners and enhancing its relations with former rivals , such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and most of the European Union.

With the nuclear deal in flux and its revival elusive, it is not only the economy that will languish, but the chances of Iran realising its full potential as a member of the international community. As evidenced by a large body of scholarly work, the continuation of the draconian sanctions regime will also harden anti-Iranian attitudes, while institutionalising discrimination and racial bigotry towards people of Iranian heritage.

These deleterious scenarios can be eschewed if the leadership in Tehran makes a realistic decision to wrap up the nuclear adventure once and for all and starts being treated as an actor that puts national interest above other dogmas. As the maiden step, namely the restoration of the JCPOA, has not been taken yet the rest of the path will remain immensely difficult  in this current climate.

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning journalist from Iran and an Asia Times correspondent. A recipient of the Chevening Scholarship from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office, he is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2022 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The National Interest, Al-Monitor, openDemocracy, Responsible Statecraft, the Middle East Institute, and The New Arab. Kourosh is an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford fellow.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.