The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal in the New World

of the panel discussion
on Monday, 27 March 2017, 6.00 – 7.30 p.m.
at the IIP, Vienna


Julien Pinaudeau

While the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) raised hope to be the beginning of an integration of Iran into the world community in 2015, this enthusiasm partly has waned nearly two years later. The difficult relations to many Arabic states – especially to Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump’s critical opinion about the JCPOA in general, the immigration ban and open threats regarding the Iranian rocket test as well as new tendencies to rising armament in NATO states pose new foreign policy challenges for Iran and the world community in general.

A contradiction between an Iranian expansion and an imposed isolation from within and from outside of Iran raise the questions: To which extent did JCPOA contribute to international security? Can the UN-framework help maintain the JCPOA-deal? Will the Iran – US relationship recover to its pre-Trump status? How can the Steinmeier initiative towards stricter arms control cope with recent ambitions of NATO to rearm and what impacts does this have on Western-Iranian relations?

Please note that the summary will respect the Chatham House rule.

            The International Institute for Peace is honoured to welcome such a prominent panel for debating about the future of the Iran nuclear deal in the light of a new international context. Iran has always been a strategic partner in order to bring peace in such a fragile and contested region as the Middle East. Considering nuclear power, most convenient outcome remains a free zone, nevertheless it seems problematic to convince countries within the region as well as external actors. Therefore, the danger of a new nuclear race between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is present again. Several foreign powers have intervened in Iran and tried to influence this proud country. The presidency of Donald Trump remains quite unpredictable thus, it may be catastrophic if a comprehensive dialog with Teheran is not preferred to a new round of tensions and misunderstandings.


              The first panellist insists on the consequences of the Iranian Revolution on the nuclear programme. Prior to 1978, the USA and the EU wanted to sign contracts with Teheran about nuclear activities and to help the country to develop its nuclear sector. After the Islamic Revolution, however, American companies decided to leave Iran without having fulfilled their commitments. For example, Teheran signed a contract with the USA concerning the fuel needed for nuclear power plants. Although Iran paid several billion dollars, the country is still waiting for the fuel today. The panellist evokes similar examples with German or French companies. Consequently, Iran decided to turn to uranium enrichment in 1987 due to a lack of trust and hope towards the international community.

            The crisis about the Iran nuclear programme started in November 2003 when Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused Iran of non-compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards obligations. Normally, every NPT signatory state has to report any new material for nuclear activities to the IAEA after a certain amount of time. According to the panellist, Iran has never signed this part of the NPT, therefore there was no need to report on activities in Iranian nuclear sites. The problem was related to the influence of US intelligence service on the IAEA staff and the existence of proofs concerning a nuclear military programme. During almost two years and a half, Teheran had to stop all nuclear activities, which was clearly a disaster for the Iranian nuclear programme and led to a significant loss of confidence.

            Finally, after twelve years of deadlock and seventeen days of intense negotiations, foreign ministers from seven countries (Iran, USA, UK, Russia, France, Germany) and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini reached a historical agreement in Vienna, namely the JCPOA. This recent Iran nuclear deal represents a new era in the relationship between Teheran and the international community, nevertheless it may be threatened by the presidency of Donald Trump or the attitude of imposing sanctions or decisions on Iran.

            The next speaker would like to insist on the principle of non-proliferation as well as on the treaties related to it. After more than a decade of negotiations, the JCPOA, a very technical treaty about atomic activities was ratified in 2015. How can we describe the evolution of such a treaty and the relationship between Iran and the international community? Iran is respecting its commitment and five consecutive reports of the IAEA show that the country is not violating the JCPOA. The end of sanctions imposed by the USA and the EU, which were considered as very hard in Iran, has lowered tensions and restored trust.

Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that the JCPOA remains contested. The USA and several allies dread that Iran will receive relief from the USA, the European Union and the UNSC nuclear-related economic sanctions and may use it for destabilizing the Middle East region. Donald Trump qualifies the Iran nuclear deal as “one of the worst deal I have ever seen”. In Iran, several experts think that the JCPOA is clearly too restrictive and will not bring any improvement for the society. Concerning the other participating states, China and Russia remain strangely uninvolved, whereas they were major actors during the negotiation process. Finally, the European Union is strongly supporting the JCPOA. As a rule- or norm-based society, the EU will continue to ensure compliance with the norms defined by such an agreement.

The discussion about the Iran nuclear deal is deeply related to the history of the tumultuous relationship between Iran and the USA. The panellist wants to evoke several aspects of this history, particularly the period since the 1950’s in order to understand the ups and downs of Iran-USA relations. Before the Islamic Revolution, the toppling of the Iranian President Mossadegh in 1953 and the important role played by the CIA were considered as a trauma in Iran. The same year, Eisenhower signs the „Atoms for Peace“ program for the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Nevertheless, because of his politics of prestige, the Shah rejected control of the nuclear program beyond the NPT and faced difficulties with several US presidents such as Nixon, Ford, Carter. The Islamic Revolution and the crisis related to American hostages were a trauma for the USA and began a decade of tensions characterized by the US support for Iraq during the war with Iran or the “Iran Contra Affair” in 1986 during the second term of the Reagan administration. Under Georges W. Bush, Iran wanted to show its good will and offered talks on common strategy against the Taliban, on Lebanon, on Iraq, and the Middle East, but also on the nuclear program. Nevertheless, President Bush rejected such offers, put Iran on the „Axis of Evil“ and accused the country to support the Shia militias in Iraq militarily and financially. Meanwhile, tensions about Iran nuclear program were growing until 2007 when a pool of 16 US intelligence agencies found that Iran did not continue the nuclear weapons program after 2003. The first mandate of Barack Obama did not change the USA´s general attitude towards Teheran with increasing sanctions in 2009 and more pressure for military intervention. In 2012, Iran stressed the right of uranium enrichment and reached the threshold of 20%. After the imposition of a new round of sanctions on Iranian Central Bank and oil exports by the USA and the EU, Teheran threatened the Strait of Hormuz. Several Iranian scientists had been killed and a computer virus called “Stuxnet” had been used to damage Iranian nuclear facilities. Finally, the alternative in 2012 oscillated between an Iranian bomb or a preventive war against Teheran.

The following years were associated with meetings, negotiations and dialog in order to reach the 2015 Vienna Agreement or Join Comprehensive Plan of Action which aimed at limiting the level of uranium enrichment and number of centrifuges, allowing a peaceful research, introducing sweeping measures by the IAEA and reintroducing sanctions in case of violation by one party. Despite the fact that the Republican majority in Congress wanted to prevent the agreement, it would have remained in force because of the ratification of five other world powers and Iran. Under Donal Trump presidency, the JCPOA is clearly criticised and challenged, therefore we suggest two possible scenarios if the USA decide to leave the agreement:

·       Scenario 1: Iran does not feel bound to the agreement anymore, it increases uranium enrichment and the number of centrifuges. This scenario would lead to a return to the perilous situation of 2010-2012.

·       Scenario 2: Iran and all other signatories abide by the agreement. They do not go along with new US-sections and keep economic relations. The US would remain isolated. (Iran would blame the US.) The US might sanction the Europeans.

Several questions tackle the role played by Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia or the EU. If the first two countries want to put pressure on Donald Trump for designing a new agreement, the Russian Federation and the European Union are supporting the JCPOA. Iranian people still consider that such an agreement will bring a lot of benefits to their country despite ongoing sanctions against Teheran. The role of the High Representative of the EU should be welcomed but it must be borne in mind that it is impossible to reach any deal without the USA on board.