- Western diplomats have set a deadline of later this month to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, signed under President Barack Obama, and dismantled in 2018 by President Donald Trump.
What was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal?
- The deal, formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a landmark accord signed between Iran and a coalition of world powers including the US, the UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany (collectively known as P5+1).
- The relatively moderate regime of President Hassan Rouhani agreed to dismantle much of Iran’s nuclear programme, and open its facilities to greater international monitoring. In return, the world powers agreed to lift many of the sanctions imposed on the country, opening its economy to billions of dollars of lost revenue.
- In essence, the agreement focused on eliminating Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium and plutonium (needed to produce a nuclear weapon), and on limiting the number and type of centrifuges Iran could operate.
- Iran’s economy, after suffering years of recessions, currency depreciation, and inflation, stabilised significantly after the deal took effect, and its exports skyrocketed.
- Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, strongly rejected the deal, and other countries like Iran’s great regional rival Saudi Arabia, complained that they were not involved in the negotiations even though Iran’s nuclear programme posed security risks for every country in the region.
- Critics also point out that since 2015, Iran has increased its support for regional proxies, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the US has designated a terrorist organisation, has expanded its activities.
- However, backers of the deal believe that it succeeded in its main objective, which was to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
What happened after the US pulled out of the deal?
- In 2020, under Trump’s presidency, the US announced its intention to abandon the deal and reinstate sanctions. However, the other partners objected to the move, stating that since the US was no longer part of the deal, it could not unilaterally reimpose sanctions.
- The other powers, in an attempt to keep the deal alive, launched a barter system known as INSTEX to facilitate transactions with Iran outside the US banking system.
- Despite the efforts of the US’s allies, the deal was essentially dead — and Tehran accused the US of reneging on its commitments, and blamed Europe for capitulating to US unilateralism.
- After Trump abandoned the deal and reinstated sanctions, Iran ramped up its nuclear programme in earnest, returning to approximately 97 per cent of its pre-2015 nuclear capabilities.
- Still, the new US sanctions hit the Iranian economy hard, leading to a wave of protests across the country.
What geopolitical considerations would drive the deal going forward, if it were to be revived?
- Any nuclear deal would come with a host of geopolitical considerations on both sides.
- The US would have to factor in not only Iran’s nuclear programme but also its increasingly hostile behaviour in the region.
- Iran, for its part, would have to consider the rapidly changing dynamics in the Middle East, given that Israel has recalibrated its relations with several Middle Eastern Arab countries in recent years.
- Internal political dynamics in both Iran and the US will have a role to play. It has been reported that the move towards reviving the deal was progressing well until the election of Raisi in June 2021. The President has taken a hard position that the US should lift most sanctions against Iran in exchange for nuclear compliance — a demand that the Americans have discounted.