Is Iran’s nuclear deal dead?

Iran began new operations on December 23, 2019 at a heavy water nuclear reactor near Arak, southwest of Tehran. The move was seemingly designed to intensify pressure on Europe to find an effective way around US sanctions. Keystone

Geneva-based arms proliferation expert Marc Finaud says Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers remains intact despite rising tensions between Iran and the United States.  

This content was published on January 8, 2020 - 16:48

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated following the US killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike on January 3 in Baghdad. 

Iran responded on Monday by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles against Iraqi military bases hosting US-led coalition personnel. 

Friction between Iran and the United States has risen since Washington withdrew in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal between Tehran and other world powers, achieved in 2015 with Swiss support. The US has imposed new economic sanctions on Iran, and Tehran said on Sunday it was dropping all limitations on uranium enrichment, its latest step back from commitments under the deal. 

Marc Finaud is head of arms proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy

Former French diplomat Marc Finaud of the Geneva Centre for Security PolicyExternal link told the press in Geneva what happens next with the JCPOA amid the current US-Iranian situation. 

What may happen next in the crisis?

Marc Finaud: We are in a spiral of escalation and retaliation, but this is not a new phenomenon. However, no one wants an all-out confrontation, certainly not [US President] Trump as he knows that for electoral reasons this doesn’t sound good, especially if there are US casualties. And on the Iranian side it cannot afford one. It doesn’t have the economic or military resources to conduct a large-scale confrontation. 

But as we see, this escalation can get out of control. The risks are very high due to the complexities of all the actors in the region – proxies, non-state actors, terrorist groups, military technologies that are not 100% accurate and other related interests, like the oil routes and straits. 

Is the JCPOA nuclear deal still alive? 

M.F.: You may have read lots of different things about Iran withdrawing from the JCPOA, that the JCPOA is dead, and that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons programme. These are all wrong. Iran has been very precise in announcing the steps it would take after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, which was in violation of the agreement and of a UN Security Council resolution. 

Iran waited a year to act. The whole agreement is based on reciprocity. If one party doesn't fulfil its commitments, the others are free to take action in response. That's the spirit of the deal. Iran was completely legitimate in responding to the US violation of the agreement, especially after the US reinstated major unilateral sanctions.  

‘Save the deal’

The European Union said on Wednesday it “will spare no efforts” in its attempts to keep alive the JCPOA. EU foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels on Friday to discuss ways to save the deal. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that Britain believes the Iranian nuclear deal remains the best way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. 

Meanwhile, the same day Trump called on Europe, China and Russia to “break away from the remnants of the Iran nuclear deal”, which he called a “foolish” deal.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said earlier on Monday that it saw no threat of nuclear weapons proliferation after Iran's decision to abandon limitations on enriching uranium. The ministry said that Russia remained fully committed to JCPOA.

End of insertion

The five steps that Iran has taken since 2018 were well known and were clearly announced to put pressure on the other parties to pressure the US to lift the sanctions: namely, one year after withdrawal to increase the stockpile of low-enriched uranium beyond 300kg, to start enriching uranium to purity rates beyond the 3.76% limit, to activate new-generation centrifuges for research and to start injecting gas at a second plant. The last step, after the killing of Souleimani, was to increase the number of centrifuges beyond the 5,000 JCPOA limit.

These were key provisions of the JCPOA meant to restrict Iran's capacity to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. Thanks to Mr Trump they came to an end much sooner than expected. 

But all the other provisions of the deal remain intact and that's why it's wrong to say the JCPOA is dead. Iran has not withdrawn from it and all the other provisions which don't have time limits, such as the prohibition to manufacture nuclear weapons or the unprecedented International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection regime, remain in force. 

What leverage does Iran have with the JCPOA?

M.F.: It's a double-edged sword. Tehran uses it as a means of pressure to show they are doing something to respond to the sanctions. But Iran keeps saying that they don't want nuclear weapons, as that’s a red line: the day they announce that would justify any action by hardliners in the US.  

It's clear that warmongers in the US are dreaming of the day when Iran says it has nuclear weapons as this would be the perfect pretext to wage war on Iran, using the same pretext as the invasion of Iraq - the weapons of mass destruction which didn't exist. That's why Iran is so careful. 

But the self-fulfilling prophesy that some dream of could take place if the US takes major military offensive against Iran. Then it could say “we are under attack; our only choice would be to acquire nuclear weapons”. That's exactly what happened with North Korea. So, in a sense, the US strategy of “maximum pressure” would have a counter-productive, proliferating effect. Nobody wants to get to this situation, that's why Iran is being so careful not to escalate matters. But they may have no other choice if they face a massive military offensive.

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