By Nick Meeker
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015, is an arms control agreement between the U.N. Security Council’s Permanent Five (the U.S., China, Russia, France, and the U.K.), Germany, and Iran regarding Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons. Under the agreement, Iran took steps to limit its nuclear capabilities like refraining from producing highly-enriched uranium or plutonium and allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency unrestricted access to Iranian nuclear sites. In exchange, the other parties lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, but retained sanctions related to human rights abuses and support for terrorist groups. The goal was to prolong Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, thus allowing the international community to prepare a future response to such developments.
While the agreement was met with international support, the topic became incredibly polarizing in American domestic politics, culminating in the U.S. withdrawal from the deal in 2018 under President Trump. The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran previously lifted under the deal and demanded that American allies still involved in the agreement cease economic activity with Iran and adhere to U.S.-imposed sanctions. For months, the Biden administration has been negotiating with Iran in an attempt to restore a deal aimed at limiting Iran’s capability of creating nuclear weaponry. With U.S. officials stating that the “window is closing” and a deal is “in sight”, the issue deserves some scrutiny and examination. Here are some major factors that may influence negotiations and the prospect of a future deal.
Iran’s Current Nuclear Status
Although Iran initially adhered to JCPOA’s standards, Iranian nuclear research and production was greatly expanded following the U.S. withdrawal. By April 2019, Iran’s uranium purity had reached 60%, and by September of that year, Iran began creating centrifuges for further uranium enrichment, leading it far closer to obtaining nuclear weapons than in 2015. In January 2020, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced his government had begun enriching uranium at levels exceeding pre-JCPOA levels, specifically citing the American failure to commit to the agreement as reason for Iran’s actions.
U.S. Sanctions Relief
The United States recently restored sanctions waivers on Iran that were removed by the Trump administration in an effort to facilitate what a State Department spokesperson called “technical discussions” essential in the re-creation of JCPOA. This relief allows companies to conduct business unrelated to nuclear proliferation or military matters with Iran’s nuclear sites. In the United States, these efforts have yielded mixed reactions, with some of Biden’s congressional allies praising these actions as progress towards a much-needed deal and others condemning such attempts as dangerously appeasing Iran. Iran has welcomed this development, but are also calling for greater sanctions relief and describing U.S. actions as “insufficient. ”
The Global Oil Market
The oil market is another major factor in negotiations. A lift on sanctions could inject a significant amount of Iranian oil into the global market. The introduction of this new oil source could combat the rising oil prices we have recently seen and provide massive economic relief to Iran. The mere anticipation of an agreement has already contributed to slight decreases in global oil price levels.
The Future of the Deal
Even if the deal was restored, some U.S. officials predicted Iran could still obtain a nuclear weapon within a year due to the experience and knowledge they have accumulated over the past several years. This could make a new deal largely ineffective in achieving its original goal of slowing Iranian nuclear advancement and potentially sway the Permanent Five and Germany to take a harder stance or abandon negotiations altogether. As Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance throughout the negotiation period, some U.S. officials have already left the team in protest of what they perceive to be a soft stance from the American side.
Nick Meeker is a freshman majoring in International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is from San Jose, California, and is a member of the Editorial Team of the Hopkins Podcast on Foreign Affairs.