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  • 02 March, 2021

  • 10 Min Read

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action- Iran nuclear deal

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action- Iran nuclear deal


  • US President Mr. Biden has consistently advocated a return to the JCPOA provided Iran returns to full compliance;
    • Iran has always reiterated its commitment to the JCPOA maintaining that the steps it took are reversible as long as the United States lifts the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration since 2018.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

  • The JCPOA was the result of prolonged negotiations from 2013 and 2015 between Iran and P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, or the EU).
  • It happened, thanks to the back channel talks between the U.S. and Iran, quietly brokered by Oman, in an attempt to repair the accumulated mistrust since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
  • Former U.S. President Barack Obama described the JCPOA as his greatest diplomatic success.
  • Iran was then estimated to be months away from accumulating enough highly enriched uranium to produce one nuclear device.
    • The JCPOA obliged Iran to accept constraints on its enrichment programme verified by an intrusive inspection regime in return for a partial lifting of economic sanctions.
    • Faced with a hostile Republican Senate, Mr. Obama was unable to get the nuclear deal ratified but implemented it on the basis of periodic Executive Orders to keep sanction waivers going.

Cancellation of deal by Trump

  • One sided deal: Mr. Trump had never hidden his dislike for the JCPOA calling it a “horrible, one sided deal that should have never, ever been made”.
  • Policy of ‘maximum pressure’: After ranting about it for a year, he finally pulled the plug on it in May 2018 and embarked on a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to coerce Iran back to the negotiating table.
    • The U.S. decision was criticised by all other parties to the JCPOA (including the European allies) because Iran was in compliance with its obligations, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

EU’s promise to Iran

  • Role of E-3: For the first year after the U.S. withdrawal, Iran’s response was muted as the E-3 (France, Germany, the U.K.) and the EU promised to find ways to mitigate the U.S. decision.

Shift to strategy of ‘maximum resistance’ by Iran

  • But by May 2019, Tehran’s ‘strategic patience’ was wearing out as the anticipated economic relief from the E-3/EU failed to materialise.
  • As the sanctions began to hurt, Tehran shifted to a strategy of ‘maximum resistance’.

The unravelling of the JCPOA

  • Iran’s revival of enrichment plans: On the nuclear front, beginning in May 2019, Iran began to move away from JCPOA’s constraints incrementally:
    • Exceeding the ceilings of 300kg on low-enriched uranium and 130 MT on heavy-water;
    • Raising enrichment levels from 3.67% to 4.5%;
    • Stepping up research and development on advanced centrifuges;
    • Resuming enrichment at Fordow; and
    • Violating limits on the number of centrifuges in use.
  • Drone attack by US: Finally, in January 2020, following the drone strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Gen. Qasem Soleiman, Tehran announced that it would no longer observe the JCPOA’s restraints, though its cooperation with the IAEA would continue.
  • U.S’s unilateral sanctions: Tensions rose as the U.S. pushed ahead with its unilateral sanctions, widening their scope to cover nearly all Iranian banks connected to the global financial system, industries related to metallurgy, energy and shipping, individuals related to the defence, intelligence and nuclear establishments and even senior political leaders including the Supreme Leader and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Events in Iran

  • This came on top of COVID-19 that affected Iran badly, which had over 1.6 million infections and more than 60,000 deaths.
  • The Iranian economy contracted by 7% in 2019 and another 6% in 2020.
  • In mid-2020, Iran was shaken by a series of unexplained fires and blasts at a number of sensitive sites including one at the Natanz nuclear facility and another at Khojir, a missile fuel fabrication unit.
  • The damage at Natanz, described as ‘sabotage’, was significant, leading Tehran to announce that it would be replaced by a new underground facility.
  • Last November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior nuclear scientist and head of the Research and Innovation Organisation in the Iranian Defence Ministry was killed outside Tehran in a terrorist attack amid rumours of external intelligence agencies’ involvement.
  • Days later, Iranian Parliament, dominated by the conservatives, passed a bill seeking enrichment to be raised to 20%, acceleration of deploying new cascades and suspending implementation of some of the special inspection provisions with the IAEA within two months if sanctions relief was not forthcoming.

No appetite for talks

  • Failed negotiation: Clearly, Mr. Trump’s policy failed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and only strengthened the hardliners.
    • Iran has suffered and there is no appetite for more negotiations.
  • Failure of INSTEX: The E-3’s promised relief Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), created in 2019 to facilitate limited trade with Iran has been a disappointment; its first transaction only took place in March 2020. EU-Iran trade fell from €18 billion in 2018 to less than a third in 2019 and dropped further last year.
  • Enrichment reached to 20%:A recent IAEA report has confirmed that 20% enrichment had begun as had production of uranium metal at Isfahan.
  • Withdrawal from Additional Protocol: However, a recent visit by IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi to Tehran enabled a ‘technical understanding’ to postpone Iran’s withdrawal from the Additional Protocol (that it had voluntarily accepted in 2015) by three months.
  • Domination of the Conservatives: Moreover, Iranian elections are due in June and it is likely that President Hassan Rouhani’s successor may not be from the ‘moderate’ camp. Though the nuclear dossier is controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he too had to wait for the moderate Rouhani/Zarif combine to be elected in 2013 for the JCPOA negotiations to commence.


  • If the U.S. waits for Iran to return to full compliance before lifting sanctions or Iran waits for the U.S. to restore sanctions relief before returning to full compliance, it can only lead to one outcome — the collapse of the JCPOA with Iran going nuclear like North Korea; an outcome that would create major reverberations in the region and beyond.

Way ahead

  • U.S. Special Envoy: The Biden administration has made a good start by appointing Robert Malley as the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran but he will need help.
  • Release of European and American nationals: release of European and American nationals currently in custody in Iran would help.
  • IMF’s relief package: Clearing Iran’s applications to the International Monetary Fund for COVID-19 relief and for supply of vaccines under the international COVAX facility can be done relatively easily.
  • Fast-tracking of E-3: The E-3/EU need to fast track deals worth several hundred million euros stuck in the INSTEX pipeline, with a visible nod from the U.S.
    • The IAEA and the E-3/EU should work on a parallel reversal of steps taken by Iran to ensure full compliance with the JCPOA.

Source: TH

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