Reviving or revising the JCPOA?: Time for a new Iran framework

This post is one of four CERL blog articles that examine the Iran Nuclear Deal and the United States’ future role in it it. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of CERL or any other organization.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) faces a stalemate. Attempts to revive the agreement as a way to breathe life into U.S.-Iranian diplomacy may not yield much despite compelling arguments in favor of it. Although individual actors on both sides of the aisle seem eager to reinstate the JCPOA (also known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”), the negotiations will prove onerous, making it very complicated to return to the original deal. In 2015, when Secretary of State John Kerry presented the agreement to the world, the moment appeared ripe for progress and compromise. America had found a way to dismantle, if not entirely destroy, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Iran conceded to regular international inspections of its nuclear facilities, and America began lifting sanctions. Finally, it seemed, America and Iran were on a path of reconciliation.

Yet, in 2018, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal heralded new hostilities and tensions. Trump-era Iran hawks dictated an anti-Iranian diplomacy that placed ordinary citizens under enormous economic duress in the hopes of inciting regime change. Matters came to a head in January 2020, just before the pandemic would upend lives, when President Trump threatened to bomb 52 of Iran’s cultural heritage sites in retaliation for the 52 hostages victimized by the Islamic regime in 1979.

The pandemic and Iran’s lack of access to medicines and vaccines have cost many innocent Iranian lives and deepened the gulf between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Given these circumstances, the JCPOA may seem to be the only solution in sight. At least it imposes some controls on the Islamic Republic and offers the possibility of lifting the economic sanctions on Iran. But the deal may not succeed because the fundamental differences flummoxing American and Iranian diplomats remain unresolved. Some of these concerns go back to the late Pahlavi years, and others are creations of the Islamic Republic.

The Biden administration’s recent airstrikes on Iran-backed militia in Syria signal the difficulties of returning to the JCPOA, without a full accounting of the region’s altered political dynamics and ideological divides. A new Iran framework can originate from a consideration of the following four points:

The Persian Gulf – In 1975, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi granted a frank interview to renowned Egyptian journalist Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal. The monarch regarded Persian Gulf security as being of the utmost significance and indicated that he would not actively seek to acquire nuclear weapons. The king warned, however, that if other nations in the area developed nuclear weapons technology, Iran would have to follow suit. While the shah’s international diplomacy differed vastly from the path pursued by the Islamic Republic, Iran’s attention to the Persian Gulf was nothing new. The Abraham Accordsamicable agreements recently signed between Israel and Bahrain, as well as Israel and the United Arab Emirates, to stabilize relations have isolated the Islamic Republic even more in the Persian Gulf, putting it on high alert. Requests to include the Arabian states of the region in a new iteration of the JCPOA will not be welcomed because Iran was already dispossessed in the Persian Gulf through long-standing British policies that privileged Arabian perspectives. This imbalance has created instability, inviting the intervention of relative newcomers China and Russia, which appear eager to shake things up. India, too, remains invested there. As a result, the expansion of the JCPOA to include Saudi Arabia, UAE, and perhaps other actors will break open Pandora’s Box.

JCPOA Objectives The success and failure of the JCPOA resulted from its relatively narrow focus on nuclear weapons technology. As such, the negotiators worked within the realm of the possible, not impossible. The agreement achieved a major victory in placing limits on Iran’s nuclear program. But the JCPOA did not try to limit Iran’s ballistic missiles technology because its negotiators likely recognized that Iran views that arsenal as its lifeline in a hostile Middle East not entirely of its creation. Detractors of the agreement refuse to acknowledge Iran’s legitimate security concerns to the detriment of any meaningful détente. Yet given its history of foreign invasion, Iran must be allowed to secure its borders from outside attacks. The JCPOA limited the objectives of the agreement to avoid becoming mired in these prickly issues.

Ideological Incongruities The JCPOA eschewed ideological debate. It did not strive to settle the political contradictions of the Islamic Republic as a state that seized power through its articulated support for the weak (mostaz‘af) but that flagrantly flouted human rights. Neither did it take account of the inconsistencies and ironies of America’s politics and diplomacy. America’s credibility as a nation built on the principles of equality and liberalism suffered a serious blow because of the actions undertaken by the previous administration. In addition, recent Black Lives Matter protests serve as sobering reminders that America, too, has failed to deliver on its political promises. But America retains a sacred love for its precious Constitution, which prevents a complete derailment of its ideals, whereas Iran never allowed the guiding principles of its first constitutional movement to take firm root in the country. The JCPOA cannot impose these political necessities on Iran.

Distrust Today, America and Iran face off in a different place. The Trump years, the pandemic, and the simmering conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere have pulled these countries farther apart. The crippling sanctions have badly hurt an Iranian population that has lost patience with both the United States and the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, America does not trust Iran’s intentions, and the Islamic Republic cannot be expected to brush aside Trump-era diplomacy so quickly. The double standards that America has shown to other nefarious Middle Eastern regimes and their egregious human rights abuses have not escaped the Islamic Republic. Distrust marks this relationship—a reality that puts the successful reimplementation of the JCPOA, or the negotiation of a new deal, on shaky ground.

A path forward will only emerge with a new framework for America’s Iran policy. At the same time, the Islamic Republic will need to reevaluate and reorient its raison d’être. The United States must recognize and redress some of Iran’s legitimate grievances, and the Islamic Republic should abdicate its power back to the people and enable freedom, inclusion, and democracy. Only then will the JCPOA—or any other agreement—have a meaningful chance for success.

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work is focused on modern Middle East, particularly on Iran and its borderlands, the Persian Gulf, and the Ottoman Empire. She is currently working on a book on America’s historical relationship with Iran and the Islamic world entitled Between Heroes and Hostages: Key Moments in the History of US-Iranian Relations.

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