Saving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L-R) pose for a family picture after the last plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal on Tuesday, capping more than a decade of on-off negotiations with an agreement that could potentially transform the Middle East, and which Israel called an "historic surrender". REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger - LR2EB7E0WT005

Earlier this month, Trump announced that the United States would not certify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In a speech announcing the decision, he said: “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout.” The move opens the door for Congress to consider re-imposing nuclear-related sanctions.

Partners to the agreement (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China) have reinforced their commitment to the JCPOA, reiterating that—in their view and according to the International Atomic (IAEA)—Iran is abiding by its obligations under the deal. Without evidence that Iran is violating the agreement, the partners should remain firm in their adherence to the JCPOA and should urge Washington not to damage it. At the same time, the partners should work to reinforce those parts of the agreement that allow for expert exchanges to promote cooperation, which can help to lay the groundwork for the agreement’s success. They should also work through the JCPOA Joint Commission to resolve their disputes, while being open to other forums to if so desired address Trump’s concerns.

Bottom line: The JCPOA should remain intact, and thankfully there is much that can be done outside of Washington to that effect.

The deal in question

Trump’s repeated attacks on the JCPOA as “one of the worse ever made” represent his repudiation of the legacy of President Obama as well as an affront to Washington’s partners in negotiating the deal. Importantly, the president’s claims that Iran isn’t holding up its end of the bargain are without merit: IAEA reports that Iran is implementing its nuclear-related commitments in accordance with the contract. The IAEA has had access to all locations that its inspectors have requested to visit, and according to its director, Iran remains under the most robust nuclear verification regime in the world.

To renegotiate the deal, as Trump has insisted he would like to do, he would have to convince the other partners to join in a new negotiating process. However, the JCPOA partner countries have stood firm in their support for continuing the deal’s implementation. One should not forget the lengthy process that yielded the deal: Europe launched talks with Tehran in 2003 after revelations of previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility. Negotiations toward the eventual Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action started with the adoption of an interim agreement between the seven countries in November 2013.The P5+1 and Iran negotiated until April 2015, when the parties reached a framework agreement. In July 2015, the partners agreed on the final plan. This lengthy negotiation would not necessarily be any easier today, and the other parties involved wouldn’t be eager to do it all again.

Arms control agreements, particularly those that address nuclear weapons capability, are predicated upon the assumption of longevity. It’s highly damaging for a state that agrees to the provisions to abandon the deal because its preferences have changed. For this reason, arms control agreements typically provide a mechanism for parties to address grievances short of withdrawal. The JCPOA has such an arrangement: the Joint Commission, which reviews concerns of nonperformance and discusses implementation matters under the agreement. The Joint Commission meets on a quarterly basis, as well as at any time upon request of a JCPOA participant. At the April and July 2017 meetings of the Joint Commission, all participants noted their continued adherence to JCPOA commitments and stressed the need to ensure its full and effective implementation.

The JCPOA is an essential tool of nonproliferation diplomacy, because it stops Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and ensures that inspectors are on the ground in Iran to verify Iran’s adherence to the deal; and creates opportunities for the partners to deepen their engagement with Iran and build trust, providing a basis for future cooperation. Exchanges of expertise and informal contacts can give Iran a greater stake in the smooth implementation of the agreement. The agreement provides for the parties to cooperate on issues—such as nuclear safety and security, as well as medical uses of nuclear technology—and to work together to establish a nuclear safety center. Even if the United States decides to retrench from these activities, the other parties to the agreement can and should continue.

Withdrawal, then what?

In recent days, the U.K., France, and Germany reiterated their commitment to the JCPOA. Russia has said that Washington’s aggressive stance on the deal is doomed to fail, and China has urged the continued implementation of the agreement. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has stressed that Europe would do everything possible to keep the deal alive. Iran has reached out to the other JCPOA partners and asked them to remain in the contract. Meanwhile, the IAEA continues its work in verifying the agreement. All of these positions set the stage for the remaining partners to continue implementing the deal.

The JCPOA partners should continue to work with but also pressure the United States not to take actions to the detriment of the agreement, and they should also seek to stay unified in their commitment to the JCPOA. They should implement all provisions, including those that promote expert exchanges, and continue to highlight the IAEA’s role in verifying the agreement. There may be other ways to address Trump’s concerns about the agreement short of destruction. One way is to use the JCPOA Joint Commission as designed: to resolve possible disputes so that a partner does not act unilaterally. However, the seven countries can also discuss whether there are existing forums to address other concerns, such as Iran’s missile program, or whether another forum should be set up to discuss those matters while leaving the JCPOA to focus on Iran’s nuclear program.