What is the "Iran Nuclear Deal"?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in Vienna in July 2015 by Iran, Britain, China, Russia, the United States, France, Germany and the European Union.
Although Iran's nuclear program had already tapered off in 2009, the JCPOA guaranteed that it stayed shut. Under the agreement, Tehran would hand over all weapons-grade Uranium and 98% of its low-grade stockpile. And the gas centrifuges, heavy water facilities and other supporting infrastructure would be either discontinued or dismantled. In return the United States and its allies would remove or reduce crippling economic sanctions on Iran's oil and gas production. The accord was a breakthrough after more than a decade of tensions between Iran and the West. It is due to be renewed in exactly one week.
Has it worked so far?
By most accounts, yes. The consensus view is that Tehran has assiduously abided by the spirit and letter of the agreement, even though secondary American sanctions have diminished the promised economic benefits of the deal.
The reason the deal is at risk now is because of what else Iran does outside the JCPOA's purview. The sticking points are Iran's ballistic missile program, its military footprint in Syria and Iraq, and its support for Hezbollah and the Houthis. The diktat from Washington is that these other military endeavours should be included in the deal. But Iran's veteran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has responded with a straight bat: saying that Iran won't be bullied
into renegotiating the deal.
Show and tell
Bibi Netanyahu travelled to Washington this week to convince Trump to leave the JCPOA and relayed his message through a medium that he knows will cut through: television. In a primetime segment the visiting Israeli Prime Minister strode across a stage repeating the phrase "Iran lied"
. With a wall of props behind him (purportedly containing secret Iranian nuclear documents stolen by Mossad), Bibi delivered his message: that Iran cannot be trusted.
Who wants it gone?
Trump has taken umbrage with the JCPOA in part because it was the crowning achievement of his predecessor's administration. Add to that the fact that Iran's influence and military presence in Iraq and Syria has ballooned over the past 2 years. Hurrying things along is Trump's new National Security Advisor - John Bolton - perhaps the most outspoken critic of JCPOA in Washington and a long-time advocate
of military action against Iran. And last but not least are the US administration's increasingly close ties to Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom face real and concrete threats from Iran.
The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is desperate for leverage over his old enemy
on the other side of the Gulf. The presence of a tenacious Iranian proxy just over the border in Yemen is unacceptable to the Saudi royal palace. While the extent of Iran's actual influence over the Houthis is debatable, the fact that their missiles are being launched at Riyadh is not. Israel's generals face a similar quandary: the approaching victory of the Assad regime in Syria's civil war will create a permanent Iranian presence just on other side of the Golan Heights. Tel Aviv's displeasure can be read in the fact that its air force is now bombing Iranian weapons stockpiles
Who wants to keep it?
Just about everybody else
. All other signatories of the agreement have vocally defended the deal, arguing in no uncertain terms that Iran has kept up its side of the bargain. The International Atomic Energy Agency (responsible for overseeing Iran's compliance with the deal) released a statement flatly contradicting
Netanyahu. The IAEA insists that there are "no credible indications" that Iran has pursued a nuclear program beyond 2009. French President Emmanuel Macron too spent a great deal
of his recent trip to Washington trying to extract assurances from Trump on the JCPOA. As did Angela Merkel
. There is a narrow possibility that even if the US exits the JCPOA, the European Union may still be able to enforce it; but the US abrogation would have a severe destabilising effect nonetheless.
Behind the props and the threats lies a broader truth. The crew at the helm of America have begun a pivot towards Asia. But this change in direction is dangerous for Israel and Saudi Arabia because they can't check a resurgent Iran (keeper of the eighth-largest standing army in the world). Even so, their options are few: a broad military intervention against Iran would be ruinous. Neither Bibi nor MbS can afford to have Iranian missiles landing in Tel Aviv or Riyadh.
And so these strange bedfellows (fittingly for these strange times) now seek to curtail Iran by undercutting the JCPOA.