After several months of intense negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany (the E3), President Trump decided on May 8, 2018 that the weaknesses in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could not be remedied sufficiently to justify the United States from ceasing to further participate in the agreement and re-impose the full suite of U.S. nuclear-related Iran sanctions. The weaknesses of the JCPOA are well known, namely inadequate inspections, sunsets in nuclear limitations, and lack of treatment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Significantly, the administration did not remain a member to the agreement while invoking the snap-back clause in the JCPOA, which it could have justifiably done based on the new Iranian nuclear weapons information discovered by Israel in a dramatic seizure in early 2018. As a result, the administration did not end the JCPOA and snap back United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on Iran, adopting the stance for now that it is not excluding others’ continued participation in the JCPOA. It is unclear how long the JCPOA will continue as the United States gradually re-imposes nuclear sanctions on Iran. However, it would need to involve Iran withdrawing from the agreement. If Iran ignores the nuclear limitations, one would expect the re-imposition of the UNSC sanctions and Europe to snap back its own sanctions.
Iran’s refusal to allow access to its military sites or honestly address allegations about its past nuclear weapons work is also well documented. Rather quickly in the negotiations on a supplementary agreement, the E3 and the Trump administration reached agreements on fixing this weakness of the JCPOA. They agreed on the need for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to improve its inspections in Iran, particularly visiting military sites associated with past nuclear weapons and centrifuge work and implementing Section T. This section is a part of the JCPOA that bans certain work related to nuclear weapons development and subjects certain related activities to Joint Commission approval and IAEA monitoring. So far, Section T has not been implemented or adequately verified due to Iranian resistance. The IAEA appears more cognizant of the inspection problem, having recently stated in its latest quarterly report on Iran that “timely and proactive cooperation by Iran in providing [complementary] access would facilitate implementation of the Additional Protocol and enhance confidence.”
The United States and E3 also agreed that an Iranian ICBM is intrinsically tied to the JCPOA, and its development would be sufficient to justify the re-imposition of draconian sanctions by the United States and the European Union.
However, they could not agree on the sunset issue and how to structure the re-imposition of sanctions if Iran augmented its enrichment program. The E3 did agree that the growth of Iran’s enrichment program was a grave security threat. Nonetheless, they refused to accept the U.S. condition that sanctions would be re-imposed if Iran’s breakout timeline dropped below 12 months. In practice, the 12-month criterion had evolved into a set of conditions that marked when Iran would physically increase its gas centrifuge program. Based on Iran’s voluntary enrichment plant submitted as part of the JCPOA, an example would be Iran deploying an increasing number of advanced centrifuges after the tenth year of the agreement, roughly seven and half years from now. In draft Senate legislation, this number was taken as 100 advanced centrifuges.
Instead of the 12-month criterion, the E3 were proposing another approach that involved definitions of a peaceful nuclear program and what constituted a military nuclear program inconsistent with the JCPOA. The Europeans proposed that if the peaceful use of Iran’s nuclear program could not be established, they would agree to consider returning to the pressure track and sanctions, according to an administration official. However, this language was not enough to convince the administration. There was discussion of trying to quantify such a condition, but from what I understand, those discussions were not sufficiently robust for the administration.
The E3 also argued that the sunset condition proposed by the administration would be a violation of the JCPOA, once enacted, and would lead Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA. The administration rejected this view and assessed instead that Iran would not leave the JCPOA over this issue; Iran would likely choose to remain in the deal at least until the first sunset involving an increase in numbers of centrifuges, which would occur in about seven years.
The problem of how to re-impose sanctions was debated in the context of a proposed Senate Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) amendment by creating “off-ramps” that would not make the re-imposition of nuclear sanctions automatic. The intent of the legislation, and an E3/US agreement, was to create conditions that would encourage Iran to renegotiate the sunset conditions while avoiding automatic snapback of U.S. nuclear sanctions.
Negotiations proceeded well on five of six parallel regional issues raised by the Trump administration, for example dealing more broadly with the activities of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), human rights, and Iran’s ballistic missiles. The E3 and the United States had reached tentative agreement on the need to act collectively in these five areas. The issue of designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization was unsettled. In addition, the E3 negotiators expressed increasing interest in a coalition being built by the United States to counter Iran’s malign activities in the region.
With lack of agreement on the sunset issue, it was inevitable that President Trump would end U.S. participation in the deal. It is unfortunate that the parties could not reach a compromise, given their fundamental agreement that the sunset issue of the JCPOA would have to be fixed and their agreement on the other two critical issues of inspections and ICBMs. None of the parties directly engaged in the negotiations argued that Iran’s increase of its centrifuge program was an inevitable outcome of the JCPOA or that it would be anything but a grave security challenge. Some outside the negotiations, including several non-E3 EU member states, have argued that we should welcome Iran’s increase in its enrichment program and that the JCPOA legitimizes that expansion. The E3 and the United States did not accept that attitude.
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