Iran After the JCPOA Withdrawal (Part 1): Lessons from Past Pressure Campaigns

July 16, 2018

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Michael Eisenstadt


The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Iran is now assessing its options in the wake of President Trump’s May 8 announcement that the United States would be withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and pursuing a policy of “maximum economic and diplomatic pressure.” As the administration implements that decision, U.S. officials should examine how Iran has responded to past pressure campaigns targeting its nuclear program. What do these responses say about how Tehran might react to Washington’s next moves?  

While the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program dates to 1984, negotiations to limit its nuclear activities did not gain traction until after its covert uranium enrichment program was discovered in 2002. Following more than a decade of off-and-on negotiations, increasingly harsh sanctions, and military threats, Iran agreed to the JCPOA in 2015, accepting temporary limits on its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. Telling patterns can be discerned in the regime’s responses during this period:

  • After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Tehran reportedly halted its “structured” weaponization program to avoid providing a pretext for invasion of Iran, yet continued low-signature weapons R&D and made steady progress in its enrichment program.
  • Although Iran froze enrichment from 2003 to 2005 in response to foreign pressure, it used that time to fix technical problems with its enrichment program and continue construction of a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan.
  • When facing new pressures, Iran often threatened to increase its enrichment capacity/level, cease cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or build nuclear-powered ships and submarines if sanctions were not lifted.
  • In acceding to the JCPOA in 2015, Iran accepted temporary caps on nuclear activities while being allowed to continue centrifuge R&D. And it secretly hid its nuclear weapons archives—perhaps to facilitate the program’s restart at a future date.

In short, Iran often responded to pressure by incrementally increasing its enrichment capability and threatening even more dramatic progress to convince its adversaries of the futility of their efforts. And on several occasions it reluctantly accepted temporary freezes on certain activities as long as they did not preclude continued progress elsewhere, force it to concede its “right to enrich,” or compel it to acknowledge the program’s military dimensions.


Read the full article at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.