July 22nd 2019
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA called it “the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated”. President Donald Trump derided it as “one of the worst deals ever”. Now the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the unwieldy name given to the multinational nuclear deal signed between Iran and six world powers in 2015—is on life support. Mr Trump dealt it a near-fatal blow last year by withdrawing America from the accord. And Iran inflicted more wounds in July by breaching some of the agreed limits, on the size of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and on the concentration of fissile material. As tensions rise in the Gulf, America and Iran seem to be on a collision course. So what, exactly, is the JCPOA?
In 2002 the world learned of a large, secret Iranian uranium-enrichment site buried deep underground. Iran claimed it was intended to make low-enriched uranium for nuclear-power stations. The rest of the world suspected it was part of a clandestine nuclear-weapons programme, intended to give Iran the ability to produce the highly enriched stuff that goes into bombs. In 2003, shortly after President George W. Bush declared his “global war on terror” and America invaded Iraq, Iran announced that it would suspend all enrichment-related activities, as part of diplomacy with Europe. But as regional tensions rose over the next decade, its nuclear programme mushroomed. Western powers, fearing the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon and the Middle Eastern arms race that might follow, piled on increasingly draconian sanctions to force Iran to back down. Rumours swirled that Israel might launch air strikes, as it had on an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and a Syrian site in 2007.
In July 2015 Iran reached a bargain with the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (America, Britain, France, Russia and China) as well as with Germany and the European Union. It mothballed thousands of centrifuges (machines that enrich uranium). It agreed to enrich uranium only to low levels not suitable for a bomb and to accumulate no more than 300kg. It poured concrete into the core of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, which might otherwise have yielded plutonium for a bomb. And it agreed to the most stringent inspections regime anywhere in the world. In return, some of the sanctions were lifted, providing relief for Iran’s battered economy.
The deal’s proponents argued that the restrictions left Iran more than a year away from being able to produce a bomb’s worth of fuel, as opposed to a few months. “Military action would only set back Iran’s programme by a few years at best, which is a fraction of the limitations imposed by this deal,” pointed out Mr Obama. And even if Iran cheated, went the theory, it could only move slowly to avoid being found out. Less impressed, hawks in America, Israel and the Gulf states scoffed that Mr Obama had given away too much. Iran, they complained, would be permitted to continue some enrichment and to expand its programme as restrictions fall away (the first expire after a decade). In the meantime, it would receive billions of dollars that could be funnelled to allied militant groups in the region.
In May 2018 Mr Trump pulled America out of the JCPOA and soon re-imposed sanctions on Iran. European countries promised to protect trade as best they could, but most companies preferred to sacrifice deals with Iran rather than risk losing business in the American market. Iran kept its side of the nuclear bargain for a year. But in April 2019 Mr Trump ended waivers that had allowed some countries to continue buying Iranian oil. That was the final straw. In May Iran gave notice that it would begin walking away from the deal, provision by provision, unless the Europeans could shield Iran’s economy.
Since then, hostilities between America and Iran have increased. Ships have been attacked in or near the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of global oil exports pass. In June, Iran shot down an American drone; American bombers were ten minutes away from their targets in Iran when Mr Trump called a retaliatory strike off. In July, America claimed to have downed an Iranian drone. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran broke the 300kg limit on July 1st, followed by the 3.67% purity threshold on July 8th.
Unless America and Iran can find a way to talk again, Iran will creep back towards the ability to make a nuclear bomb; and Mr Trump will face growing pressure from his hawks to bomb Iran. What could stop either of these nightmares from becoming a reality? Probably a deal that looks much like the JCPOA.
Source: The Economist