Every month, it seems a new crisis begins in the Middle East. This past month, tensions between the United States and Iran have dramatically increased, seemingly out of nowhere. Regardless of whether or not a war erupts, the most significant casualty of this crisis could be the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA (often referred to as “the Iran deal”). The death of the JCPOA would be a disaster for future nonproliferation efforts. The demise of another arms control and nonproliferation agreement would send the message to current and would-be proliferators that they cannot rely on multilateral disarmament agreements for their security, and that the only way to ensure that foreign powers do not attack is to build or build more nuclear weapons.
The JCPOA was the result of extensive negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). The deal was a response to the Iranian government’s decision in 2005, under then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to restart the state’s nuclear program after it had previously agreed to a hold in 2003. After succeeding Ahmadinejad in 2013, Hassan Rouhani sought more engagement with the West, and the JCPOA was part of that effort.
On the United States’ side, the Obama administration was willing and followed through on a desire to thaw relations between Washington and Tehran. The two states have been estranged since the 1979 Iranian Revolutions. Finalized in mid-2015, the JCPOA exchanged sanctions relief for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and limits on the amounts of fissile materials, enriched uranium, and heavy water that Iran can stockpile, as well as limits on the amount of centrifuges that Iran can have active.
Just as Iran went through an administration change in 2013, so too did the United States in 2017 with the inauguration of the Trump Administration. Although he lambasted the deal throughout his 2016 campaign, now-President Trump did recertify the deal three times. It was not until May 2018 that the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Even then, the other parties of the JCPOA were still on board with the deal, and for a while, it looked like the JCPOA would last despite Washington’s withdrawal.
It was not until the past month that the JCPOA seemed to truly be in danger. The recent decisions to both send more troops to the region and increase stockpiles of controlled materials have contributed to weakening the JCPOA. What must be remembered, though, is that the JCPOA is important beyond just a deal between Iran and the P5+1.
If the JCPOA does fail, it would send the message that arms control agreements are not capable of reversing course on proliferation efforts peacefully. The failure of the JCPOA would only reinforce the “lessons” that the failures in Libya and Ukraine teach. In 2003, Muammar Gaddafi decided to give up his WMD program. In 2011, a popular revolution supported by NATO airstrikes overthrew Gaddafi. Ukraine inherited a sizeable nuclear arsenal from the USSR upon its collapse. In exchange for returning the warheads to Russia, Russia and the West promised Ukraine that its “independence and sovereignty and existing borders” would be respected. Fast forward to 2014, where Russia has annexed Crimea and began supporting ongoing violence in the Donbass region.
Neither of the above incidents occurred in a vacuum. Iran, along with North Korea, have both watched and learned from the above lessons. Both teach that arms control and nonproliferation agreements are no guarantee of fair treatment by the great powers. The current crisis and bellicosity around the JCPOA only serve to further this narrative, with the potential failure of the JCPOA being the proverbial “final nail in the coffin.” If the JCPOA does fail, it would make future arms control agreements, such as the kind that the United States seeks to make with North Korea, extremely difficult if not impossible to negotiate due to a lack of belief in the viability of such agreements.
Despite these setbacks, the JCPOA is capable of working, if both parties approach the deal in good faith. In order to make future arms control agreements possible, the JCPOA should salvaged and the current military tensions abated. The other members of the P5+1 must step up to ensure that the deal does not falter; Germany is already attempting to mediate between Iran and the P5+1. Such efforts should be made towards the United States as well. While the JCPOA is by no means a perfect deal, it can be the foundation for a better deal, rather than another failed agreement. Bring all parties back to the deal, and then start work on a more “comprehensive” agreement. It will not be easy, and it will likely take years, but the kind of “comprehensive” deal that many in the United States want will take time and trust to negotiate. Let a functioning JCPOA be the foundation for that trust.