On July 14, 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in Vienna between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), effectively curbing the Iran’s capability to go nuclear for at least next 15 years. According to the agreement, Iran had to reduce its capacity to enrich uranium, cut its stockpile of nuclear sensitive materials and allow for the strict monitoring of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in return for the lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. The nuclear accord is often regarded as a win-win situation for the signatories that, on the one hand, considerably delays Iran’s capacity to become a nuclear weapon power and, on the other hand, allows Iran to break international isolation and revive its economy. However, the continuity of the JCPOA is far from guaranteed, and its survival is argued to be dependent on both U.S. and Iranian domestic politics.
The deal that was reached almost two years ago has significantly reduced a number of concerns of the international community. First, if the deal had not been signed, Iran was potentially several months away from being able to acquire a nuclear capability (IRANWATCH, 2015). This could have had grave consequences for an already delicate balance of power in the Middle East since neighboring Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries might have responded by initiating their own nuclear weapon programs, resulting in the nuclearization of the region. Eventually it might have seriously undermined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which limits the list of official nuclear weapon states to China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Second, the deal has greatly reduced the chances of a direct military confrontation between the major actors in the Middle East, the United States and Iran, and paved the way for possible cooperation between them in peacefully resolving the regional conflicts (the Syrian crisis, the fight against ISIS, the Yemen civil war) (Tarock, 2016).
This agreement branded as a greatest foreign-policy achievement of the previous U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, now seems to have uncertain future. Although the U.S. Department of State on May 17, 2017 declared an extension of the sanction relief, thus allowing the deal to continue, the National Security Council is currently conducting a review of the JCPOA to decide if the deal is in terms with the U.S. national interests. It seems that Washington is most likely to continue adhering to the nuclear accord even after mid-July 2017 when the administration’s review of the deal is due to be completed. The decisive factor could be the multilateral, not bilateral, format of the deal involving five more parties that most probably will not follow the U.S. suit unless there is a clear violation of the agreement provisions by the Iranian side. In this case, the United States would have to withdraw from the agreement unilaterally and face a disapproval from other nations involved.
Therefore the fear is not that the United States will tear up the deal, but rather, the possibility that increased U.S. pressure on Iran might induce its leadership to withdraw from the agreement (Blinken et.al., 2017). During his election campaign Donald Trump heavily criticized the nuclear accord and promised to renegotiate the “better deal” by putting more pressure and demanding more concessions from Teheran. His election rhetoric now turns into more economic sanctions, not envisaged in the nuclear agreement but based on other grounds, without the United States formally abandoning the JCPOA. A clear illustration of this is the introduction of a new set of sanctions against Iran targeting its ballistic-missile program, announced shortly after a sanctions waiver was extended.
If Washington’s stance on Tehran continues to tighten, moderate Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani might be put under increased domestic pressure. The decisive victory that President Rouhani celebrated at the presidential elections on May 19, 2017 was based mostly on his promises to achieve the removal of all remaining sanctions and revive the economy. Even though the nuclear deal benefited the economy by increasing oil production, its effect is not felt by the majority of the Iranian population. In fact, the unemployment rate is higher than it was in the previous three years while the poverty rate is not in decline (World Bank, 2017). Therefore, if Trump’s strong rhetoric towards Iran will unfold in a way that would lead to more sanctions and confrontation, it would be difficult for President Rouhani to deliver on his election promises. This would play into the hands of his domestic political rivals, including the Revolutionary Guard that opposed the deal since the beginning of the negotiation process with the world’s major powers. The outcome of the recent election where Hassan Rouhani won in the first round might seem reassuring, however the positions of the Iranian conservatives and hardliners remain formidable.
The outcome of the elections at which Hassan Rouhani received 57 percent (or 23 million) of votes clearly indicates the support from the local population for his policies of opening up the country’s economy to international investors, who are taking a cautious stance due to the strong rhetoric from the Trump’s administration. Although defeated by a wide margin, the conservatives still have the support of at least 15 million of Iranians. Therefore, for the moderate voices in Iran to gain solid ground, the country needs to attract more trade and investment that would lead to the formation of interest groups inside the country, benefiting from the ties with the outside world (The Economist, 2015).
As illustrated above, the future of JCPOA seems to depend on the dynamics of domestic politics. Although economic sanctions and international isolation previously brought Iran into the negotiation table, using the same leverage again is unlikely to bear any fruit and, on the contrary, might be destructive. If both parties to the deal were able to overcome mutual distrust and, instead, cooperate in upholding the agreement, this would bring more stability to the region that already has plenty of conflicts.
Abulkhairkhan Zhunisbek is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He graduated from Abylai Khan Kazakh University of International Relations and World Languages with a Bachelor in International Relations.