Why the West must ditch the JCPOA and instead focus on its critical diplomatic objectives

New Europe

Negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal have reached a complete standstill. 

After fifteen months of diplomatic back and forth, Iran is refusing to sign on to any agreement that does not also include the delisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation.

Meanwhile, Iran is exploiting this stolen time to creep ever closer to developing a nuclear weapons capability, which would make any future deal toothless.

Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States seem to have recognised the hopelessness of the current situation after co-authoring a draft censure resolution to formally rebuke Iran for failing to answer long-standing questions by the International Atomic Energy Agency on uranium traces at undeclared nuclear sites. 

Already struggling to pull together and muster the political energy necessary to deter Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, thanks in no small part to the nefarious ideological sympathies of rogue member states such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the EU would do well to follow suit.

Rather than continue to push for a deal that would be unworkable in practice and which neither side can even agree to in principle, it is time that we reprioritise our geopolitical commitments and abandon negotiations until such a time as Tehran is ready to become a responsible member of the international community. 

It should by now be clear that no amount of soft diplomacy will convince the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear programme wholesale. The best we can hope to do is work deliberately and diligently to deprive them of the resources they require to advance that programme and their other non-nuclear malign activities in an imminent timeframe.

The case for re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the 2015 nuclear agreement, is even weaker now than when it was first entered into.

Importantly, the sunset clauses embedded in the original agreement that time-limited restrictions to Iran’s nuclear programme are already elapsing and scheduled to lift gradually over the next few years. The snapback sanctions mechanism under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 expires in 2025. The revived deal is set to retain this dangerous timeline, giving Iran a short, clear, and legal pathway to a nuclear bomb. 

The wider geopolitical context has also drastically changed since 2015. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions regime that has been rapidly erected to punish Moscow means that Putin is desperately casting around for allies. The Islamic Republic, which sees Putin’s regime as a partner of convenience, lies poised to trade with Russia if and when its own sanctions regime is dismantled. Lifting sanctions on Iran at this time would only play into Putin’s hand and alleviate pressure on the Russian economy, as the Kremlin will seek to use Iran as a sanctions evasion hub.

In the meantime, so long as we remain committed to these intractable negotiations, innocent people will continue to suffer. 

As many as two dozen dual-national citizens, including 15 Europeans, remain in captivity in Iranian prisons, in total violation of international law. These individuals have suffered unspeakably at the hands of the regime, often being subjected to humiliating show trials, before being isolated, tortured, and starved for long periods of time. A year of soft diplomacy has done nothing to ameliorate their situation.

Nazanin Zaghgari Ratcliffe, detained for 6 years, was only released in May, following enormous concessions from the UK government and after the British-Iranian dual citizen was forced to sign a final humiliating and false confession. Since then, the regime has announced plans to execute the Swedish-Iranian doctor Ahmadreza Djalali. The JCPOA, as currently constituted, does nothing to restrain Tehran’s inhuman policy of hostage diplomacy.

Indeed things appear only to be getting worse with regards to Iran’s human rights abuses. Last week a shocking trove of classified records revealed that Iran has sentenced 51 people to death by stoning for adultery. In other words,  the victims will have rocks hurled at their heads while trapped in sand. The JCPOA does nothing to address these appalling human rights abuses.

The idea that the West should roll the de-listing of the IRGC into an already flawed deal, that has such glaring blindspots, is repugnant.

As the Islamic Republic’s premier military institution, answerable only to the Supreme Leader and possessing enormous influence over Iranian political and economic life, de-listing the IRGC is a top priority for Tehran. But world powers are all too aware of the nefarious influence that the IRGC wields, both in terms of domestic oppression and foreign meddling. Washington, London, and Brussels are rightly wary of removing the IRGC’s terror-label.

The truth is that only tough new multilateral measures of the type inflicted against Putin’s regime are likely to bring Iran to the point of making serious concessions. There should be no sanctions relief merely to reward negotiating; the West must see results first.

The Iranian regime must be subjected, with immediate effect, to the most robust international sanctions possible. This is not a sanctions regime that can be implemented by the U.S. unilaterally, but requires the commitment and solidarity of the entire international community, Europe included.

Such a clear and uncompromising position is the best hope we have of making Iran yield to serious concessions that can stand the test of time. In the meantime, ditching the deal will provide a much-needed reset to transatlantic Iran policy, which has been paralyzed by a desperation to save a deal which will be at grave risk of collapsing again after the next U.S. presidential election.

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