Iran, US and the JCPOA: Fidelity to the Cause

27 Apr, 2016    ·   5022

Ruhee Neog looks at what has been achieved, and what issues are likely to be encountered through the course of the year

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog

The sanctions imposed on Iran are arguably the most focused and effective in modern history. In fact, if there is one adjective that appears to be unanimously favoured by commentators when describing them, it is “crippling.”

It was in this environment of economic chaos that President Hassan Rouhani rode to electoral victory in the 2013 elections, promising the Iranian people relief from the debilitating the sanctions regime.

The timing of President Rouhani’s victory proved opportune – with economic despair, a ‘reformist’ victory and increased willingness to negotiate on the nuclear programme all coming together at the same time. Several rounds of negotiations finally culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, between Iran and the P5+1.

Given the history of tensions, all concerned states, especially the US and Iran, had to walk a political tightrope both at home and abroad. The deal was a major diplomatic coup for the Obama administration. For the Rouhani administration, it was the validation of a risky political gambit involving a rapprochement with the West on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

Against this background of the risks and failures associated with the deal, what has been achieved, and what issues are likely to be encountered through the course of the year since the successful conclusion and beginning of the formal execution of the JCPOA?

Meeting Your Commitments
Between December 2015 and January 2016, Iran undertook measures to demonstrate its compliance with those conditions of the deal that enabled the introduction of ‘Implementation Day’, i.e. the official beginning of the lifting of sanctions. Significantly, during this period, Iran took steps to reduce its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) with 8.5 tons being shipped to Russia, removed centrifuges from the Fordow and Natanz uranium enrichment facilities bringing the number of working centrifuges down to 5,060, and disabled the calandria at the Arak heavy water reactor, which was filled with concrete shortly thereafter. These measures were vetted and declared authentic by the IAEA less than a week later, leading to the formal announcement of sanctions relief on 16 January, or ‘Implementation Day’.

In a bid to hold up its end of the bargain and lift the restrictions surrounding Iran’s economic transactions, the US announced that it was going to buy thirty two metric tons of heavy water from Iran for approximately US$ 8.6 million. In his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Secretary of State John Kerry declared the Obama administration’s commitment to meeting the conditions of the nuclear deal i.e. facilitating and expediting the process of doing business with Iran.

Both countries however seem to be playing a balancing game where they have to mollify domestic constituencies while remaining committed to maintaining the forward movement of the JCPOA.

Zarif, in an interview with The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, recorded his disappointment at the pace at which the US was delivering on its promises, especially as they relate to the lifting of sanctions, which has also been accepted as “slow” by the US. Many within Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, have echoed this sentiment. One of the chief reasons for this public expression of Iranian displeasure could be an attempt to allay domestic political opinion that Iran has bartered away far too much to a demanding West.

The concept of dignity and the preservation of its rights as a legitimate member of the NPT were important determinants of the nuclear compromises that Iran conceded. Since the negotiations began, there has been recurring doubt that Iran is not an equal participant at the table and is playing by the US’ rules. Concomitant moves by Rouhani’s government can be expected, whether by words or deed, to demonstrate that it will not put up with perceived dawdling on reciprocal concessions by the West. At the same time, it will also seek to reassure Iranians that the nuclear commitments it continues to meet are fair and within reasonable limits.

The US is to some extent mirroring this. A mix of conciliation and toughness is being sought to defray Congressional opposition to the deal. For example, the purchase of heavy water from Iran – a sticking point with Congress – is being balanced with statements like, "The United States will not be Iran's customer forever."

This trend can be expected to continue through the year, especially since financial respite for Iran will probably remain sluggish for some time. The lifting of sanctions does not translate into an immediate economic revival. One main reason has been low energy prices, which means that Iran cannot earn as much as it used to. In addition, Western trade with Iran is limited by the investment climate and other risks and uncertainties. Some of this has to do with the possible “snap-back” of sanctions if Iran were to renege on its deal obligations, leaving companies without a clear understanding of their position in this situation. Given the ambiguity surrounding the technicalities of sanctions relief, it will be some time before Iran is able to visibly benefit to its satisfaction.

Minding Your Language
Although conflictual in appearance, there seems to be a deliberate method in being tough in English and conciliatory in Farsi.

In her column, ‘Iran issues first progress report on nuclear deal’ (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 19 April 2016), Dr Ariane Tabatabai analyses the representation of the deal’s implementation. These reports are to be presented every quarter to the Iranian parliament. Dr Tabatabai argues that while the apparent reason for the periodic presentation of these reports is to monitor the deal, it is also an indication that Rouhani and his government are “still trying to sell the deal at home.”  

Words have power, and Dr Tabatabai establishes, through her reading of the text of the report, how subtle spin doctoring has been employed to affirm the “deal’s benefits” and “underplay Iranian concessions.” For example, instead of focusing on the vast reduction in the number of centrifuges at Fordow and Natanz, the report seeks to highlight those that are in operation, and that the ones that were removed were in any case not used for uranium enrichment even before the deal.

Interestingly, as Dr Tabatabai also observes, the report does not hold the US responsible for Iran’s slow economic recovery and acknowledges the role played by both domestic and international constraints. This is a notable departure from statements made abroad by important representatives of the country. The reason for this divergence in opinions expressed by the same people in different contexts – domestic and external – could be two-pronged. To blame the US for not delivering on its obligations at a time when there is renewed criticism of the Iran-West entente within Iran would be rash, especially since Rouhani’s government actively championed the thawing of relations. Despite this, however, Iran would continue to play hardball on foreign platforms to maintain a steady momentum of pressure on the US and to signal Iran-US equivalence to its domestic audience.

There has much conjecture about possible spoilers, the most significant of which have been Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the upcoming US presidential elections. The quest to condemn Iran’s ballistic missile programme will persist, but this has one important caveat: tests are a violation of UNSC Resolution 1929, but not of the JCPOA.

For Iran, its ballistic missile tests are a variation of the theme, and serve the same dual purpose and audience: strengthening and signalling capacity, and conveying its dedication to the pursuit of national interests even at the risk of inviting the ire of the US. This approach could pay off, especially since the prevalent belief is that it would not jeopardise the deal which functions on its own track. Indeed, in October 2015, just a week after the testing of the Emad - a precision-guided ballistic missile - the JCPOA was formally adopted by Iran and the P5+1.

Further, regardless of who becomes the next US president, the deal is likely to be upheld because the political costs are far too high. A heckler in the opposition or on the campaign trail is not necessarily also a heckler in office. Hypothetically, if a new president were to pursue a watering down of the deal or attempt to put sanctions back in place, it would be useful to remember that the US is one of six states that negotiated the JCPOA with Iran. This collective bears the entire weight of the P5.

Applaud or vilify, the deal is here to stay.