May 6, 2020 | Policy Brief

The JCPOA May Not See Its Five-Year Anniversary

May 6, 2020 | Policy Brief

The JCPOA May Not See Its Five-Year Anniversary

Two years after the United States withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the agreement’s future hangs in the balance as Washington threatens to restore all UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic, thereby terminating the multilateral accord. The Trump administration’s threats represent a response to one of the principal flaws of the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is that its key restrictions start to expire, or “sunset,” this year.

The first sunset is scheduled for October, when the UN’s conventional arms embargo on Iran is set to lift. This would enable Tehran to buy advanced weapons from Russia and China despite Iran’s persistent aggression against its neighbors as well as U.S. targets in the region.

Washington could block this first sunset by invoking the JCPOA’s “snapback” mechanism, which grants any permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) member the right to revoke the deal’s implementing measure, UNSC Resolution 2231. Doing so would restore all previous UN measures against Iran, including sanctions and the arms ban. When President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and re-instituted U.S. unilateral sanctions, he declined to invoke the snapback mechanism.

In December, the State Department released a legal opinion to Congress stating that Washington still has the right to terminate UNSC Resolution 2231 even though it withdrew from the JCPOA. First, however, the administration is trying to prolong the arms embargo without ending Resolution 2231, by getting Russia and China to agree to the embargo’s indefinite extension.

The administration’s push has received strong bipartisan backing from Congress. On May 4, more than three-quarters of the House of Representatives submitted a letter urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to undertake diplomatic action to prevent the arms embargo’s expiration.

However, Russia says it will not go along, decrying Washington’s move to determine the JCPOA’s future after leaving the deal. Moscow and Beijing have lined up lucrative military pacts and arms deals with Tehran, and Iranian officials say the regime will leave the JCPOA or even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if the UNSC extends the arms embargo.

Meanwhile, the JCPOA’s utility is diminishing, and additional sunsets loom that will unshackle Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. A phased lifting of restrictions on advanced centrifuges and an end to a UN missile import and export ban will occur in 2023 if the agreement remains in force. Iran’s ballistic missile development and launches, unrestricted by the JCPOA, permitted the program to make meaningful strides. A full accounting of Iran’s prior or possibly ongoing nuclear weapons work never occurred, and Tehran is now refusing to cooperate with international nuclear safeguards inquiries into its past. Finally, Iran has gradually and publicly rolled back its compliance with key JCPOA restrictions, enriching more uranium and deploying faster centrifuges. The net effect is a reduction in the time Tehran requires to build a nuclear weapon.

Tough choices lie ahead for the United States, underscoring that unsound strategic premises, like those underlying the JCPOA, typically result in painful policy course corrections. An enduring deal with Tehran must address the full spectrum of threats it poses. Absent a credible commitment by Iran to end its most destabilizing nuclear programs, halt its foreign aggression, and stop its grave human rights violations, the United States should intensify its maximum pressure campaign. Regardless of the victor in November’s presidential election, the United States should not surrender leverage without comparable and verifiable concessions from Iran.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Andrea and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Missiles Iran Nuclear Military and Political Power Nonproliferation