Revisiting The JCPOA: The Danger to the Middle East

6 April 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Any re-negotiation of the JCPOA must necessarily include a sunset clause that Israel finds acceptable and mechanisms to fully ensure that Iran does not use its nuclear programme for military purposes. Any less could lead to further regional conflict, the nuclearisation of the Middle East or both.



Reports indicate that senior officials from the original signatory countries to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA or, as it is more commonly known, the Iran nuclear deal, will convene in Vienna on 6 April, to discuss the Agreement once again. The JCPOA was to be one of President Obama’s legacies. It was soon found to be deeply flawed, however, and bereft of regulatory mechanisms that could truly validate Iran’s compliance with its terms. Importantly, Israel, which had been threatened with destruction by Iran, will undoubtedly launch a pre-emptory attack on Iran, which it says it could, if it feels that Tehran’s nuclear programme poses too great a risk to it, with at least one report suggesting that Israel is, in fact, preparing for war with Iran. Such an attack could lead to conflict that would roil the region and create further schisms within it.



The JCPOA was agreed upon in 2015, the culmination of a long process that began in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim in 2010 that Iran could “go nuclear” if it chose. Its signatories were the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. It was claimed by the signatories that the Agreement would halt Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment programme. According to the terms of the Agreement, Iran would reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 per cent, eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium altogether and reduce by around 65 per cent the number of its gas centrifuges that it used to enrich its uranium for the next thirteen years. Tehran also agreed to only enrich uranium to 3.67% for the next fifteen, maintain only one facility that used only first-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium and to allow inspectors from the International Energy Agency access to its nuclear facilities. For complying with those terms, Tehran would receive relief from the nuclear sanctions placed on it by the US, European Union and the Security Council.

The Agreement allowed Iran, however, to increase the number of its enrichment centrifuges after ten years and then allow it to increase the volume of low-enriched uranium volume after fifteen. That condition, coupled with the failure of the JCPOA to address Tehran’s missile programme, led to a sense of unease in many countries, notably Israel, which Ahmadinejad had threatened to ‘wipe off the map’, and Saudi Arabia. It was left to the Security Council to salvage the situation; it issued Resolution 2231, which imposed an eight-year ban on Iran’s missile programme.

So eager was President Obama to leave a positive legacy, that he endorsed the terms agreed upon and entered the US into the Agreement. To sweeten it for the Iranians, he agreed to transfer US$400 million ($525 million) in euros and Swiss francs to Tehran. He then sought to conceal the transfer of the pallet-loads of currency. Interestingly, at almost the same time, Tehran released four American citizens who had been detained in Tehran. The Obama Administration and its supporters, including so-called “fact checkers”, were quick to dismiss any suggestions that it had paid money to free hostages. That denial fell apart, however, after the US Department of State confirmed that the Obama Administration conditioned the release of the US$400 million cash payment on the departure of American prisoners from Tehran.

It was hardly surprising, given those issues, that President Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA, calling it “horrible”, “one-sided” and “disastrous”. As if to confirm President Trump’s perceptions of an untrustworthy Tehran, it announced in May 2019 that it would no longer accept the limits on its heavy water and enriched uranium stockpiles. In July that year it announced that it would enrich uranium beyond the 3.67% limit that it had agreed to previously. In September 2019 it announced that it would no longer accept the limitations imposed by the JCPOA on its research into advanced centrifuges and in November 2019 announced that it would enrich uranium up to 4.5%. In January 2020, Tehran announced that it would no longer accept any of the operational limits placed on it by the JCPOA.

Tehran’s creeping rejection of the terms of the JCPOA placed President Biden under a good deal of pressure which, coupled with his seemingly innate desire to dismantle all of his predecessor’s policies, have virtually forced him to the negotiating table. President Biden now appears to be ready to return the US to the Agreement, although Tehran has stated that it will not enter into any discussions, directly or otherwise, with the US.

Iran’s new nuclear laws, formally the “Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions and Protect Iranian Nation’s Interests”, which was passed in December 2020, have also played their part. According to the new law, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran is required to:

  • Immediately boost enrichment levels to 20 per cent uranium-235, and store at least 120 kilograms of 20 per cent enriched fuel annually.
  • Immediately increase Iran’s monthly uranium output and enrichment capacity by at least 500 kilograms.
  • Within two months’ time, if sanctions relief is not delivered, suspend implementation of the additional protocol to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement and halt compliance with the additional monitoring mechanisms mandated by the JCPOA. The additional protocol and other monitoring mechanisms allow the IAEA to carry out inspections at non-declared nuclear sites in Iran on short notice to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.
  • Within three months’ time, enrich uranium using at least 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges.
  • Within three months’ time, enrich uranium with and conduct research and development activities on 164 IR-6 centrifuges. Within one year, increase the number of centrifuges to 1,000 IR-6 machines.
  • Within five months’ time, inaugurate a uranium metal production facility at the Esfahan fuel fabrication plant.

Those measures have been enacted. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in January 2021 that Iran resumed enriching uranium to 20 per cent and, as of mid-February 2021, had produced and stockpiled about 17 kilograms of uranium enriched to that level.

Iran’s renewed nuclear programme, if left unchecked, will force countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to enact measured responses of their own. Threats alone, as one Israeli analysis notes, will not deter Tehran; action is needed. That perception can only be amplified by President Biden’s antipathy towards Israel. Jerusalem will undoubtedly feel that it cannot rely upon a US president who not only does not support it but appears to dislike it. While Israel is a non-declared nuclear state, Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would show little hesitation in initiating a nuclear programme of its own, a policy that the UAE will echo or, at the very least, support Saudi Arabia in its nuclear endeavours. That would lead to the nuclearisation of the Middle East or Israeli strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, likely accompanied or assisted in some way by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. No matter which, the Middle East is now closer to yet another war than it has been for some time.

President Biden needs to tread a very careful path, therefore, in the new JCPOA discussions.

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