At the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, all activity is closely monitored. Twenty-four-hour surveillance of the plant is one of the conditions of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Regular inspections and inspectors having daily access to the plant from the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency are also part of the conditions to verify that Iran is in compliance with terms to have a peaceful nuclear program.

But maybe not for long. On Oct. 16, Iran announced that it would be turning back on some of the commitments outlined in the JCPOA by further limiting inspectors’ access to some of its nuclear facilities. While some have suggested that the Middle Eastern country’s focus on nuclear development indicates Iran’s desire to successfully construct a nuclear weapon, Iranian authorities have stated that the goal of these plants is to strengthen the economy. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran argues that nuclear plants like Bushehr “will provide between 8 and 10 percent of the country's electricity after these plants come online.”

When the JCPOA was finalized in 2015, those who debated its potential ramifications could not have imagined the world’s current state of affairs. Some policy experts speculated about the potential violations to the deal’s standards, but it would be news to me if anybody would have guessed that the United States, one of the key players in the deal’s construction, would have withdrawn from the deal within the three years of its implementation. 

The JCPOA provides the framework for Iran’s nuclear activities, setting internationally agreed-upon levels of uranium enrichment and mandating routine inspections from the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange for accepting these limits on its nuclear activities, proponents of the deal argued Iran would benefit from lessened sanctions from the United States and European countries. President Barack Obama’s decision to push for the JCPOA was likely based on his view at the time that Iran would almost certainly attempt to nuclearize in the near future. With this in mind, the White House maintained the position that the only clear strategic paths for the United States were to sanction Iran, declare war on Iran or negotiate with Tehran about giving up its dreams of a nuclear weapon. 

At first, it seems easy to point fingers at Iran for what looks like a clear violation of the terms of the deal. And Iran’s violations of the agreement terms are nothing new. Shortly after the deal went into effect, Tehran faced international condemnation for refusing to formally disclose certain nuclear facilities to the IAEA. Since President Trump’s imposition of strict economic sanctions, Iran has used more advanced centrifuges and enriched larger quantities of uranium than was agreed upon. But it’s harder now to blame Iran for refusing to uphold commitments; the United States, after all, has formally withdrawn from the deal and has reimposed sanctions on Iran. The European Union has been accused of reneging on its part of the deal as well; Iran has argued that countries such as France and the U.K. have not improved their trade ties in accordance with the end of the deal. The United States also has thousands of its own nuclear weapons, so why the desperate push for Iran’s compliance? 

We can see a compelling case made for the nuclear deal in Obama’s push for the JCPOA. In 2015, deep in the hot month of August, then-President Obama gave a powerful speech at American University about the JCPOA shortly after negotiations with Iran concluded. He framed the urgent need for a solution to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, arguing that “the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war – maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.” Arguably, Obama’s statement is more true now than it was then. Trump’s aversion to diplomacy with Iran on nuclearization might have dangerous implications – Iran has even declared that the United States is conducting “economic terrorism” on a country that is still struggling to reboot its economy

Like much of Trump’s foreign policy, the future of U.S. policy towards Iran remains uncertain. All relevant parties in the JCPOA’s framework – the U.S., the rest of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany, Iran and the EU – should work together to revitalize and/or renegotiate the deal. With Trump’s current bellicose stance and rhetoric towards Iran, further progress on the deal is unlikely. Iran doesn’t have an incentive to comply with the deal if the United States can’t comply with its side of the bargain. 

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.

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