May 18, 2021/ Paris, France

Reviving the JCPOA : What is at Stake for International Peace and Security? ​

Lord David Hannay

Member of the House of Lords, former UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, member of the Top-Level Group for Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation and a member of the Lords International Relations Committee.

The survival of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, has hung by a thread since the Trump administration in 2017 unilaterally walked out of its commitment under the deal and opted instead for a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. Meanwhile that thread has grown ever thinner and more tenuous as a result of Iran rolling back many of the constraints on its nuclear programme contained in the deal ; and as the E3’s ( France, Germany and the U.K. ) efforts to provide sanctions relief, provided for under the deal, have proved ineffective in the face of the cat’s cradle of US secondary sanctions.

One thing that can be said with a degree of certainty is that the Trump policy of “ maximum pressure has neither worked in terms of its proclaimed objective of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table to accept tougher terms than those in the JCPOA ; nor in terms of its unproclaimed, but barely concealed objective of bringing about regime change in Iran.

Since January of this year, however, that thread has strengthened somewhat as the Biden administration has set about re-joining the JCPOA without any additional conditions other than that Iran roll back its departures from the original deal. And Iran has, in principle, expressed a willingness to contemplate that. But delicate issues of choreography and sequencing remain to be resolved and are under negotiation in Vienna. It would be singularly unwise to exaggerate the strengthening of the thread, or to assume that, because the two sides seem to agree on their overall approaches, an agreed outcome is a sure thing.

Let us look now at the two, broad possible outcomes, the success or the failure of those Vienna talks. Diplomacy, like politics, is a question of making hard choices, none of them offering ideal outcomes and all of them requiring compromise if they are to work. It is as well from the outset to have a hard-headed view of the likely consequences of either outcome.

First, failure. It has to be assumed that Iran would continue to creep closer to having weapons grade nuclear material, indeed very possibly accelerating that progress and, as its Majles has called for, cutting off the International Atomic Energy Agency’s indispensable inspection processes. This would bring all those who have said that Iran must not, under any circumstances, be permitted to have a weapons capability, most particularly Israel and the US, up against a quandary. Would their response extend to military action? To assume it would not would be a foolhardy assumption. As would be any underestimation of the negative consequences of another war in a region already beset by too many of them and that with the largest and most populous country in the region.

Nor would the costs of failure stop there. The risks of other countries in the region reacting by seeking nuclear weapons for themselves, either by purchase, say by Saudi Arabia from Pakistan, or by development, would be high, potentially triggering off a nuclear arms race in a singularly volatile region.

And the risk too that Iran’s break-out from the disciplines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would signal the effective demise of what has been described, correctly in my view, as a cornerstone of international peace and security, would be real. The alternative, success in reviving the JCPOA. Well that certainly would not be a bed of roses. Iran’s developing ballistic missile capability is a threat to its neighbors. And its involvement in a whole string of proxy wars - in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon and Gaza - is a major disruptive and destabilizing factor throughout the Middle East. But all these challenges would be considerably easier to address if a nuclear break-out by Iran had been rolled back to where it would have been if there had been full compliance with the JCPOA as it was negotiated. It would be a shot in the arm for the UN’s peace-making efforts in Yemen. It could help to create the conditions for a reduction of tensions in and around Syria. And particularly if there is a changing of the guard in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it could lead to the resumption of efforts to bring about a two-state solution. A lot of “ifs“ there you will say. Indeed. But not one of those desirable developments would be made more difficult by reviving the JCPOA; and every one of them would be made harder to achieve, if not impossible, should reviving the JCPOA fail.

In the medium to long term, the objective all countries, both those in the region and those outside it with interests there, should be encouraged to pursue is to negotiate some multilateral structures committing all concerned to non-interference , peaceful co-existence and economic cooperation. Such a framework is not compatible with an Iran possessing nuclear weapons or the capacity to deploy them at short notice.

So a lot is riding on those talks going on in Vienna. And we should not be distracted by speculation about the results of Iran’s presidential election in June and the likelihood of a hard liner winning that contest. The reality is that the final decision on the Iranian side will be taken by Ayatollah Khamenei; and that it will need the support of all parts of the complex political scene in that country.