The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal - A Backgrounder

January 11, 2017


1. What could happen to the Iran nuclear deal on Friday?

The Iran nuclear Deal remains in peril as it is unclear how President Trump will respond to two key questions that have looming deadlines this week. Will the U.S. waive sanctions against Iran? And will the U.S. certify the agreement? Also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran, the U.S. and five other countries (UK, France, Germany, China, Russia), the Iran nuclear deal requires sanctions relief in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear program. U.S. sanctions against Iran have remained in place since 1979—however, since the agreement was signed in 2015, successive U.S. presidents have waived sanctions every 120 days to keep the deal alive. If President Trump decides at the end of the week not to waive sanctions against Iran, he will violate America’s end of the agreement and trigger the unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal. The second question regards the deal’s certification, which is congressionally mandated and not part of the agreement itself. When the U.S. signed off on the JCPOA in 2015, Congress required that the U.S. president certify every 90 days that Iran met its obligations under the deal. The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) and the U.S. government have consistently certified Iran’s compliance over the past two years. However, in October 2017, the president decertified the deal saying it was not in American’s national security interest.  He left it to Congress to either ‘fix’ the agreement (by making restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capacity permanent) or re-impose sanctions on Iran. The deadline for Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran lapsed in December and the ball is back in President Trump’s court.

2. What efforts are underway to preserve the Iran nuclear deal?

While nothing is for certain until an announcement is made on Friday, the AP is reporting that efforts by Secretary of State Tillerson, Defense Secretary Mattis, and National Security Advisor McMaster to keep the U.S. in the deal might bear fruit. They have for months tried to convince the president to keep the core agreement in place, while they work to ‘fix’ the nuclear agreement. Secretary Tillerson has engaged with congressional leaders to formulate legislation that would “punish Iran’s ballistic missile testing, alleged terrorism support and human rights violations.” According to the AP, as the Friday deadline approaches, Tillerson has tried to convince President Trump that there is enough activity in Congress to amend the agreement, and that if he keeps the deal alive for the next three months by signing the sanctions waiver on Friday, Congress could strengthen the deal by May. Meanwhile, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Corker (D-MD) and Senator Cardin (R-TN) have tried to come up with legislation that would make the review process associated with the Iran deal more palatable to the president—for instance, by adding a provision that prevents the need for presidential certification every 90 days. They recognize this is a constant irritant to the president, who has maintained that this is the “worst deal ever” and does not want to be the one to certify Iran’s compliance.

3. How might European signatories to the nuclear deal react if America reneges?

Since Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal last October, European governments have been less concerned with lobbying the U.S. and have instead reaffirmed their commitment to the deal directly to Iran. They have further indicated that if the U.S. decides to scrap the deal, they will rely on a European Union statute from the 1990’s that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran despite the potential re-imposition of sanctions by the United States.

For some, there is an even larger issue at stake—as one Iranian analyst put it:

“But this time around, the survival of the nuclear deal is no longer just about Iran’s centrifuges and sunset clauses. It’s about whether the EU will see the U.S. as a pillar of the liberal international order or as a fifth column seeking its demise. The nuclear deal has become the latest, and perhaps most consequential, international agreement or norm that the EU seeks to uphold and Trump seeks to tear down: from the Paris agreement, to the future of NATO, to the unity of the EU, to the funding of the United Nations, to the status of Jerusalem”.