- President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018.
- The Iran deal was one of the crowning diplomatic achievement’s of former President Barack Obama’s tenure, but has continued to be a divisive issue in Washington since it came to fruition in 2015.
- Withdrawing the US from the deal was one of the biggest and most controversial foreign policy decisions Trump has made yet.
- Since Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA, tensions between the US and Iran have steadily risen and reached a boiling point in the early days of 2020, sparking fears of war.
- Iran on January 5 announced it would no longer adhere to the 2015 nuclear deal, just days after Trump ordered a strike that killed its top general.
- President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to return the US to the deal, but it won’t be an easy task.
- The assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in late November has complicated Biden’s plans to restore the deal.
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President Donald Trump in May 2018 announced the US government is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, which marked one of the biggest foreign policy decisions he’s made since entering the White House.
Trump’s decision was highly controversial, especially given three of America’s top allies – France, Germany and the UK – were strongly opposed to this move.
Tensions between the US and Iran have reached historic heights during the Trump era, which can be traced back to his decision to withdraw from the 2015 agreement.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to return to the deal, but he faces a tough, windy road ahead in pursuit of rescuing the agreement.
Since Trump withdrew the US from the deal, his administration has pummeled Iran with crippling economic sanctions. Simultaneously, Iran has accused the US of waging “economic war” and repeatedly rejected proposals from Trump to hold talks unless the US lifts sanctions and returns to the deal, perpetuating an impasse that is making the wider world increasingly nervous.
Iran has also gradually taken steps away from the pact in response to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
Critics of Trump say that his decision to abandon the pact unnecessarily sparked a global crisis and increased the prospect of war, while pushing Iran closer to developing a nuclear weapon.
The president has frequently described the deal as “terrible,” and while the pact has many proponents, he is hardly alone in this view.
The Iran deal was one of the crowning diplomatic achievements of former President Barack Obama’s tenure, but it has continued to be a divisive issue in Washington since it came to fruition in 2015.
To understand the polarizing nature of this deal, why Trump’s decision continues to face criticism, and the geopolitical implications of both the US and Iran are stepping away from it, here’s a quick breakdown of the historic pact and the debate surrounding it.
The Iran deal, explained
In July 2015, Iran and six countries reached a historic agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
The six major powers involved in these negotiations with Iran were known as the P5+1, which stands for the United Nations security council’s five permanent members (the US, France, the UK, China, and Russia) and Germany.
The deal came together after two years of intense discussions and aimed to restrict Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting economic sanctions against Tehran.
As part of the deal, Iran agreed to reduce its number of centrifuges — tube-shaped machines that help enrich uranium — by two-thirds. It also agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% and limit uranium enrichment to 3.67%.
In other words, Tehran agreed to restrictions that would allow it to have enough enriched uranium to maintain the country’s energy needs, without having the ability to build a nuclear bomb.
On top of this, Iran agreed to give access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, to its nuclear facilities, among other facilities. Prior to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and for a long period after, the IAEA repeatedly found Iran to be complying with the terms of the pact.
In January 2016, when the IAEA declared Iran was living up to its end of the bargain, all nuclear-related international sanctions against Iran were lifted.
The controversy surrounding the Iran deal, explained
Iran and the US have been enemies for decades. The two countries have an extremely complex history that involved a CIA-orchestrated coup in the 1950s, a pro-American puppet monarch who was overthrown in 1979 via the Islamic revolution, and the infamous hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran that followed the uprising.
The constant threats from Iranian leaders against Israel, America’s top ally in the Middle East, and chants of “death to America” in Iranian streets have also not helped matters.
In this context, there is a massive distrust for Iran in the US (and vice versa), and Washington has long feared what might happen if the Iranian regime developed a nuclear weapon. Iran made great strides in this regard by the 2010s, hence the Obama administration’s efforts to orchestrate the nuclear deal. When the pact was finally settled in 2015, it was widely celebrated as a major diplomatic achievement.
But many (primarily conservative) leaders in Washington still felt the Iran nuclear deal didn’t go far enough to limit the country’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.
This is because the Iran deal contains sunset clauses, or parts of the agreement that will ultimately expire. Under the deal, the restrictions on Iran’s centrifuges go away after 10 years (in 2025) and the limitations on uranium enrichment disappear five years after that (2030). Hence, there are fears that once these restrictions expire, Iran could rapidly develop a nuclear weapon.
“It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” Trump said in May 2018. “The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing we know exactly what will happen.”
More broadly, Trump, among others, has argued the deal didn’t do enough to address Iran’s regional behavior or its missile program. Accordingly, the president wants to negotiate a new deal with Tehran.
Iran withdrew from the nuclear deal amid fears of war with the US in early 2020
Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw the US from the JCPOA in May 2018 was promptly condemned by US allies, who have scrambled to find a diplomatic solution ever since. On January 5, Iran announced it’s withdrawing from the JCPOA.
—Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 8, 2018
For roughly a year after Trump’s controversial announcement, Iran remained in compliance with the JCPOA. But the Iranian government in early June 2019 announced it would break from a key component of the JCPOA by ramping up its enrichment of low-grade uranium and increasing its stockpile beyond the limitations outlined in the deal.
Making good on this threat, Iran in July 2019 announced it had surpassed the deal’s cap on how much low-grade uranium it could stockpile — 300 kg or about 660 pounds. It also announced it had breached the deal’s limitation on uranium enrichment — 3.67% — but has only enriched up to 4.5% and far below weapons-grade levels.
In September 2019, Iran took yet another big step away from the deal when it announced it would begin developing more advanced centrifuges that allow for more rapid uranium enrichment. Iran also said it was lifting all limits on research and development. Wendy Sherman, who served as the Obama administration’s lead negotiator on the JCPOA, described this move to Insider as of “serious concern.”
“It’s all concerning, because it’s moving away from a framework that ensured Iran would not get a nuclear weapon,” Sherman said. “Iran is not just being emboldened but is being left in some ways to take actions that say they will not be pushed back. We are at a very, very difficult place.”
Iran in early November 2019 announced it was taking a fourth step away from the 2015 nuclear deal — injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges that had been kept empty under the terms of the agreement.
2020 has dealt serious blows to the JCPOA
The 2015 deal virtually collapsed entirely following Trump’s decision to order a deadly strike on Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in early January.
In the days that followed the strike, the Iranian government said it will no longer comply with any of the limits of the deal, including restrictions on uranium enrichment, its amount of stockpiled uranium, and research and development.
But Iran also said it will continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, and would return to the nuclear agreement if sanctions against it were lifted, according to the New York Times.
In early November, the UN’s nuclear watchdog reported that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium was more than 12 times the limit set under the JCPOA. The IAEA said Iran’s stockpile was up to 2,443 kilograms, but under the 2015 deal the cap was set at 203 kilograms. Iran’s uranium was enriched up to 4.5%, which is far below weapons-grade levels of roughly 90%, but above the 3.67% limit set by the JCPOA.
Subsequently, Trump reportedly asked top advisers for options to strike Iran’s primary nuclear facility, but was urged against taking an action that could spark a broader conflict with his time in the White House waning.
The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, in late November has ramped up tensions between the US and Iran once again.
Iran has blamed Fakhrizadeh’s killing on Israel, which is America’s closest ally in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a leading critic of the JCPOA. Top experts have said Israel was likely behind the assassination, and a former US diplomat told Insider there are “ample” reasons to suspect US involvement — including Trump’s desire to derail the JCPOA.
Fakhrizadeh was widely regarded as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear program. In the days following his assassination, Iranian lawmakers took steps to further distance the country from the 2015 deal, including moving toward halting UN inspections of nuclear sites.
Biden wants to restore the deal, but has admitted it won’t be easy
The president-elect has consistently expressed a desire to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
“If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” Biden said in a September op-ed for CNN.
More recently, he told the New York Times that he knows it will be “hard” to restore the deal, but that he still believes rescuing the pact and restricting Iran’s nuclear program is “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region.”
“The last goddamn thing we need in that part of the world is a buildup of nuclear capability,” Biden said.