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The Trump Era Withdrawal from the JCPOA: Understanding the State of Nuclear Talks with Iran

By Benjamin Souza, Contributing Writer for the National Interest Foundation

Introduction

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was an agreement that was met with partisan bantering and disapproval. Through misinformation and deliberate political choices, the once successful and impactful JCPOA was sabotaged. Now, as the Biden administration attempts to revive the JCPOA with a new Iranian government, it seems negotiations are even more difficult the second time around. The Trump administration’s decision to pull the United States out of the JCPOA and the election of Iranian hardliners has seemingly pressed the future of the deal into an uncertain if not futile foreign policy initiative.

Background of the JCPOA

Arriving at the original JCPOA agreement was not easy due to a strong distrust of the American government from the Iranians. During the process of holding meetings, the Iranians would often backtrack on original agreements and form hardline positions. With the added issues of American journalists such as Jason Rezaian, the deal was more than a purely nuclear-focused endeavor, but rather a multifaceted attempt to improve relations with Iran while also ensuring geopolitical stability by diminishing Iran’s capabilities of forming a nuclear weapons program.

Despite the seemingly immense uphill battle to reach an agreement that was sufficient, the United States and the other P5+1 powers (the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany) were able to seal the JCPOA arrangement in a manner which seemed to appease all parties involved. The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would monitor Iran’s nuclear program, while also emplacing restrictions on enrichment levels that would prevent the program from reaching nuclear weapons levels of capabilities. Meanwhile, for Iran, many of the international economic sanctions brought upon them would be lifted. These sanctions, which severely stunted Iran’s economy and harmed citizens’ quality of life, were an essential element to have lifted for the Iranian government to agree to the terms of the deal. For the international community as a whole as well, the arrangement was seen as a major step in improving geopolitical stability throughout the Middle East and relieving tensions across multiple issues.

The JCPOA was not nonpartisan in the United States. Some from within the Republican Party remained skeptical of trusting the Iranians to hold up their fair share of the deal, while also spewing misinformation that the U.S. was “paying Iran” rather than just removing crippling sanctions. This accusation against the JCPOA was false. However, due to some making the deal a partisan issue, concerns were raised regarding whether or not it would persist through a potential new presidential administration. Ultimately, the JCPOA was promising. The IAEA watchdogs consistently found that Iran was abiding by the deal and not working towards nuclear weapons. The effects in the short term seemed to demonstrate that it was having a positive impact.

The Trump Administration and Iran

The Trump administration showed a new level of antagonistic relations with Iran. The National Security Advisor to Trump, John Bolton, once proclaimed that the United States would control Iran by the end of 2019. He also repeatedly held the position that the only way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons was to commit to regime change as a primary foreign policy initiative. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stirred animosity himself as well, accusing the Iranian government of protecting Al-Qaeda and providing a new “home base” for the extremist group.

This mindset propelled the Trump administration’s sabotaging of the JCPOA. Their withdrawal from the deal removed one of the most critical actors in the P5+1 nations who worked to establish it. While the JCPOA technically still stood, the United States’ departure from the deal inflicted the previous sanctions which had crippled the Iranian economy the most. To further the damage of leaving and negatively affect bilateral relations between Iran and the United States, the Trump administration also listed the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and in doing so gridlocked diplomatic avenues due to the legal constraints that follow such a designation.

The fallout from Trump’s foreign policy relations with Iran was controversial. Largely built around party lines, the debate was received by some as a good and strong America first policy. However, within many diplomatic and national security circles, the harsh dwindling of relations was met with condemnation and concern for the future of regional stability. Most of all, there was uncertainty about the state of U.S. relations with Iran.

Biden’s Uphill Battle Reinstating the Deal

Iran, simply put, has even less trust of the United States in diplomatic deals. The election of Ebrahim Raisi as president has brought a hardliner position from the new Iranian government. It appears that their empowerment has been formed in part due to a distrust of negotiations with the West, and more specifically, the United States. These officials hold their position in part due to a concern over what they deem to be political “instability” in the United States.

It is not all doomed, however. Talks have resumed and there is a strong international appetite for a new JCPOA. Iran, despite having hardline positions, has made clear their top priority to have the international sanctions imposed on them lifted, allowing a narrow but possible avenue to use a new JCPOA to remove these sanctions. While some in Iran may attempt to promote the appearance that they are doing the United States and others a favor by re-entering negotiations, in reality, most issue experts contend that they are in a desperate state themselves due to the crippling aforementioned sanctions. Both sides have expressed a desire to prioritize diplomatic avenues as the method to try and revive the JCPOA.

To help bring Iran to the table and make more progress on negotiations, the United States must demonstrate that it is consistent in its foreign policy. For example, if the Biden administration wants to truly be viewed as human rights-centered, then it should be fair in holding all regimes accountable for human rights concerns – and not call out certain actors but not others. One of the major shortcomings of the Trump era’s policy in this regard was that it antagonized Iran, while at the same time disregarding abuses in other countries such as Saudi Arabia. It is important that behavior like this not be implemented, as it would likely push Iran further from the diplomatic process.

Conclusion

It is clear that the Trump administration employed an overly antagonistic approach in its dealings with Iran. These foreign policy initiatives sabotaged the once championed and successful JCPOA, which helped address international concern regarding nuclear program buildup. Due to this, the possibility of the Iran nuclear deal being revived is a challenging prospect. However, with Iran’s strong desire to remove hindering sanctions and global eagerness to rejuvenate the JCPOA, the possibility of doing so is not completely lost. The United States should utilize a smarter foreign policy approach to increase the likelihood of successful negotiations.

NIF USA