Conference Report
Evaluating the JCPOA
Beyond the US Withdrawal
by
Luigi Gaspardone

Arabic Translation Available here.

The diplomatic efforts between Iran and the P5+1 (referring to the five United Nations’ Security Council permanent members and Germany) resulted in the July 2015 with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), considered a historical compromise by the parties involved. In January 2016, the deal found its legal basis in UN Security Council Resolution 2231. The deal granted the lifting of the imposed sanctions on Teheran in exchange for its compliance in limiting its nuclear enrichment programme. However, this leaves Tehran’s development of ballistic missiles, which guarantees an Iranian range over the entire Middle East, unrestricted.

The 1979 Iranian revolution continues to resound throughout the Middle East. While the theocratic system of government has several proxies, such as the Houthi militia in Yemen, and an assortment of Shia militias in Iraq, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, these groups are considered to be the concentration of a broad set of terror-state groups, and it is crucial to acknowledge the threat posed of such organizations. Tehran deploys these groups its regional interests. Moreover, the unyielding foreign policy of the Islamic Republic destabilises the entire region and threatens global security. Since his 2016 electoral campaign, President Donald Trump condemned the JCPOA, referring to it as “decaying and rotten.” In May 2018, the US announced the re-imposition of economic sanctions on Iran’s oil sector—previously lifted as part of the JCPOA commitments. After an initial period where Iran maintained its commitments, despite the US withdrawal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, representing the establishment position, grew frustrated by the lack of effective action by the European signatories. Rouhani then announced a period of time after which, if sanctions remained, Iran would re-activate its uranium enrichment programme. Iran is now closer to the breakout point estimated by experts at 3,67%, needed to use enriched uranium for military purposes. 

The end of President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” towards Iran coupled with the European Union’s failure to adequately mediate, was followed by the US renewal of oil sanctions on Iran and the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization (April 2018.) This move has further strained US-Iran relations, and the Islamic Republic seems less willing to negotiate while increasing the IRGC’s activities in the Arab Gulf.

On the 13th of June 2019, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre hosted Dr Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, one of Italy’s most experienced diplomats and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Dr Gerald Steinberg, President of the NGO Monitor, to further discuss the current security situation in the Middle East in relation to Iran. The unpredictability of the main actors provides a scarce clue of what might possibly happen between Iran and its neighbouring countries, and between Tehran and Washington. According to both speakers, the only certainty is that the failure of the JCPOA will re-enforced Iran’s role as the a “great destabiliser”.

Dr Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata expressed his concerns about the recent events in the Arab Gulf area, more specifically the signs of escalating tensions between Arab Gulf countries and their Iranian rival. It appears that the Gulf states (including Saudi Arabia and the UAE) are trying to undertake a common strategy to deter Tehran, which is the main threat to their security interest –economic, social, and geopolitical. However, Dr Terzi di Sant'Agata considers Iran as a threat to the entire international community, not only regionally, because of the inherent destabilising nature of the regime. Especially since Iran’s post-1979 policies were driven by spreading the revolutionary ideology which Tehran promotes via its proxies in the region. Dr Steinberg, on the other hand, analysed other reasons that brought Washington to disengage from the P5+1 agreement. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, blamed Tehran for using the deal as cover of the development of a robust ballistic missile force and to extend its influence over the region. Crucially, the missile issue was excluded from the 2015 Deal – it was considered in UN security council resolution 1929– and this was the main cause, as Dr Terzi di Sant'Agata underlined, of the US decision to abandon the JCPOA. Dr Steinberg explained that the Trump administration’s decision to denounce the ineffectiveness of the deal is justified. This can be evidenced by the setting of end dates; eight years for the usage of centrifuges and fifteen years before the expiry of the uranium enrichment restrictions. That would, in turn, allow Iran to re-embrace its nuclear ambitions after the time envisaged by the JCPOA.

The two speakers closed the panel by discussing the best way to deal with Tehran in the future. They concluded that the adoption of a dual-track strategy based on two main pillars: political containment and economic engagement, would be the most effective method. Additionally, the international community should embrace a carrot and stick approach; considering Iran as an aggressive revisionist power, but enabling Tehran to comply related to its nuclear programme. This way, Iran would be gradually engaged in areas such as trade, research, environmental protection, migration, anti-trafficking, energy, and cultural exchanges. The goal would be to prevent further escalation and to open a space for cooperation and diplomacy.

Arab Gulf security is seriously threatened by Tehran. Further to the nuclear aspect of the deal itself, the agreement is not applied in good faith by Iran, it works against the spirit of the JCPOA, through reallocating revenues from sanctions relief to more nefarious activities. Hence, promoting the economic welfare of the Iranian regime is used to increase its presence in Middle East through its armed militias.

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