The Iran Nuclear Deal: will the sleeping beauty reawake?

From a Fairytale …

Once upon a time, the Grimm Brothers wrote the tale of the sleeping beauty

A king and his queen long wished for a child. Eventually, their wish came true and to celebrate the birth of their daughter they threw a huge party. Twelve of the thirteen gifted wise women of the kingdom were invited (because the king and queen only had twelve golden plates). And so, once the party was over, each one gave a blessing to the princess. Suddenly, the thirteenth wise woman appeared, angry that she had not been invited. She stood over the crib and declared “In the fifteenth year of her age the princess shall prick herself with a spindle and shall fall down dead.” Shortly after being born, the princess was cursed.

Luckily, the twelfth wise woman had not yet given her blessing:  instead of death, the princess would fall into a deep sleep lasting one hundred years. Despite her parents’ best efforts, the fifteen-year-old princess could not escape her fate, pricking her finger and falling into a deep sleep. The whole court met the same fate and a thicket of thorns grew around the castle. Only after many, many years did a prince finally succeed in waking up the sleeping beauty with a kiss.

… to a Deal

Once upon a time, the atomic bomb was invented. The introduction of nuclear weapons lead to shifting power balances and many countries desired an atomic bomb for themselves. To prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the United Nations introduced the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1970. Despite this, some countries still developed and acquired nuclear capabilities over time. One of these countries is Iran.

Since it launched its nuclear program in the 20thcentury, rival countries such as Israel and the U.S. have responded with tough sanctions as retaliation. This brings us to today’s tale: many countries, led by the United States, have long wished for Iran to halt its nuclear program and Iran for sanctions to be lifted. Eventually, these wishes came true: after years of negotiations, on the 2nd of April 2015, the Iran Nuclear Deal (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was born, sanctions were lifted, and the IAEA (aka the International Atomic Energy Agency) was called in to monitor the Iran nuclear program.

While nonproliferation enthusiasts around the world celebrated this success, the deal received considerable coverage during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. On the campaign trail, presidential candidate Donald Trump declared that the JCPOA was the “worst deal ever” and threatened to withdraw from it if he was elected – shortly after its birth, the JCPOA was cursed.

Luckily, the JCPOA was not only signed by the U.S. and Iran but by other states as well. Thus, in case of a U.S. withdrawal, the blow would be softened and instead of immediate death, the deal would fall into a deep sleep. With now-President Trump’s threat hanging in the air, the European powers tried to convince him to not abandon the Deal. But despite their best efforts, on the 8th of May 2018 Trump withdrew from the deal, placing the JCPOA into a coma.

With U.S. sanctions reimposed, Iran slowly scaled up its nuclear program again. While the Iran Deal was fast asleep, the wheels of politics kept on turning: in 2021, both the U.S. and Iran welcomed new presidents. In the U.S., Joe Biden took over from Trump, expressing cautious support for reentering the JCPOA. Across the Atlantic, President Hassan Rouhani – a central figure in the negotiation of the Deal – was replaced by Ebrahim Raisi. And in Vienna, brave diplomats attempted to make their way through thick rose bushes without getting caught in the thorns.

What now?

So far, despite the diplomats’ best efforts, the JCPOA is still sound asleep. Without a clear prophecy, we cannot foresee when or if the deal will reawake. We can only hope that it does not take one hundred years. In the fairytale of the Grimm Brothers, a prince stepped through the roses and awoke the princess with a kiss. This brings us to the final question – who must kiss who to reawake the JCPOA?

What is the Iran Nuclear Deal?
The JCPOA is an agreement between Iran and the P5 + 1, meaning the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Negotiations for the deal were taking place for over a decade before the deal was implemented on 18th October 2015. These talks were not without different obstacles.

The western powers and Iran have had rather hostile relations in the past. Events such as the US-UK instigated coup of Iranian president Mossadegh in 1953 or the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 led to a lot of distrust between the countries. Nonetheless, after several political setbacks and despite much criticism, in July 2015 Iran and the P5 + 1 agreed to a deal. The purpose of the deal was to restrain Iran’s nuclear program and in return lift economic sanctions imposed on Iran. Furthermore, the deal was intended to build trust between involved parties. 

In the deal, Iran agreed to get rid of all of its 20% enriched uranium, limit its stock of low enriched uranium to 300kg, and the stock of heavy water to 130 metric tons. Additionally, the agreement restricted how Iran could use its centrifuges and conduct enrichment-related research. The implementation of the deal in Iran would be monitored by the IAEA, the agency that also monitors nuclear programs in other states. Compared to other countries though, the JCPOA granted the IAEA the most far-reaching monitoring powers anywhere in the world. The so-called ‘sunset provisions’ are the greatest point of criticism of the deal: they limit the measures for the upcoming 15 years. This would buy the countries more time to negotiate on the future of the Iranian nuclear program as Iran will not willingly give up its right to having a nuclear program. Thus, the compromise of 15 years was reached.

According to periodic reports of the IAEA, Iran complied with the deal except for two temporary minor overages in the stock of heavy water in 2016. Despite Iran’s compliance, in May 2018 the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Currently, there are ongoing negotiations in Vienna about a possible revival of the deal. 

For a closer look at the Iran Nuclear Deal, what is in it, and how it came to be I have a podcast recommendation for you.

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