Iran and a six-nation negotiating group reached a landmark agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. It ended 12 years of deadlock over Tehran’s nuclear program. Struck in Vienna after nearly two years of intensive talks, the deal limited the Iranian program to reassure the rest of the world that it would be unable to develop nuclear weapons, in return for sanctions relief.
At its core, the JCPOA is a straightforward bargain. Iran’s acceptance of strict limits on its nuclear program in return for an escape from the sanctions that grew up around its economy over a decade prior to the accord. Under the deal, Iran unplugged two-thirds of its centrifuges, shipped out 98% of its enriched uranium and filled its plutonium production reactor with concrete.
Tehran also accepted extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has verified 10 times since the agreement, and as recently as February, that Tehran has complied with its terms. In return, all nuclear-related sanctions were lifted in January 2016, reconnecting Iran to global markets.
Which countries are involved?
The six major powers involved in the nuclear talks with Iran were in a group known as the P5+1: the UN security council’s five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and Germany. The nuclear deal is also enshrined in a UN security council resolution that incorporated it into international law. The 15 members of the council at the time unanimously endorsed the agreement.
Why did Donald Trump scrap it?
Trump believes the agreement is a bad deal, which falls short of addressing Iran’s regional behavior or its missile program. He is emboldened by a group of Iran hawks in his inner circle, such as the national security adviser, John Bolton, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Critics also say it is another example of Trump dismantling Barack Obama’s legacy – the Iran deal was his signature foreign policy achievement.
Why do others want to save it?
Except for the US, all other P5+1 negotiating partners want to keep the agreement. In the words of Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, who has visited Washington DC to lobby Trump not to scuttle the agreement, “of all the options we have for ensuring that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, this pact offers the fewest disadvantages”.
After the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, unveiled a cache of documents that he claimed showed Iran was cheating on the agreement, European countries pushed back against this, saying the documents underlined the importance of keeping it.
In a statement at the White House, Trump said this decision meant that the US would “exit the Iran deal” agreed with other major powers in 2015, and warned that “any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could be strongly sanctioned.”
He then signed an executive order reimposing sanctions on any foreign company that continues to do business with Iran.
The leaders of the UK, France and Germany, who are also parties to the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, issued a statement soon after Trump’s declaration expressing their “regret and concern” and emphazising their “continuing commitment” to the deal.
“We urge the US to ensure that the structures of the JCPOA can remain intact, and to avoid taking action which obstructs its full implementation by all other parties to the deal,” the statement said.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said he believed the agreement could still survive if other negotiating partners defied Trump.
But Rouhani warned that he has instructed the country’s atomic energy agency to prepare to restart enrichment of uranium at an industrial level in a few weeks’ time should the deal collapse completely.
“This is a psychological war, we won’t allow Trump to win. I’m happy that the pesky being has left the [agreement],” the Iranian president said.
In his White House remarks, Trump called the Iran agreement “a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made.” He said: “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
Barack Obama, whose administration negotiated the deal, described Trump’s violation of the agreement as “a serious mistake.”
“Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East,” Obama said in statement.
Trump’s unilateral and dramatic withdrawal is likely to raise tensions rapidly in the Middle East, already inflamed by conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The JCPOA, agreed in Vienna in 2015, led to a rapid and drastic reduction in Iran’s nuclear program. It reduced its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98% to just 300lbs, far below what would be required if it attempted to make enough fissile material for a single bomb.
Iran also took down about 13,000 of its centrifuges, leaving just over 5,000 of its oldest-model machines in place. It ceased all enrichment at its underground facility at Fordow, which – like other Iranian nuclear sites – was put under continuous international monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA had repeatedly confirmed that that Iran was in compliance with the restriction it had agreed to in 2015.
Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned: “By withdrawing from the JCPOA, Trump hastens the possibility of three disparate but similarly cataclysmic events: an Iranian war, an Iranian bomb, or the implosion of the Iranian regime.”
“Iran looms large over major US national security concerns including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, cyber, energy security, terrorism, & obviously nuclear proliferation,” Sadjadpour said in a tweet. “The opportunities for direct conflict are numerous.”