The Iran Nuclear Deal – At Death’s Door? 

After a roller coaster of negotiations, swinging from near-certain deals in March, to complete hopelessness in July, the Iran Nuclear Deal has reached a stalemate. Now, although diplomats felt auspicious about striking common ground only a few weeks ago, parties seem to be back to blaming each other for the moribund state of the deal. To understand how negotiations reached this point of dangerous finger pointing amongst world leaders, however, we first need to revise its brief yet turbulent life. 


The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, set out with the goal of scotching advancements towards the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by the Ayatollah regime, whose nuclear program was, somewhat ironically, birthed with the help of the United States once upon a time. After a few crises around the turn of the century, and the dishing out of sanctions against Iran to dissuade them from building a bomb, the JCPOA deal was eventually reached in 2015. Negotiated by the world’s great powers, the deal promised the relief of some sanctions imposed upon the regime in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear programs, and periodic inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

Although the deal was not legally binding, its signing marked a key step in the right direction. It impaired Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon through licit means and reduced overall tensions in the region. 

The Unravelling  

The 2016 US presidential election shook up the deal significantly, along with much of the political environment. Having previously stated that the deal was an ‘embarrassment’, Trump set out to withdraw from it immediately. To make matters worse, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition in Israel, masterfully presented over 55,000 pages of secret files and documents to congress that supposedly revealed Iran’s hidden nuclear programme, which firmly cemented the idea in Trump´s mind. The US pulled out of the deal, and flooded Iran with sanctions that still cripple its economy to this day. In response, the Ayatollah regime launched missiles over Israeli soil, rebuilt their stockpiles of enriched uranium, and has since made terrifyingly rapid progress towards acquiring WMDs. 

Now, intelligence agencies around the world are being forced to accept that Iran´s nuclear program may be a mere breath away from weaponization capabilities. Watchdogs and governments alike have denounced the lack of information from the regime, whose ‘policy of opacity’ is being deliberately employed to allow them to develop their program in the shadows. Neighbouring countries are growing increasingly concerned, and although world powers are now scrambling to negotiate with Iran in hopes of reversing rising tensions in a region that is already a tinderbox and holds such great geopolitical importance, it is proving to be trickier than expected. Not only is Iran a tough counterpart, but many external actors also have vested interests in the region and aim to influence the outcome of negotiations.  

The Players 

Although seemingly unaffected by the outcome, the EU has voiced their interest in a quick deal. Moreover, whilst Liz Truss´ silence on the matter has been seen by some as an indication of her support for it; Macron has expressed his eagerness for the deal to be signed, stating that “the ball on reaching a nuclear deal with Iran is now in Tehran’s camp”. Surely this zealousness has nothing to do with Europe’s thirst for currently sanctioned Iranian Oil, perceived as ethically cleaner than Russia’s.  

However, despite this enthusiasm, there have been immediate calls for a cease of talks due to the Iranian government’s ruthless crackdown on protestors in recent times – a crackdown that has left 83 dead and thousands more detained. Demonstrations around the world have called for a tougher hand on the oppressive regime, but the US State Department has made a decisive decision to prioritise the nuclear deal over human rights issues.  

A particularly thorny area of the deal is Iran´s fear of the US pulling out of the deal in the same way that Trump did. Although they are trying to avoid such an eventuality by seeking assurances from both the US and international bodies, Biden cannot legally bind successor presidents to a deal, and the deal is not a binding treaty. There also seems to be an ever-increasing lack of appetite for a deal in Washington, with Republicans continuing to push the President to exert maximum pressure on the regime to change its institutions. On the other side of the aisle, we are seeing a complete evasion of polarising debates in congress due to the upcoming midterm elections, which are already pointing to a complete shakeup of the political landscape.  

But regardless of political fracture, the US has been making moves that seem to reveal a lack of hope in the deal’s success. In September of this year, the US sanctioned a web of Chinese companies involved in the export of Iran´s crude and petrochemicals. These sanctions only further antagonized the CCP, who have been lurking behind the scenes throughout the entire negotiation process. Xi Jinping has been extending a helping hand to Iranian leaders, who, should tougher sanctions be imposed, will undoubtedly accept it

In Tehran, sentiment is bullish on the country´s ability to withstand sanctions, perhaps after seeing Russia´s ability to do so. Amongst the usual screeches promising the death of Western Imperialism and the destruction of Israel, there are also the whispers of those looking to create a ¨fortress¨ Iran. The prospect of having the ultimate deterrent will certainly seem appealing to those who want to preserve the authoritarian regime from outside intervention. Such a thought is perhaps reinforced by Ukraine, who once gave up its position as the third largest nuclear power in exchange for Russia’s recognition and respect of their independence.  

While the prospect of nuclear attack might make some avoid being cavalier about pursuing military actions, Israel’s rhetoric has grown increasingly alarming. Yair Lapid, Israel’s newly instated prime minister, recently told the UN General assembly that the world must use force if Iran were to build a nuclear bomb. The Jewish state is not foreign to conducting operations aimed at thwarting Iran´s nuclear dream. But there is a staunch difference between covert missions, always categorically denied by the Mossad, and direct surgical strikes at Iranian infrastructure. More and more members of Israel´s political and military elite are calling for a cease of talks and more direct action if Khamenei continues advance towards the development of a weapon. While the US has given assurances of stepping in to prevent Iran from achieving this, past experiences in the region and public disapproval of military actions might push Washington towards a supportive, rather than leading, role. Should the deal meander futilely or be insufficient at protecting the country, Mossad chief David Barnea has stated their intent on taking the initiative and neutralising the threat per ipsum. 

While this might seem like a provocative statement, remembering Israel is in a de facto state of war explains the belligerent stance. Signalling a willingness to resort to violence should their existence be in danger is just a deterrent strategy, and Iran currently poses the biggest threat. The Shia regime is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the region, its tentacles reaching the gates of Israel through political parties, military proxies, and terrorist organizations in neighbouring territories. Unsurprisingly, it is clear why those in Jerusalem are not eager for a WMD to be placed in the hands of a regime notorious for making rash decisions. As well as this, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been bolstering their military capabilities to better defend themselves in the event of an attack, with the former already entangled in a proxy conflict with the Shia regime. 

Dwindling Prospects 

All parties involved are seemingly diverging, with their attentions increasingly turning towards other regions, particularly Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. Countries usually heavily involved in preserving world peace are suffering rampant inflation and economic downturns, urging governments to tend their own wounds before they bleed to death. In fact, it might even be said that the world has become desensitised to conflicts in the Middle East due the seemingly never-ending lack of stability. Nevertheless, it is likely that violence will escalate into full blown conflicts should the issue remain unresolved, and the threat of nuclear war in the region is increasing day by day. Diffusing tensions and neutralising threats would not only provide the region with much needed stability, but would allow governments across the world, and particularly in Europe, to give full attention to the domestic problems that are starting to generate socio-economic turbulence. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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