The JCPOA Negotiation Process

How Years Of Increased Risks and Talks Produced the Controversial Deal

On May 8, 2018, the Trump administration formally pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear deal that the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) agreed to with Iran. Trump has long been a critic of the JCPOA and has gone as far as to call it the “worst deal ever” during his campaign trail for the presidency. The year that followed the US’s withdrawal from the deal has been one of increased sanctions on Iran and spiraling tensions between the Islamic Republic and the US and its regional allies. Now Iranian regime recently announced that it would reduce its commitments to the deal, and has given the international community a 60-day ultimatum to resolve the crisis or it will resume high-level uranium enrichment. As it stands, the JCPOA is all but dead and recent escalations have more or less been the final nail on the casket of the deal. In spite of this, the rest of the P5+1 have vehemently fought to keep the deal afloat as they did not want the years of negotiating with Iran to die in vain.


The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has noted that the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought nuclear capabilities since the late 1980s and the early 1990s, during which it signed nuclear cooperation agreements with China, Pakistan, and Russia. To curtail the threat of Iran possessing nuclear capabilities, the US put pressure on China and Russia to scale back their supply to Iran. However, the NTI has indicated that there is a reason to believe that individual Russian scientists did help Iran build some facilities such as a 40MW heavy water research reactor at Arak.  


In August 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revealed that the Iranian regime had built nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak marking the beginning of heightened scrutiny over the regime’s dubious activities. Later that year, the Bush administration warned the Iranian regime against building nuclear weapons and in response to the criticism Iran invited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out inspections on its facilities.

The first nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West happened in 2003 when the EU-3 (the UK, France, and Germany) sat down with Iranian negotiators to find common ground. These negotiations seemed fruitful at first since Iran agreed to signing the Additional Protocol which gives the IAEA broader access to the nuclear facilities within the state. Some progress seemed to have been made that year as Iran agreed to stop uranium enrichment after negotiations with the EU-3. Nevertheless, Iran violated the agreement early on as it continued making centrifuge components and small scale conversion experiments. The following year, the CIA reported that Iran was modifying its Shahab-3 missile which would enable it to carry a nuclear warhead, that same year the IAEA found hidden documents that displayed plans of constructing an advanced centrifuge and uranium casting. Such findings encouraged the IAEA to request the Iranian government to be more transparent with its facilities. However, a rift happened between the regime and IAEA as the former refused to cooperate with the latter, and Iran subsequently went back on its promise and announced that it would pursue uranium enrichment.


In 2005, Iran restarted uranium enrichment in its Isfahan plant, an action that caused the EU-3 to end its talks with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s non-compliance to previous agreements as well as its non-peaceful nuclear build-up caused the IAEA to put the case to the UN Security Council, something the regime wanted to avoid from the beginning. In 2006, Iran would tell the IAEA that it would stop complying with the Additional Protocol and subsequently resumed its uranium enrichment activities it would go on to produce uranium for the first time in April of that year. Iran’s nuclear developments paved the way for renewed negotiations which would be led by the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany). The P5+1 tried negotiating a deal with Iran which would stop its uranium enrichment activities for an indefinite period of time; naturally, the Iranian regime rejected the deal. In December 2006, noncooperation from Iran’s part led to UN Security Council Resolution 1737 which imposed sanctions Iran and countries which that supply the regime with missiles or other nuclear technology.  The following two years saw a continuation of this cat and mouse game, as Iran refused to accept any deal brought to the negotiating table while the UN Security Council kept imposing its sanctions on the regime’s activities. George W. Bush’s second term as president would come to an end in early 2009, and the election of Barack Obama gave hope that a new chapter in negotiations would take place.


Iran's controversial heavy water production facility is seen in this general view, October 27, 2004 at Arak, south of the Iranian capital Tehran. (Getty)


Shortly after becoming the president in 2009, Obama announced that the US would be seeking a new approach when negotiating a deal with Iran, namely the fact that the US would participate in P5+1 talks without the condition that Iran had to comply with UN demands first. For the longest time, Tehran claimed that its nuclear ambitions were for peaceful purposes and one of the said purposes was to fuel its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Humoring such claims, the P5+1 sought a “fuel-swap” deal with Iran, in which the latter would give up its 3.5 percent enriched uranium and in exchange, the P5+1 would give the Islamic Republic 20 percent enriched uranium which would only be used in the TRR. Months later in early 2010, Iran started to produce its own 20 percent enriched uranium, thus rendering a fuel swap deal useless, what’s worse is that Tehran could now use the uranium for any purpose it wished, be they peaceful or non-peaceful. That year, the US Congress approved sanctions against firms and businesses that invested into Iran’s energy sector as well as companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran, while the EU placed sanctions on Iran’s trade and energy sectors.  


In a lot of ways, the year 2011 was a wakeup call for the international community about the hasty need for a way to stop Iran’s increased activities. In 2011, the regime started operating its Bushehr power plant and announced that it would triple its 20 percent enriched uranium production. That year, Russia tried leading negotiations as Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov proposed a new deal between Iran and the P5+1. Russia’s plan was a 5 stage one which would involve Iran capping its uranium enrichment at 5 percent, ratifying the IAEA Additional Protocol and suspending its enrichment activities for three months and at each stage of implantation the P5+1 and UN Security Council would lift sanctions on Iran. The Islamic Republic approved of Russia’s plan, but the US, UK, and France did not think sanctions should be lifted this early on and as a result, nothing came of Russia’s proposal. In November of that year, the IAEA released a report of Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program which it started in the late 1990s and the early 2000s; moreover, the report indicated that Iran may have been involved in a number of weapons-related activities after 2003.


Following Iran’s increased capabilities, the P5+1 made more of an effort to negotiate with Iran in 2012 as talks became more frequent and venues such as Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow hosted the multilateral talks throughout the year. However, the efforts made in 2012 pail in comparison to those that occurred in 2013. Hassan Rouhani’s election provided a new opportunity for the P5+1 to take a new approach in negotiations this was because Rouhani himself was a former nuclear negotiator and promised to be more transparent on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. It should be noted, however, that he also asserted that Iran would not stop its nuclear ambitions. The latter months of 2013 proved to be significant, one specific moment that stuck out was September’s UN General Assembly Meeting which saw Iran’s newly appointed foreign minister, Javad Zarif, meet with the foreign ministers from the rest of the P5+1. What’s even more significant is the fact that former US Secretary of State John Kerry had a private bilateral meeting with Zarif, which ended with both men agreeing on finding a deal within the end of the year. The following October, Iran and the P5+1 met again in Geneva where Iran presented its own proposal which contained broad strokes that would lead into a more substantive deal, it also had a 3-6 transitional period which would be used to help Iran build more confidence among the international community. This proposal would eventually become the framework for the Joint Plan of Action. In November, the foreign ministers from the P5+1 and Iran met again in Geneva and where the Joint Plan of Action was signed, this agreement stated that Iran would have to stop further developing its program, reduce its 20 percent uranium stock and grant the IAEA further access to its nuclear sites and in exchange for compliance Iran would receive sanctions relief and would not have any further sanctions placed on it during the next six months. Finally, the six month period could be extended indefinitely if the P5+1 and Iran agreed to do so.


The six month period agreed in the JPOA was meant to be a transitional period in which both parties agreed to a comprehensive plan. The negotiations would take place throughout all of 2014 and would extend into 2015. Despite many delays and drawbacks, the P5+1 and Iran finally agreed to a comprehensive plan in July 2015. Regardless of opposition from many members of Congress and many Iranian MPs, the deal would eventually go through both legislative bodies. Under JCPOA, Iran would have to decrease its centrifuges at the Natanz facility from 19,000 to 5,060 and would have to abide by this restriction until 2025, the Fardow facility wouldn’t be used for uranium enrichment for 15 years and Iran would have to ratify the Additional Protocol and grant the IAEA access to its nuclear facilities for routine inspections. In exchange, Iran would gradually receive sanctions relief thus giving it more opportunity to participate in the global market.


A comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear capabilities is largely unprecedented and has given the Iranian regime restrictions that few believed it would ever agree to in the first place. However, the fact that Iran has previously made concessions to the international community and failed to stick by them was a major point of contention; for instance, there was the time when Iran violated its deal with the EU 3. Moreover, the deal did not stop Iran from doing other region destabilizing activities such as funding and aiding terror groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthi militias, this is the reason why President Trump said that Iran broke “the spirit” of the deal, i.e. Iran isn’t living up to the peaceful nature of the deal. While speaking to Majalla, Naysan Rafati of Crisis Group stated that the deal was not designed to stop Iran from funding these groups, he also stated that the parameters of the deal needed to be broad since the P5+1 prioritized capping Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  Despite this need for broader parameters, there were a number of unaddressed elements that needed to be acknowledged, for example, the deal did not stop Iran from testing non-nuclear missiles and there is the fact that Iran could have always resumed its nuclear buildup after the restrictions expired. Currently, there is a need for a new deal, as such Iran and the P5+1 need to go back to the drawing board and come up with an agreement that is fair for both parties. More importantly, any new deal that is negotiated should not pose any danger to other states in the region. However, recent news of Iran violating the JCPOA by resuming uranium enrichment does not indicate any prospects of negotiations in the near future.