‘Iran nuclear deal’: What’s at stake as critical deadline nears?

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The Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is facing its most critical juncture since the hard-won agreement was struck by the P5+1 and Iran in 2015.

Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for significant sanction relief. But US President Donald Trump could soon follow up his persistent criticisms of the deal with action that risks undermining it.

What’s the problem?

Most world powers say the JCPOA deal is working and is the best way to keep Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Iran says it is fully complying with the agreement, an assessment shared by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Explainer: What is the Iran nuclear deal?

However, Trump has fiercely criticized the deal and accused Iran of “tactical compliance” – following the terms of the agreement in name only. He says the deal only limits Iran’s nuclear activities in the short term and has not prevented it from developing ballistic missiles. He also claims Tehran has been destabilizing the Middle East, and has called for more rigorous nuclear inspections.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweets on April 23, 2018. /VCG Photo

The US president has asked the three European signatories – France, Britain and Germany – to find “fixes,” however, and in recent weeks hinted he may consider a compromise. He said on April 30 that it was not impossible a “real agreement” could be negotiated.

Read more: Macron’s Iran nuclear deal proposal

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for the deal to be retained, but urged Iran to engage in talks in three areas. Progress is reported to have been made on negotiations over nuclear inspections and Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Why is it an issue now?

The law passed by the US Congress in support of the 2015 deal requires the US president to waive sanctions on Iran’s bank and oil sales every 120 days.

The next deadline is fast-approaching. If Trump does not waive sanctions by May 12, the future of the deal will be placed in jeopardy and an already unstable region could be further disrupted.

Who stands where?

Iran:  Top officials have said the 2015 deal is non-negotiable, warned re-imposition of US sanctions would have “severe consequences” and said US “credibility” is at stake. 

China: Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on April 27 that China believes “all relevant parties shall step up dialogue and coordination in response to the current circumstance facing the JCPOA so as to safeguard its sanctity and integrity. China would continue to maintain and implement the JCPOA with an objective, unbiased and responsible attitude.”

Russia: Russia has said there is no room for amendments or additions to the original deal and has insisted it would continue to support the agreement even if the US withdraws.

EU3: France, Britain and Germany back the 2015 deal, though Macron has said the agreement didn’t go far enough. They are open to a side agreement to satisfy the objections of Trump, but are not prepared to abandon the original deal.  

US: Pulling out of the 2015 deal was a plank of Trump’s campaign for the White House. On April 30 he denounced it as “insane” and after renewing the sanctions waiver in January said he would not do so again. He has recently suggested he may be open to a broader deal.  

What could happen on May 13?

The US will be in breach of the agreement if it fails to waive sanctions by May 12. This would likely trigger a range of responses from the powers involved and hit oil markets, but wouldn’t mean the end of the JCPOA. It’s a multilateral agreement and can’t be terminated by a single country.

Were the US to restart sanctions, the other powers could refuse to comply and continue with the deal as agreed. A complication would be whether the companies from the other five signatories would be in breach of US sanctions if they did business with Iran. Some analysts suggest Macron is trying to ensure the US makes a “soft exit” from the deal.

“The issue for Macron now is not so much that the US stays in the Iranian deal, but to make sure they make a soft exit,” Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Damascus and now adviser to Institut Montaigne, told the Financial Times.

“A soft exit means getting the US to mitigate the economic fallout as much as possible — for example, to allow Europeans to do enough business with Iran to keep the Iranians on board.”

Whether Iran would be willing to comply under such terms is unclear. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told The Associated Press on April 24 that if the US pulls out of the nuclear deal, Iran “mostly likely” would abandon it too.

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