BARACK OBAMA called it “the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever
negotiated”. President Donald Trump derided it as “one of the worst deals
ever”. Now the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the unwieldy name
given to the multinational nuclear deal signed between Iran and six world
powers in 2015—is on life support. Mr Trump dealt it a near-fatal blow last
year by withdrawing America from the accord. And Iran inflicted more wounds in
July by breaching some of the agreed limits, on the size of its stockpile of
low-enriched uranium and on the concentration of fissile material. As tensions
rise in the Gulf, America and Iran seem to be on a collision course. So what,
exactly, is the JCPOA?
2002 the world learned of a large, secret Iranian uranium-enrichment site
buried deep underground. Iran claimed it was intended to make low-enriched
uranium for nuclear-power stations. The rest of the world suspected it was part
of a clandestine nuclear-weapons programme, intended to give Iran the ability
to produce the highly enriched stuff that goes into bombs. In 2003, shortly
after President George W. Bush declared his “global war on terror” and America
invaded Iraq, Iran announced that it would suspend all enrichment-related
activities, as part of diplomacy with Europe. But as regional tensions rose
over the next decade, its nuclear programme mushroomed. Western powers, fearing
the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon and the Middle Eastern arms race that
might follow, piled on increasingly draconian sanctions to force Iran to back
down. Rumours swirled that Israel might launch air strikes, as it had on an
Iraqi reactor in 1981 and a Syrian site in 2007.
July 2015 Iran reached a bargain with the permanent five members of the UN
Security Council (America, Britain, France, Russia and China) as well as with
Germany and the European Union. It mothballed thousands of centrifuges
(machines that enrich uranium). It agreed to enrich uranium only to low levels
not suitable for a bomb and to accumulate no more than 300kg. It poured
concrete into the core of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, which might
otherwise have yielded plutonium for a bomb. And it agreed to the most
stringent inspections regime anywhere in the world. In return, some of the
sanctions were lifted, providing relief for Iran’s battered economy.
deal’s proponents argued that the restrictions left Iran more than a year away
from being able to produce a bomb’s worth of fuel, as opposed to a few months.
“Military action would only set back Iran’s programme by a few years at best,
which is a fraction of the limitations imposed by this deal,” pointed out Mr
Obama. And even if Iran cheated, went the theory, it could only move slowly to
avoid being found out. Less impressed, hawks in America, Israel and the Gulf
states scoffed that Mr Obama had given away too much. Iran, they complained,
would be permitted to continue some enrichment and to expand its programme as
restrictions fall away (the first expire after a decade). In the meantime, it
would receive billions of dollars that could be funnelled to allied militant
groups in the region.
May 2018 Mr Trump pulled America out of the JCPOA and soon re-imposed sanctions
on Iran. European countries promised to protect trade as best they could, but
most companies preferred to sacrifice deals with Iran rather than risk losing
business in the American market. Iran kept its side of the nuclear bargain for
a year. But in April 2019 Mr Trump ended waivers that had allowed some
countries to continue buying Iranian oil. That was the final straw. In May Iran
gave notice that it would begin walking away from the deal, provision by
provision, unless the Europeans could shield Iran’s economy.
then, hostilities between America and Iran have increased. Ships have been
attacked in or near the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of global oil
exports pass. In June, Iran shot down an American drone; American bombers were
ten minutes away from their targets in Iran when Mr Trump called a retaliatory
strike off. In July, America claimed to have downed an Iranian drone.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran broke the
300kg limit on July 1st, followed by the 3.67% purity threshold on July 8th.
America and Iran can find a way to talk again, Iran will creep back towards the
ability to make a nuclear bomb; and Mr Trump will face growing pressure from
his hawks to bomb Iran. What could stop either of these nightmares from
becoming a reality? Probably a deal that looks much like the JCPOA.