A dangerous game: History of the Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s era

by Luca Papini 


The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has generated a new era of unprecedented political uncertainty. The new US president in fact has often severely addressed different top-priority international issues with violent overtones and actions increasingly out of step with his predecessor. Examples of this can be found in the new US policy towards North Korea, the US withdrew from the Paris climate treaty and, of course, the ongoing narrative over the Iranian nuclear treaty signed in 2015.

The latter has been continuously mentioned by Trump during public speeches over all his first year of presidency and has always been described with the harshest tones. But why does Trump refuse the deal and why is he trying so strongly to re-negotiate it? Moreover, what kind of consequences are likely to happen if he actually does so? This article tries to investigate these issues and, on the other hand, to explain the bilateral and global repercussions of an inconsiderate one-sided policy over the Iranian nuclear deal.

History of the crisis and US involvement.

The Iran nuclear treaty, otherwise called Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) was signed in Vienna in July 2015 by the Islamic Republic of Iran and six international negotiators: US, Russia, UK, France, China and Germany (P5+1) in order to solve the nuclear crisis started in the early 2000s. The involvement of these six external states is due to historical and political reasons developed over the 15 years in which the negotiations have been going on.

The crisis started in the august 2002 when the Mujahideen-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), a government’s opposition group, revealed to the world the existence of a facility close to Esfahan for uranium enrichment purposes that the government had not declared to the International Atomic Energetic Agency (IAEA) as it was supposed to do.[i] In the framework of the US war on terror after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the situation escalated quickly, bringing deep worries in both the area’s and western powers about a possible Iran equipped with nuclear weapons.

On October 16 of 2003 the EU received assurances from Teheran that Iran would soon comply with IAEA’s requests and the negotiations with UK, France and Germany (EU/3) started. Thanks to this opening to the European side, Iran avoided the escalation of the crisis and a partial settlement of the dispute. However, over the following years, numerous propositions were rejected both from the Islamic Republic of Iran and the EU/3 negotiators mainly because of US interference and opposition over a specific topic: the Bush administration fiercely argued against the idea that Teheran’s government shall have been allowed to keep going on the development of nuclear plants for civil purposes. This issue is extremely important for today’s situation because is the lynchpin to understand Trump’s opposition to the JCPOA.

Nonetheless the first turning point on the issue arrived thanks to a more practical and constructive US involvement after Teheran’s menace to increase dramatically the cost of oil’s exportation in response to the first United Nations sanctions occurred in 2006. In fact the very same year, for the first time the US agreed to sit at the table of negotiations, due to both the necessity to address the Republican’s fall in the midterm elections and the impossibility to cope with oil prices upswing during their involvement in middle-east.[ii] In this period the Islamic Republic of Iran strongly believed into the necessity to bring to the table of negotiations a larger team of negotiators, in order to obtain more solid security guarantees for themselves. The natural choices were the others members of the UN Security Council: Russia and China, both active supporters of Teheran’s regime. It follows that the group which will conclude the JCPOA in 2015 was formed and, starting in 2006, the P5+1 tried to work out the Iranian situation throughout a wide range of proposal, initiatives and negotiation for the following 10 years.

The content of the deal.

In 2015 the signature of the deal was an incumbent necessity for Iran: during the settlement of the crisis and the finalisation of an agreement, Teheran’s regime had been vexed by UN’s as well as unilateral increasing sanctions over a wide range of products and raw materials, bringing the country on the edge of collapse. This has been the leverage that the group P5+1 has used against Iran, in exchange of a painstaking detailed regulations on Iran’s nuclear capacity the P5+1 agreed on the disruption of the international sanctions.

From a general perspective it is possible to summarize the regulation on which Iran had to agree on in four points:

  • To not build or develop any new nuclear turbine, with a limited exception for those with the sole purpose R&D (IR-6, IR-8) and under the IAEA strict surveillance. Moreover the only activities of enrichment allowed have to take place in the Nantaz facility and never over a 3.67% level of enrichment (very far from the 20% wanted by Teheran during the negotiations);
  • Always keep their stocks of uranium under the 300kg, the exceeding quantity has to be either sold to the international partners or impoverish them to the natural level;
  • Other measures to prevent the acquisition of nuclear devices. i.e: 15 years of impossibility to use or develop any kind of heavy-water reactor;
  • Implementation of transparency measures: 25 years compliance with any IAEA requests over all the production of uranium on the territory, unique use of IAEA approved technology for a period of 15 years and immediate resolution of concerns that might arise allowing deep international inspections on all the national territory.

In exchange to the above mentioned restriction on their nuclear capabilities Iran obtained the lifting of numerous sanctions such as:

  • All the UN sanctions from the resolutions n°: 1696 (2006), 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), 1835 (2008), 1929 (2010) e la 2224 (2015);
  • All the EU sanctions, and their amendments, in matter of: Bank activities, financial support for trade and development, oil import and export, airports access for goods’ transport and exportations of valuable materials such as gold, silver etc..
  • All the unilateral US sanctions in matters of goods, precious raw materials and weapons, even though a 5 year embargo was still kept on for conventional arms and 8 years for ballistic missiles.[iii]

Today’s situation.

As already stated, since the election of Donald Trump the US administration has tried to review the JCPOA in order to obtain a “more favourable deal” for the US. The main reason behind it seems to be the time limit that was set on specific restrictions (i.e: implementation of transparency measures), this particular issue was called by the opponents of the deal “Sunset Clause” and, as mentioned already, finds its roots in the very early Bush administration opposition to a EU/3 – Iran deal in 2004 and 2005.

During his term so far Trump has threatened three times the unilateral US withdrawal from the JCPOA and an immediate stop to the lifting of sanctions agreed, last one in the earliest day of this year, adding as that would be the last time he complies with the deal, suggesting with this that if a change does not occur in a 4 months period, he will rip the deal off, with or without the EU partners.

The problem here are the foundation of the JCPOA itself: the so-called “sunset clause” is the very base on which the JCPOA has been signed. As perfectly explained by Gordon and Malley:

The real choice in 2015 was between achieving a deal that constrained the size of Iran’s nuclear program for many years and ensured intrusive inspections forever, or not getting one, meaning no restrictions at all coupled with much less verification.[iv]

The game played by Trump here is a dangerous one. Even though all the EU partners have continuously rejected the hard line of the US president, sustaining and enforcing the 2015 deal, Iran is growing skeptic and might soon enough stop as well complying with the restrictions imposed if Donald Trump does not stop this narrative and actually does withdraw the US from the JCPOA. In fact, Iran would consider any tentative of reintroduction of sanctions related to the nuclear crisis as sufficient enough to withdraw their adhesion to the implementation of the JCPOA.[v]



[i] Farzan Sähet, Iran: Resolving The Nuclear Crisis, p. 77.

[ii] R. Guolo, La Via dell’imam, p.155

[iii] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Vienna, 14 July 2015: http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/docs/iran_agreement/iran_joint-comprehensive-plan-of-action_en.pdf Paragrafs 18-24, Section A, Chapter 1 amd  2. For a complete list of the sanctions see “Annex II” pp. 51-135

[iv] Philip Gordon and Robert Malley, Destroying the Iran Deal While Claiming to Save It, First published on “The Atlantic” on JAN 21, 2018 https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/trump-iran-deal-jcpoa/551066/

[v] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Vienna, 14 July 2015: http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/docs/iran_agreement/iran_joint-comprehensive-plan-of-action_en.pdf Paragrafs 26, Section A, Chapter 2 “Sanctions”.