The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme, concluded in Vienna on 14 July 2015, is the result of intensive negotiations between Tehran and the group of countries known as the P5+1.
Three major developments enabled breakthroughs in the negotiations. The first was the election of Barack Obama as US president in November 2008, allowing direct US negotiations with Iran. The second was a shift in P5+1 policy from insistence on the cessation of uranium enrichment by Iran combined with sanctions, to one of containing Iran’s nuclear programme and using the lifting of sanctions as leverage. The third major development was the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran on a platform of sanctions relief and economic recovery.
A mutually acceptable agreement was achieved through dialogue and active diplomacy rather than threats (including of a military strike), isolation and unilateral demands. Both sides achieved their goals: for the P5+1, that of preventing Iran from manufacturing nuclear weapons, and for Iran, that of preserving its acquired nuclear know-how and having the sanctions lifted.
The Vienna agreement put into place an unprecedented verification system to ensure that Iran will not enrich uranium above a low level, that the volume of its stockpiles will remain capped, that its capacity to produce enriched uranium will be limited and that it will not produce weapons-grade plutonium. The IAEA will monitor the whole Iranian fuel cycle, from mining to spent fuel (which Iran will not be able to reprocess).
The lack of mutual trust between Iran and the P5+1 explains this extensive verification system, which follows a “distrust-AND-verify” approach. Iran also had to work with the IAEA to clarify pending questions on the past possible military dimensions of its programme. The monitoring mechanism put in place will ensure joint supervision of the implementation of the commitments (including a Joint Commission and regular ministerial meetings). The JCPOA is a model of a cooperative security approach.
How this agreement will affect the reintegration of Iran into the international community remains to be seen. Expectations of a dramatic normalization of relations with the US seem premature, especially as the anti-US and anti-Israel rhetoric of the conservative circles in Iran continues. But the lifting of sanctions will allow a partial resumption of international trade with Iran, including in the oil sector, and is likely to influence exchanges and opening. In the Middle East, one can only hope that including Iran – a key player – in the international talks on the Syrian conflict will have a stabilizing effect. In the longer term the JCPOA could facilitate the renewal of discussions on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, or even become a model for managing nuclear proliferation crises in regional environments characterized by mistrust and a high degree of militarization.