The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in a fanfare of publicity in 2015 between Iran and six countries, was hailed at the time as the way to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The world would be free from the menace of a nuclear Iran, while the country’s economy – brought to its knees by a highly effective US-led sanctions programme that was slowly choking the Iranian regime’s economic arteries on account of its illicit development of nuclear capacity – would have breathing space to recover.
Barack Obama would win plaudits as the US President who had brought Iran back in from the cold, and with domestic pressure from economic protesters defused, the regime would live to see another day. It was supposedly the ultimate win-win situation.
What could possibly go wrong?
Four short years later, the JCPOA lies in tatters. A different US President, Donald Trump, withdrew the US from its stipulations last year, having claimed that it was “the worst deal in history”. US sanctions have been reimposed, together with the threat of secondary sanctions on any non-US company trying to flout the American provisions.
Iran and the other five signatories – including our own government – tried to keep the deal alive. But all to no avail.
For yesterday, Iran announced that it would be “suspending” parts of the JCPOA, keeping the enriched uranium stocks it was allowed to produce under the deal in the country, rather than selling them abroad as required under its terms.
Threats followed about the resumption of production of uranium enriched to a higher level than allowed by the deal, and the development of Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor.
Despite Iran claiming that it has not abandoned the JCPOA, it very much has: these developments are essential to the functioning of a nuclear weapons programme.
The only remaining question is whether the Europeans accept this, and react accordingly with sanctions of their own, or pretend that there is a way to somehow stick the JCPOA back together.
If it is to be the latter, they will not succeed. The JCPOA was doomed from the beginning owing to Obama’s hubris. He had determined that his historic role was to be to extend the hand of friendship to a theocratic Iranian regime that abused human rights at home and sponsored terrorism abroad.
US and international pressure had brought Iran’s economy to a point in 2015 where the regime was looking at economic collapse if sanctions continued.
Iran’s clerics were likely to sign up to any deal offered in order to avoid being toppled through economic unrest. Yet rather than press home the advantage, Obama decided that making a bad deal with Iran was better than running the risk of walking away with no deal, which the Iranians had successfully persuaded him might happen.
The JCPOA that emerged was not a cure to the Iranian nuclear programme, but merely a sticking plaster over it. Iran’s uranium enrichment process had been controlled, but its capabilities to perform enrichment not removed.
The JCPOA frontloaded the release of Iranian funds impounded over sanctions, with no staggered release over time to ensure ongoing compliance. It included a sunset clause on the deal, meaning that Iran would be free to resume its nuclear programme at its conclusion, thereby kicking the can down the road.
And it did not include restrictions on the delivery system for nuclear weapons – ballistic missiles – meaning that Iran could continue with a separate programme unhindered.
The Obama administration staked its reputation on the belief that keeping the deal focused on narrow nuclear issues would yield a halo effect on Iran’s overseas behaviour and towards its own population.
But rather than becoming a responsible member of the international community and directing the sanctions bounty it received to improving the economic lot of its people, Iran has spent the past years supporting Bashar al-Assad’s vicious forces in Syria and funnelling arms and money to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
It is not often that President Trump is lauded for his accuracy, but he was not wrong about the JCPOA. The British government knows only too well the flaws in the deal, but has thus far chosen to spurn the transatlantic alliance in order to preserve the fiction spun by our Franco-German partners that this is somehow the only way to prevent a nuclear Iran.
It isn’t. Only a comprehensive dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities and a commitment by the regime to abandon ancillary activities like missile development can give us the safeguards that we require.
Through its repudiation of the JCPOA, Iran has finally forced us to choose between supporting a doomed deal that cannot deliver, or siding with our US ally in replacing it with something better that can.
We should jump at this chance: a better demonstration of the power of British diplomacy and sanctions to make a real difference in the world will prove hard to find.