Barbara Slavin is the Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council and Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor. This article was created in collaboration with the Atlantic Council. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
Like a car that has lost its new car smell and has a few nicks on its bumpers, the nuclear agreement reached last year between Iran and six world powers is showing some wear just nine months after its full implementation.
But the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the Iran nuclear deal is known, has survived efforts to wreck it by opponents in both Iran and the United States, and the deal is likely to endure into the next U.S. administration.
The problems with the agreement relate more to underlying hostility between the United States and Iran, which have not had normal diplomatic relations since 1980.
Seeking to prove that the JCPOA does not mean appeasement of the Great Satan, Iranian hardliners have stepped up provocative actions including arresting dual nationals, testing ballistic missiles, and harassing U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly warned Iranian government officials not to negotiate with the United States on non-nuclear matters, even as senior diplomats continue to meet to review implementation of the nuclear agreement and to discuss a potential settlement to the war in Syria.
On the American side, Republicans and some Democratic hawks have been quick to pounce on any negative Iranian action as proof that the JCPOA has failed. Critics recently seized on a report by the Wall Street Journal claiming that the Obama administration paid $400 million in cash to Iran after four Iranian-Americans and a fifth American citizen were freed from custody on Implementation Day.
In fact, the payment was not “ransom” for the Americans but reimbursement to Iran for weapons that had been purchased before the revolution and never delivered. The Americans were swapped for seven Iranian nationals held in U.S. prisons for sanctions violations.
Some critics of the nuclear deal, such as David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (the good ISIS), have also asserted that Iran is cheating around the edges of the JCPOA by holding onto quantities of sensitive materials, including low-enriched uranium, left in waste products at Iranian nuclear sites. The Obama administration has forcefully denied that any “exemptions” exist and defended the confidentiality of the Joint Commission set up to quickly address any mutual concerns.
On the Iranian side, meanwhile, there has been a steady stream of complaints that the United States has not fulfilled its part of the bargain on sanctions relief. U.S. officials say they have done everything required by lifting so-called secondary sanctions that threatened to penalize foreign companies doing business with Iran, pointing out that no one can force businesspeople -- especially bankers -- to return to a market that still holds considerable risk.
In fact, Iran’s economy is slowly regaining strength, and oil exports are almost back to what they were in 2011, before the full impact of nuclear sanctions took effect. Asian and European banks are beginning to handle transactions with Iran, but financing for some deals remains hampered by restrictions on the use of the U.S. dollar.
During the U.S. presidential campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton has criticized Iran’s regional policies, such as support for the government of Syria, while staunchly defending the Iran nuclear agreement and bragging about her role in laying the diplomatic groundwork for it as secretary of state.
Recently, Clinton has supported the Democratic position calling for a clean renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, which is due to expire at the end of this year. The legislation, a secondary sanctions measure targeting foreign investment in the Iranian oil and gas sector, is currently suspended by the JCPOA and would only come back into force if Iran violated the agreement in a significant way.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has not taken a position on the legislation. His threats to renegotiate the nuclear deal are hard to take seriously given that it is a multilateral accord, and a unilateral U.S. decision to renounce it would not be binding on Russia, China, or America’s European and Asian allies.
Trump’s priority, judging from his recent campaign speeches, is rounding up and deporting illegal Mexican and other Latino immigrants, barring Muslim immigrants, and renegotiating what he regards as unfair trade treaties. He has scarcely mentioned Iran since the general election campaign began.
Confronting the Islamic State group, dealing with Russia, the ramifications of British exit from the European Union, and the challenges of climate change are likely to take precedence over Iran for both candidates.
Even Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rarely mentions Iran these days; Israeli security experts privately praise the JCPOA for postponing an Iran nuclear crisis for at least another decade.
Of course, the Middle East has a tendency to insert itself into U.S. foreign policy debates in unpredictable ways. But Iran has been relatively stable in the face of the crises afflicting many of its neighbors. A President Clinton or Trump is more likely to have to deal with political turmoil in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq.
As for the future of U.S.-Iran relations, much will depend on Tehran and whether the supreme leader’s successor feels the same need to maintain animosity toward the United States as a prop to regime survival. Both countries’ citizens would benefit from restoring diplomatic relations and working toward common ground. But if real peace is not yet possible, at least the JCPOA has drastically reduced the chances for another Middle East war.