The nuclear deal with Iran: from a historic deal for peace to (again) the brink of war

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini with with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and American Secretary of State John Kerry . Palais Coburg Hotel, the venue of the nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria on July 9, 2015.

Introduction: what the 2015 JCPOA entails

In July 2015 the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed upon between the EU, China, Russia, the US, France, Germany, the UK and Iran. After a decade of trying to reach a nuclear deal, it was deemed historic. The deal was meant to: 1) prevent Iran from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons and uphold the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); 2) phase out its most crucial centrifuge, keep the uranium stockpile < 300 kg of up to 3.67% enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6), turn most facilities into research centers; 3) implement strict (if needed: daily) controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and full transparency; and 5) lift the sanctions.

A peace turning sour

However, it was one of Trump’s campaign promises to get rid of the worst deal ever negotiated and to coerce a new deal, despite his repeatedly shown lack of understanding of the deal’s content. In May 2018 the US withdrew from the deal and in November 2018 reinstalled sanctions targeting Iran and states trading with Iran. The other negotiating parties have urged the US to lift the sanctions and respect the deal. They have also asked patience from Iran. The once historic deal is hanging by a thread – and with it, peace.

What was and is at stake in the Middle East

Geopolitical circumstances

The highly volatile region is home to a great percentage of the world’s most needed resources, but also to the world’s most pressing political concerns, wars and human tragedies. The region faces terrorists, proxy wars, (de facto) failed states like Afghanistan, civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and a refugee movement of unprecedented magnitude.

Due to geopolitical realism, Iran, as a big player in the region, has its reasons for wanting a (nuclear) deterrent.[1] Firstly, it is surrounded by four nuclear states: Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia. Secondly, the relationship with Iraq has been antagonistic since 1979 (Iran-Iraq war 1980-1988). Thirdly, Iran has been heavily isolated, due to its enmity with Israel and Saudi-Arabia, both closely aligned with the US. The US’ preemptive strike on Iraq in 2003, misleadingly justified by the suspicion of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech and framing Iran as a pariah state, has produced a vicious circle.[2] Many argue that the concentration on Iran’s nuclear programme served as a subsidiary, as a reason to shun Iran from participating in global politics.[3] By 2015 the framing of Iran as a pariah state was superseded by the want for political cooperation, for which the JCPOA was meant to pave the way.

The derailment of the JCPOA

According to the IAEA, Iran has abided by the terms of the negotiated deal until recently. After the US’ withdrawal from the deal and the deal’s breach via the re-installment of US sanctions, coupled with the unsatisfying efforts from the rest of the negotiating partners to halt the deal’s derailment, Iran’s patience is exhausted. The currency is at a historic low, the inflation rate up, foreign investors having had to step back, and the unrest and disappointment in the population is growing. Over a year after Trump pulled out of the deal, Iran has blown the lid of the deal itself now, exceeding its legally allowed 300kg of enriched uranium.

Inner political pressure in Iran

The Iranian population has followed the deal itself closely and was in favour of the deal all throughout the negotiations, expecting an improvement of their personal economic welfare and a general upward trend in the Iranian economy due to the lifting of sanctions.

The re-installment of sanctions and the imminent failure of the deal have therefore grave inner political repercussions for president Rohani and the reformers in Iran. Being unable to deliver the promised economic relief that the population demands, the hard-liners are quick to pin the blame on Rohani and thus taking back control under the narrative of ‘having to protect the country’. The unrest and disappointment of the Iranian people strengthens the hard-liners’ position of power, leading to an “intensified repression of dissent in society and adopt[ing] a more offensive military posture abroad.” The EU needs to strengthen its efforts to reinstate the deal – if the EU fails, it will be partly responsible for a power-shift in Iran in favour of the hard-liners.

Conclusion: what remains

While the deal had left the world with having to accept a somewhat nuclear Iran, it had limited its capabilities and maximized transparency.[4] For Iran, the deal meant a reentry onto the global stage and a gradual lifting of sanctions to revive its economy. Leaving all compromises aside, each side had won something valuable: being able to cooperate and collaborate. Especially because there weren’t – and probably still aren’t – alternatives: “put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war.“ Going forward, it is important that the EU and the other negotiating parties are clear and united in their emphasis on relieving the US’ economic pressure. Whole industries globally are reluctant to resume or explore trade with Iran, for fear of risking US sanctions themselves. They need assurance and assistance. It would be negligent to assume that the deal had not been politically motivated. Iran’s motivation to comply with the JCPOA went beyond the relief of sanctions. Strong incentives were the inner-Iranian pressure, and to give its population what it has called for: an opening of the country towards the West and stabilising the region (containing al-Qaeda). The Iranian government now however also wants to keep face: with a deal effectively not in place and sanctions crippling their population, upholding the JCPOA seems like a zero-sum game and will sooner or later cause a need for retaliation – even if to just flex a muscle.



Friederike Sandow holds a Joint Degree (MA in Contemporary European Studies) by the University of Bath on behalf of the European American University Consortium (thesis: The Nuclear Deal with Iran in 2015). She has worked for an international agency implementing campaigns by the European Commission and is now working for a foundation based in Berlin. For years, she has been a contributing writer for the online magazine Europe & Me, and since this year also took on the role as editor, where she focuses on migration and feminist issues.


[1] JONES, Peter (2012): Learning to live with a nuclear Iran. The Nonproliferation Review 19(2), p. 202 and Waltz (2012) in: CLARKE, Michael (2013): Iran as a ‘pariah’ nuclear aspirant. Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(4), p. 495.

[2] See Clarke (2013) p. 496 and VAKIL, Sanam (2014): Obama’s Iranian Gamble. The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 49(3), p. 11.

[3] See NIRUMAND, Bahman (2006): Iran - Die drohende Katastrophe. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln; p. 19.

[4] FIKENSCHER, Sven-Eric, REARDON, Robert J. (2014): The Fool's Errand for a Perfect Deal with Iran. The Washington Quarterly 37(3), p. 72