In recent weeks there has been a great deal of buzz surrounding the U.S. and Iran. Tensions are extremely high, and the word “war” has slipped into the conversation.
But how did this situation arise? What was the nuclear deal, anyway? Why does it matter that the U.S. withdrew from it in 2018?
In order to answer these questions, it is important to understand the history of the Iran nuclear deal and how U.S. foreign policy has changed with the Trump administration. The decisions made in the midst of these tensions are crucial, as they will affect how the rest of the world, and especially Iran, will react.
The Iran Nuclear Deal
In 2015, Iran and six world powers finalized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. These six world powers are often called the P5+1, which refers to Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. The European Union was present at negotiations as well.
The P5+1 has tried to negotiate with Iran since 2006. Serious negotiations did not begin until 2013, when the Joint Plan of Action was first established. The Joint Plan of Action called for Iran to reduce the size of its nuclear program. In return, the U.S. and the European Union reduced some of the sanctions they placed on Iran and unfroze Iran’s assets.
The JCPOA brought massive change when it was finalized in 2015. It required Iran to give up 97 percent of its enriched uranium, which reduced their stockpile to 300 kg. The agreement states that Iran could not exceed this amount until the year 2031.
In addition, Iran was only allowed to have its uranium at 3.67 percent enrichment.
For context, research grade uranium is enriched to 20 percent, and weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent.
Iran was required to give up most of its centrifuges, which are pieces of laboratory equipment that are vital to the operation. To make sure that Iran upheld its part of the bargain, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) performed detailed inspections and monitoring of Iranian laboratories.
According to the P5+1 and JCPOA supporters, these inspections were extremely strict. Supporters also claim that even if Iran broke the deal and began building a bomb, it would have taken them a very long time.
Why did Iran agree to such severe restrictions?
The P5+1 agreed to no more sanctions. These sanctions crippled Iran’s economy and cut the country off from the rest of the world. They also had a lasting effect on Iran’s population.
In accordance with the agreement, the U.S. agreed to unfreeze a certain amount of Iranian assets. However, there is a discrepancy in how much was released. U.S. President Trump and other conservatives believe that the U.S. released $150 billion in assets. However, there is very little evidence to support this claim.
According to the United States Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the U.S. agreed to unfreeze approximately $56 billion. An estimate from the Central Bank of Iran (ICB) placed the assets at $29 million. Nader Habibi, a Middle Eastern economics professor at Brandeis University who spoke with ICB officials, concluded that the total was between $25 billion and $50 billion.
Habibi also estimated that most of Iran’s assets are not in the U.S. Instead, they are in central and commercial banks overseas.
The U.S. also agreed to pay Iran $1.7 billion in cash for an arms deal from the 1970s, in which Iran paid the U.S. $400 million for equipment that was never delivered. The overthrowing of the Iranian government and the rupture of diplomatic relations ended the arms deal.
The amount paid to Iran for the arms deal is also widely disputed. However, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reviewed the cash transfer in 2018 and reported it at $1.7 billion.
Why did the U.S. withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal?
According to a statement from President Trump in May, 2018, “the Iran deal is defective to its core.” He argues that JCPOA only limits Iran’s nuclear activities for a fixed time period and has not stopped Iran from developing ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles are missiles with high, arching trajectories which may carry high explosives or chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration also believes that the deal gave Iran far too many benefits in exchange for too many concessions. It also claims that Iran has not spent its cash to help the people in the country. Instead, President Trump argues, the money has helped to destabilize the Middle East and sponsor terrorism.
President Trump claims that intelligence from the Israeli government discovered an Iranian archive that documented experimentation with nuclear weapons. He believes this is proof that Iran never planned to abide by the deal.
The President also claims to support the Iranian people rather than the Tehran regime.
The Trump administration worked on negotiations with the U.K., France and Germany for approximately six months before deciding to withdraw from JCPOA. Negotiations proved to be difficult when Europe wanted to amend the original agreement, while the U.S. wanted to begin from scratch.
How did Iran and other countries respond to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal?
France, Germany and the U.K. all reported that they regret the U.S. decision to withdraw. The foreign ministry of Russia stated that it was “deeply disappointed,” and a top diplomat of the European Union said that the EU was focused on preserving the deal. The spokesman of the United Nations secretary general called the announcement deeply concerning and asked for the other major powers involved to uphold their commitments.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, has stated that he fully supports the decision. Saudi Arabia has come out with public statements in full support of America’s withdrawal as well.
Upon the announcement of America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iranian leaders promised a strong response. The President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, stated that Tehran would remain in the agreement for now and negotiate with Russia and China. However, he also stated that Iran would restart the uranium enrichment process, thereby failing to uphold its commitments.
How has America’s withdrawal affected Iran, and how has Iran reacted?
In November of 2018, President Trump reinstated sanctions that targeted Iran. Moreover, he placed sanctions on states that trade with Iran. These sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy and significantly lowered the value of its currency. The annual inflation rate has quadrupled, which drove away foreign investors and sparked protests throughout the country.
In response, the U.K., Germany and France have established an alternative payment mechanism. Their goal is to give international companies another way to trade with Iran, without triggering more U.S. sanctions.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been mounting ever since the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal.
At the beginning of May 2019, the U.S. chose to enforce sanctions on countries that still buy from Iran. The main goal of this decision was to severely hurt Iran’s main source of revenue: oil.
In response, Iranian President Rouhani stated that Iran would no longer abide by many of its commitments under the nuclear deal.
On May 5, 2019, the U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is known for his aggressive foreign policy tactics, announced that the U.S. planned to deploy an aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the Persian Gulf.
Bolton claims that this is a response to several threats and warning signs from Iran.
John Bolton and U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan have both stated that the U.S. does not want to go to war with Iran. However, the Trump administration wants to be “fully prepared to respond to any attack.”
While the reasoning behind Bolton’s decision was at first unclear, the Trump administration has now released claims that Iran previously intended to target U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Syria. The administration also believes that Iran is responsible for recent attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, as well as drone attacks on two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia. Iran denies these claims.
A top military leader in Iran reportedly told militias in Iraq to begin preparations for war. The U.S. then sent anti-missile batteries to the Middle East to join the other firepower it has sent to the area. Anti-missile batteries are designed to counter ballistic missiles.
John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both pushed for an aggressive stance and with regards to the Islamic Republic. With aggressive tactics mounting on both sides, many diplomatic correspondents believe that Iran and the U.S. must think carefully about each new move. In such a delicate situation, it may be easy for either side to take a step too far.