2. The Road to the JCPOA: A Brief History
The JCPOA was the product of a protracted international effort to impose oversight and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme. A review of history surrounding this programme is instructive regarding past negotiation efforts, and relevant to understanding Iran’s current trajectory and strategy (which are pertinent to today’s stand-off).
Iran began its nuclear programme in the 1950s with the assistance of the US, and under the leadership of Mohammad Reza Shah. In the years prior to the revolution, Iran signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 and concluded a number of nuclear-related contracts, such as for construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor. These projects were halted after the 1979 revolution.
Iran ceased its nuclear programme during its eight-year war with Iraq (1980–88), but efforts to revive the programme gradually recommenced through cooperation with Pakistan, China and Russia. In 1995, Russia committed to completing Bushehr and developing three new reactors for Tehran. These agreements, alongside Tehran’s efforts to acquire sensitive nuclear technology, increased international suspicion of Iran’s civilian nuclear programme. Indeed, in 2002 such suspicions were publicly confirmed when an Iranian opposition group in exile revealed the existence of undeclared nuclear facilities, resulting in urgent mediation led by the E3.
In 2003 Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment activities, and to implement the ‘Additional Protocol’ allowing for enhanced inspections. Despite this initial agreement, Iran did not adhere to these commitments. Following continued talks with the E3, Iran consented to the 2004 Paris Agreement committing it to the suspension of enrichment, and to negotiations for a long-term deal on ‘objective guarantees’ that its nuclear programme would be peaceful in nature. In exchange, the deal offered Tehran trade discussions and the possibility of application for membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The negotiations stalled in 2005, however, over the ‘objective guarantees’ and Iran’s proposal for a small-scale enrichment capacity. After the election in that year of a hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran rejected Europe’s proposed incentive package and resumed uranium enrichment. Iran also terminated its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.
These moves resulted in the IAEA referring Iran’s case to the UNSC. The newly formed P5+1 group (composed of the UNSC’s permanent members plus Germany) called for Iranian cooperation, and offered nuclear fuel for the Tehran research reactor in exchange for the suspension of enrichment and the reapplication of the Additional Protocol. Continued Iranian defiance, however, prompted the P5+1 to threaten sanctions, which duly began in July 2006 through UNSC Resolution (UNSCR) 1696. Despite these measures, Tehran accelerated its nuclear work while also inaugurating a heavy-water production facility in Arak and expanding activities at its Fordow enrichment plant. Throughout 2007 and 2008, Iran continued to ignore UNSC resolutions and P5+1 proposals, and instead accelerated its enrichment activities.
With Barack Obama’s election in 2008, US policy shifted towards a multilateral Iran strategy that included direct US engagement in negotiations with Iran. P5+1 negotiations recommenced in 2009. These focused on a fuel swap arrangement that was ultimately rejected by Tehran. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil brokered their own nuclear fuel swap offer, which was accepted by Iran but rejected by international negotiators. UNSCR 1929 was passed in 2010, authorizing UN member states to impose sanctions on key Iranian economic sectors. Further rounds of discussion continued to founder on Iran’s repeated demand for sanctions relief as a precondition for negotiations. During this period, Tehran also continued to demand recognition of its right to enrichment – a demand that, when dropped, allowed for the eventual negotiation of the JCPOA.
In 2012, a secret back channel was established between the Obama administration and Iran allowing for the beginning of a ‘pragmatic complement’ to the wider P5+1 discussion group. In these meetings, Obama administration officials presented Tehran with a new offer that, in exchange for ‘long-term constraints on their nuclear program, with heavily intrusive verification and monitoring arrangements … would be prepared to explore the possibility of a limited domestic enrichment program as part of a comprehensive agreement’. This change in the US position, alongside the 2013 election of a centrist candidate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran’s president, was instrumental in moving the stalled P5+1 process forward.
An interim nuclear agreement, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), was announced on 24 November 2013. Under this plan, Iran agreed to limit ‘any further advances of its activities’, including taking interim steps over the ensuing six months and implementing elements of a longer-term, comprehensive solution. Modest sanctions relief was granted in exchange for Iran eliminating its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium, ceasing enrichment to that level, and freezing its stockpile of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium. Over the subsequent two-year period, the parties met numerous times and were forced to extend their agreed deadline, finally arriving at the JCPOA on 14 July 2015.