Analysis & Opinions - Responsible Statecraft

The JCPOA at 5: How the U.S. squandered an unprecedented diplomatic opening with Iran

| July 19, 2020

Why are governments willing to invest more time in sanctions and war than they do in diplomacy? I pondered this question as the five-year anniversary of the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, passed last week. What would relations between the United States and Iran look like had diplomacy been given its due, and the Iran deal honoured for longer?   

Tehran was filled with hope and great optimism in the months after the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Many Iranians hoped for a new era in which sanctions would end, and with them the decades of hostility with the United States. There was a great sense of optimism for a new beginning, a bright future with reintegration in the international community, economic prosperity, booming tourism, student exchanges, and even direct flights between New York and Tehran. Many believed that domestic political reform would follow.

That optimism is a distant memory today, two years and two months after President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and re-imposed crushing sanctions. Iran’s economy is tormented: the rial is at an all-time low; in 2019, inflation hit a shocking 41 percent, GDP contracted by 8.2 percent and the unemployment rate remained at nearly 12 percentRather than direct flights, tourism and student exchanges, a travel ban was imposed.

Dealing with a global pandemic with a strained economy has exacted a terrible human toll and caused a second wave of coronavirus as Iran is strapped for the financial resources needed to impose quarantines and to adequately respond. People have lost hope and optimism for any improvements as they endure these hardships.

Now the JCPOA limps along precariously. Tehran has responded to the Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” by exceeding operational restrictions on enriched uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels, which has reduced the breakout time to produce the fissile material for a bomb from at least one year to roughly six months. There have been more concerning regional activities and more provocations, including support for pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and strengthened influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. The human rights abuses have worsened, with one of the most brutal crackdowns on protestors in November 2019. During the past week, an online campaign, #DontExecute, surged, protesting against the death penalty ruling imposed on three men arrested in connection to the November uprising. There have been more uprisings due to continued economic hardship, and the Iranian police have warned they would respond “decisively” to any repeat of uprisings or protests.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rouhi, Mahsa.“The JCPOA at 5: How the U.S. squandered an unprecedented diplomatic opening with Iran.” Responsible Statecraft, July 19, 2020.