The JCPOA is not a peace treaty with Iran
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In recent weeks, critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear accord reached with Iran last summer, have tried to re-litigate their opposition to the deal by attempting to block Boeing from consummating a planned sale of aircraft to Iran.  These critics include the House of Representatives, which recently passed legislation barring the Treasury Department from issuing licenses to allow such sales.  In their eyes, Iran’s support for terrorism and human rights abuses merits steps that would prevent Boeing from selling aircraft to Tehran.  This legislation would put the U.S. in violation of the JCPOA, while Iran has thus far adhered to its terms.  And in advancing these and similar measures, critics of the JCPOA are giving the deal too much credit by treating it as a far broader agreement than actually it is. 

The JCPOA was a narrow but important deal in which Iran agreed to give up significant components of its nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief by the U.S. and its partners.  Iran did not agree to stop providing support for terrorism and the U.S. did not forswear any national security tool—military, diplomatic, or financial—to prevent Iran from funding terror.  By claiming that Iran’s support for terrorism should prevent the U.S. from fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA, critics of the nuclear accord are treating it as though it is a peace treaty, requiring friendly relations between signatories.  It is not, and none of the things we abhor about Iran’s foreign and domestic policy should cause us to withdraw from the JCPOA as long as Iran continues to comply with its terms.  This is because the JCPOA represents the first time in over a decade that the international community imposed meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.

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In the JCPOA, Iran committed that it would never seek, develop, or acquire nuclear weapons.  Iran has limited the number of centrifuges that may operate; limited the degree of enriched uranium it possesses; limited the amount of enriched uranium in the country; and has made changes to existing nuclear facilities, all closely supervised by the IAEA.  In exchange, the United States and its partners have provided limited sanctions relief.

One component of that sanctions relief is at issue in the discussion about the Boeing deal:  the commitment by the U.S. government to establish a licensing regime for the sale of aircraft to Iran.  Whether or not the aircraft sale goes forward is a business decision for Boeing to weigh.  Such sales are not without risk.  Iran Air was designated in 2011 for providing support to the IRGC and other proliferation-related entities and Mahan Air remains subject to sanctions.  And the JCPOA states clearly that any licenses to sell aircraft to Iran will be contingent on those aircraft being used exclusively for commercial passenger aviation.  The U.S. has put Iran on notice that a breach of those conditions would be grounds for the U.S. to cease performing its obligations under that section of the JCPOA.

Of course, the JCPOA does not resolve all concerns about Iran’s behavior. But it was never meant to. Iran remains one of the principal strategic adversaries of the United States in the Middle East.  Since 1984, Iran has been and today remains designated as a state sponsor of terrorism; it provides substantial support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad as he prosecutes Syria’s brutal civil war; it routinely engages in gross human rights abuses; and it continues its support for terrorist groups and rebels like Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. 

But until the adoption of the JCPOA last year, Iran’s pursuit of an advanced nuclear program dangerously compounded these other ways in which Iran threatened American interests and the stability of the Middle East.

The JCPOA therefore ameliorates one of the most important components of the threat from Iran—namely the menace posed by Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility that its nuclear program could have been used to intensify the other ways in which Iran threatens the U.S., its allies, and its interests.  And there was a significant chance that Iran’s further development of its nuclear program would have sparked a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East.  Instead, the JCPOA’s constraints lengthened the time needed for Iran to “break out” to a nuclear weapon from two months at the time the JCPOA was signed to one year under the terms of the agreement. 

Recent reports out of Germany suggest that Iran tried to obtain materials that might contravene its JCPOA commitments, and if true, the U.S. should take appropriate action.  But as long as Iran adheres to the terms of the JCPOA—and the IAEA has certified three times that Iran is in compliance—the JCPOA has significant value in the U.S.’s overall national security strategy, even while the U.S. acts to limit Iran’s malign influence elsewhere in the region.  As long as this remains true, the U.S. must work to maintain the integrity and viability of the accord.  


Zachary K. Goldman is executive director of the Center on Law and Security and Adjunct Professor of Law at NYU School of Law.