The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the “Iran deal,” represents one of the most significant recent diplomatic victories in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. It resulted from complex technical negotiations that do not lend themselves to snappy slogans. Nevertheless, at its heart, the agreement’s simple bargain has made the world safer.
The JCPOA, which is often depicted as a deal between America and Iran, is actually the result of a multi-sided conversation, including Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and a representative of the European Union. Keeping all these countries on board presented Iran with a united international front, preventing it from playing into great power proxy conflicts.
The agreement cuts off all possible pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. It prohibits Iran from acquiring or stockpiling weapons grade uranium and scraps the excess centrifuge capacity Iran would need to do enrichment itself. The deal commits Iran to redesign its Arak nuclear reactor, preventing the production of weapons grade plutonium or tritium. It halts the development of further facilities that could do so.
But what if Iran only pretends to comply and moves forward with developing the Bomb anyway? The agreement foresaw this possibility and established the most robust ever international inspections regime. To start up its nuclear weapons program again, Iran would have to expel or block the work of the inspectors, which would raise immediate red flags. This would give the world at least a year to respond before Iran would have sufficient material to build a bomb.
The JCPOA was welcomed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council. Should Iran step out of line—or any other country help it to do so—they could face the array of punitive measures available to the Security Council, from sanctions to military action.
In short, the deal closed off all routes to an Iranian bomb, posted checkpoints on all roads leading toward it, and committed the entire world to making sure no traffic moves that way. Since the JCPOA went into effect January of last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s compliance six times. When the IAEA has spotted minor technical violations, Iran has made rapid corrections.
Given how comprehensively the JCPOA has shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program, what was in it for them? It eased nuclear-related sanctions on Iran that were having a debilitating effect on its economy and improved relations with the rest of the world.
Some commentators feel uncomfortable with reducing the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, given its human rights record and history of hostility to its neighbors. But the deal allows the United States to maintain non-nuclear-related sanctions on Iran to punish ballistic missile development, human rights abuses, and supporting terrorism. Social scientific research on sanctions shows that blanket isolation—rather than tying measures to specific behavior—does little to change a state’s actions. In fact, it leaves them with little to lose.
Unfortunately, certain political interests in both Iran and the United States are spoiling for a fight, causing a cascade of irresponsible decisions in the last month. Hardliners in Iran’s security establishment would love to wreck the deal. Iran recent ballistic missile test, while technically allowed by the agreement, certainly violated its spirit.
During his presidential campaign, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE disparaged the JCPOA. Islamophobic cabinet members seem eager for a military confrontation. They championed the illegal Muslim ban that tried to block Iranians from entering the United States, including an infant needing heart surgery and an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. Trump has imposed new sanctions and tweeted that “Iran is playing with fire.” He has also vowed to restart the nuclear arms race, which would violate the very Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that banned Iran from seeking the bomb.
House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wisc.) recently offered tepid support for maintaining the JCPOA. But we must mobilize support for the deal and take a strong stand against irresponsible, goading rhetoric. The deal’s collapse would unravel a proven system is preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
More fundamentally, as the doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight, we need to rethink the place of nuclear weapons in our security policy. There is growing international recognition that nuclear weapons are unnecessary for national defense, prohibitively expensive, and prone to terrifying accidents. Given the potential for catastrophic humanitarian consequences, the majority of the world’s countries have agreed to negotiate a global treaty outlawing nuclear weapons this year. Here in the America, legislators are seeking to prevent the United States from launching a nuclear first strike.
Maintaining the Iran deal is crucial for our safety, but we must also address the risks posed by our own nuclear weapons and those of other nuclear-armed states. Ending the threat of the bomb will take creative advocacy and nuanced diplomacy, not belligerent posturing.
Matthew Bolton, Ph.D., is associate chairman of political science at Pace University in New York City. He is an expert on the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy, and addressed the U.N. General Assembly First Committee in 2013. He previously served as an aid worker in Iraq, Bosnia, Haiti, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda.
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