President Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the Iranian elections on May 19 was not only a clear victory for the country’s moderates, but also a win for global nuclear security. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, is the hallmark of Rouhani’s presidency and his reelection has, for the moment, protected his legacy. Despite Rouhani’s win, however, the nuclear deal faces significant challenges and is at risk of falling apart. Outside of Rouhani’s base, the JCPOA faces apathetic, or even hostile, political leaders, a misinformed public—both at home and abroad—and a weakened Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It is imperative that the deal be maintained to achieve a more stable Middle East and, ultimately, establish global nuclear security.
Within Iran, the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) perpetuate the idea of a revolutionary Iran, decrying the deal and fueling militias throughout the region. Outside of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia belittle the deal as little more than a delay in the path to an Iranian bomb, while the current United States government is apathetic to the JCPOA at best. But the JCPOA is more than just an Iran-United States, or even Middle East, issue and these governments ought to shift their focus to maintaining the deal intact.
The notion of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons sparks fears of a nuclear arms race, or all-out war in the Middle East, and puts the entire region on edge. For example, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s primary regional rival, has been accused of ordering nuclear weapons from Pakistan in response to Iran’s nuclear progress under former President Ahmadinejad’s administration. And Israel, which has long held a policy of strategic opacity with regard to its nuclear arsenal, has made it clear that it is willing to conduct unilateral strikes against Iran to curtail its nuclear activities. Israel has shown its willingness to act unilaterally: Israeli air strikes destroyed Syria’s principal research facility when the Syrian Assad regime was accused of using the site to develop nuclear weapons. Given the region’s volatility, the JCPOA is well positioned to be a stabilizing force. By limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, the deal removes incentives for Iran’s neighbors to acquire nuclear weapons themselves, or start a preventative war.
Beyond the Middle East, the JCPOA demonstrates that the NPT, the authority that supports the nuclear deal, is still a relevant and functioning framework for controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. Since entering into force in 1970, the NPT has served as the primary international mechanism to enforce nuclear nonproliferation through its enforcement arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The nuclear deal represents an alternative path to that of North Korea, which had been testing the strength of the NPT for years, finally withdrawing in 2003 and proceeding to develop nuclear weapons at an accelerating pace. Iran, on the other hand, remained within the Treaty framework, albeit insisting that its program was for civilian use only. After a period of rising tensions during Ahmadinejad’s administration, caused by economic hardship from falling oil prices and Western sanctions, and electoral disputes from the contentious 2009 election, newly elected President Rouhani initiated talks with the United Nation’s P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany). The months of often tedious sessions ultimately resulted in the JCPOA in July 2015.
The most important aspects of the deal are the mandate that the IAEA take the lead on inspections and that Iran adopt the additional protocol to the Treaty, which gives IAEA inspectors the most thorough access to nuclear sites in order to detect potential weapons proliferation. This is, above all, why the nuclear deal must be upheld to fulfill its terms. North Korea’s withdrawal is one direct challenge to the treaty, and the so-called ban treaty, poses yet another. Currently under negotiation by 115 non-nuclear states, including Austria, Mexico, Argentina, and Switzerland, the ban treaty risks becoming a competing framework to the NPT, further weakening it by presenting the potential for a ban treaty country to claim immunity from international inspections due to their participation in an alternate framework. Ensuring the JCPOA’s success will strengthen the Treaty. Its success illustrates that diplomacy and inspections can successfully limit nuclear weapons without resorting to a grandiose ban treaty.
It is also crucial that the general public understands the gravity of the nuclear deal; that it is a global nuclear security issue and not just a so-called “bad deal” with an “unfriendly” country. By the terms of the JCPOA itself, the deal is succeeding: the IAEA and US Secretary of State Tillersonconfirmed that Iran is in full compliance with the terms of the agreement. Yet, both the Iranian hardline establishment and current US government seem to be waiting for it to fail. In the United States, news coverage highlights the IRGC’s nefarious activities and the anti-American rhetoric of the Supreme Leader, rather than focusing on the successes of the deal. To ensure the JCPOA does not fail, governments must garner public support by raising awareness of the fact that the deal is indeed effective, despite Washington and Iranian hardliner’s attitudes.
To sustain the agreement, the court of public opinion matters, but so do regional stakeholders. The UN could bring relevant stakeholders in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, into the inspection and verification processes, thus demonstrating that the IAEA is reliable and capable of holding Iran, and others, accountable. This would build the trust necessary to maintain nuclear security norms beyond the terms of the JCPOA itself, and to ensure that the agreement remains in force. Outside of regime change in Iran itself, positive public reinforcement and regional trust building will save the JCPOA and work to foster positive nuclear security. Maintaining the JCPOA is the best way to create positive peace in the Middle East. It is up to the international community, and moderates within Iran, to ensure that the JCPOA has a chance to live up to its expectations.
About the author: John Ashley is the Nuclear Security Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John received a Master of International Policy from the University of Georgia, where he concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation and international security.