JCPOA – a Trap, a Tool, or Something Else?

From the beginning, nuclear issues in Iran have always gathered plenty of international media debate. In retrospect, it is clear that the nuclear deal with Iran had very little chance of being revived and one should remain wary of another wave of media hype in the future. From 1992, Europe and Iran were engaged in a dialogue—first labeled as ‘critical’, then as ‘comprehensive’. The extraordinary circumstances and exceptional type personalities that led the negotiation process, drafting and ultimately signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) may simply not reoccur again. JCPOA, as such, was a short-lived deal that turned out to be a trap and a tool, simultaneously. Yet, if Iran’s security environment deteriorates, it could in fact become a lockpick for Tehran.

The Tool

The JCPOA could morph into a different, lesser, larger, or partial, form of agreement at some point, as the International Crisis Group wrote. Anything less, however, than the JCPOA itself would most probably be acceptable only in extremely extraordinary circumstances and would rather not become the new status quo, as the United States (U.S.) would most likely aim at achieving ultimately more. A larger agreement would in turn not be acceptable for Iran, as the JCPOA’s fundamentals rest merely on the nuclear issue, sanctions relief, and weapons embargo. Expecting anything more than that would mean ipso facto opening the path to regime change in Iran. Any partial ad-hoc deal could satisfy Iran, E3 (France, Germany and the UK) and the European Union (EU), but trust issues would remain and endanger the small gain, as this would not convince Iran to limit its nuclear program. It is thus clear that the ultimate purpose of the JCPOA, as a tool, is to deliver more than less, so it became a means to force Iran to comply with the U.S., E3 and IAEA expectations and conditions. Iran could agree to deliver more on the nuclear issue for nothing much more than the JCPOA basics, but only if it found itself in a dire situation—and Tehran is still far from it. The U.S. and E3, on the other hand, also will rather not be at any time soon forced to accept giving more for the same set of JCPOA provisions. One could think that, well, the JCPOA became a trap for Iran, but the problem is that it is most likely not a trap just for Tehran exclusively.

The Trap

Until the JCPOA morphs into something entirely new, it remains a trap (Malley’s? Trump’s?) for all its signatories. The E3 and the U.S. are not able to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so. A military operation aimed at knocking out Iran’s nuclear program would most likely result only in slowing it down, degrading, but not stopping. It is too late for that and the only option for the U.S. to secure the region is to advance the Abraham Accords and support intra-regional balancing pacts that would aim at countering Tehran. Iran, in turn, has no incentive to stop or limit its nuclear program, even if there would be a lesser or ad-hoc deal. The only thing the signatories can now do is to: 1) wait and see whether Iran will choose to demonstrate the acquisition or to keep it secret; 2) wait for the right set of global and regional conditions which would force either Iran or the U.S., IAEA and E3 to change their positions; or 3) wait to see regime change in Iran before it builds a nuclear warhead that would be deliverable with a ballistic missile (a warhead with 60 percent enriched material cannot). The core problem of the trap is that everyone in it has to wait, leaving only one possible way out: to act. One could therefore expect that now Iran’s adversaries will focus on destabilizing the Iranian regime until the conditions would be ripe either for military escalation or diplomatic rapprochement. Pretending that some negotiations are still ongoing and that there is no reason to abandon diplomatic efforts, because there is no proof that Iran does or does not have an atomic bomb (or is ready to have one, if needed), is also still a viable option. At least for a while. The trap’s lock can be, however, picked by Iran in two ways.

The Lockpick

Iran can at some point in the future pick the trap’s lock without actually limiting its nuclear program. Tehran could do it in at least two ways, or more, but let us focus specifically on just the two. In the first scenario, once the succession in Iran will become a fact, instability and lack of security could propel Tehran to re-engage in negotiations. Iran could then offer to open a new chapter, giving way to some concessions in exchange for an interim or ad-hoc deal. By that time Iran would have not built an atomic bomb, but limiting its nuclear program and accepting IAEA’s conditions would allow the regime’s new leadership to tighten its control over the state apparatus and society. This could, however, also result in another regime change. In the second scenario, Iran decides to produce nuclear warheads and demonstrates possession. This would likely set off the whole region in pursuance of nuclear weapons, even if only covertly. And this would reshape NATO’s view on the Southern Flank. What would Turkey do in such circumstances begs the question. For Iran, this scenario would most likely not result in regime change, unless Iranian power elites (silovarchs) decide to trade nuclear disarmament for a far-reaching, but not ultimate, normalization with the West.


No one knows whether the JCPOA will turn out to be a tool to reach a new or different agreement; a trap from which there will be no escape and the negotiations will drag on for years; or if it will just prevent Europe and the U.S. from helping Iran in acquiring nuclear weapons. The JCPOA was, however, a success and one of the few that could produce so many different outcomes. Yet, stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state seems rather unlikely. From the European and U.S. perspective, most probably, only regime change could create grounds for rapprochement—regardless of before or after Iran acquires nuclear weapons (in the latter case, disarmament might not necessarily be a sine qua non condition, if the political change is profound). But for now, with Iran waiting for the U.S. demise, the JCPOA is dead. Maybe it was meant to be short-lived? From my perspective, Tehran’s betting on a larger, perhaps global, conflict that would tear U.S. dominance apart (remember the British Empire) is in turn rather short-sighted. Tehran’s dream of seeing a falling empire might ultimately change the long-dead JCPOA not into a trap, tool or lockpick, but something far more dangerous—a missed chance. There is no guarantee that anyone from Europe or the U.S. would call Tehran in 10 or 15 years and offer restoring ties, nor that Iranian hydrocarbons will remain that important. If the old world can slip into oblivion, Iran could be dragged with it, too, as it is still part of it.