Iran and JCPOA

You all know that yesterday Iran announced that it would further decrease its observation of JCPOA-mandated limits on its nuclear program:

Tehran, Jan 5, IRNA – Iranian cabinet in a statement on Sunday announced the country’s decision to take the final step to reduce commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The cabinet said Iran will observe no restrictions in operational areas, including enrichment capacities, enrichment percentage, the volume of enriched material as well as research.

The cabinet further stated in its statement that as the fifth step to reduce its commitments, Iran will abandon the last key restriction in the operation field put up in the JCPOA literally “the limitations in the number of centrifuges”.

I shan’t speculate on Iran’s next move, but it’s safe to say that, since this past May, Tehran’s been re-visiting its playbook from 2005 and 2006 when, shortly after the election of President Ahmadinejad, the government gradually resumed nuclear activities that it had suspended pursuant to Iran’s 2003 and 2004 agreements with the E3. During that time, Iran also stopped implementing its additional protocol and other transparency measures contained in the aforementioned agreements with the E3. The point is that, although Iran has been complying with all of its JCPOA-related monitoring and inspection requirements, there is precedent for Tehran to decrease such compliance.

Perhaps Iran will go that route, but doing so risks provoking one or all of the P4+1 into supporting an UNSCR 2231 snapback resolution. Those countries may currently be reluctant to take this step if they value Iranian implementation of the aforementioned monitoring and inspection measures, as well as other constraints (such as those in Section T); a snapback resolution could obviously tank Iranian cooperation with those measures. For its part, Iran argues that Tehran is observing fewer JCPOA restrictions because the E3 hasn’t done enough to blunt the impact of the reimposed U.S. sanctions. But despite the sanctions, Iran still gets some benefits from remaining in the agreement, such as the international legal legitimacy of its nuclear program and the end of the prohibition on importing weapons.

So both sides have an incentive to avoid a snapback resolution and remain in the agreement. Having said that, the situation is plainly volatile. I will display penetrating insight into the glaringly obvious by noting that, despite the incentives for Iran to continue its JCPOA participation and also avoid snapback, the government’s propensity to push boundaries seems at least a function of the Iranian political system’s tolerance. Put another way, domestic political opinion may change the government’s cost/benefit analysis and result in Iranian actions that will truly result in the JCPOA’s demise.

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