The date Jan. 16 marks the third anniversary of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed on July 14, 2015. Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany were the signatories of the JCPOA. The agreement was a consequence of a decade-long diplomatic process and almost two-year-long negotiations. The deal promised the relief of sanctions against Iran in return for curtailing its nuclear activity and establishment of a strict monitoring regime.
The JCPOA was criticized by many including Israel and Saudi Arabia and U.S. President Donald Trump was one of the most vocal critics of the deal. Trump promised to abolish the agreement, even during his presidential campaign. Despite the criticism of diplomatic actors with the U.S. and the other signatories of the agreement, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and started to impose renewed sanctions against Iran. In mid-February, the U.S. is planning to organize a summit together with Poland in Warsaw to maximize the pressures on Iran. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent Middle East trip was a part of the preparation to the Warsaw meeting.Success story or failure?There is significant disagreement between the United States and the other signatories of the JCPOA on whether to maintain the agreement or not. The Trump administration wants to renegotiate the deal by imposing maximum pressure on Iran. Trump considers the Iran nuclear deal as the "worst deal ever," but nobody knows what will replace the deal. The Iranian regime believes that Trump's efforts are part of American plans for a regime change in Iran. Iran is in a more confusing situation, while they want to try to keep the agreement and maintain a distance between the U.S. and the other five signatories, they also are unhappy about their isolation.
It was expected that the agreement would also lead to the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between the West and Iran. More than three years have passed after the signing of the agreement and precisely three years after its implementation, but there are still disagreements over whether the deal can be considered a success story or an epic failure. There are various interpretations of the JCPOA; if we limit the definition of success in the agreement with just the limitation of Iran's nuclear activities, the deal may be considered a significant success story.
According to the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran complied with the terms of the agreement. Iran shipped out 98 percent of its enriched uranium; reduced its level of uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent. Iran also removed two-thirds of its installed centrifuges. The Arak heavy water reactor was also transformed into a different facility, and the Fordow enrichment plant was redesigned into a research facility. Concerning reducing and monitoring Iran's nuclear activities, the agreement can be considered a significant achievement.
The Iran nuclear deal was never just about the negotiation on reducing Iran's nuclear capabilities. Iran wanted to negotiate its relations with the international community, more specifically the Western countries along the JCPOA lines. Concerning the normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and the West, the agreement is an epic failure. Rather than returning diplomatic relations and establishing strong economic, social ties and building confidence with the West and its neighbors in the region, Iran tried to expand its regional ambitions. Iran invested the resources it gained from the agreement for its regional expansion rather than spending to improve the economic conditions and welfare of its citizens.
Regional ambitions after JCPOANormalization of relations between Iran and its neighbors in the region as well as the other Western actors was an expectation not written into the text of the agreement. It was expected that the moderate actors within Iran, including President Hasan Rouhani and reformists, would be gradually strengthened after the agreement. The Iranian people were also hopeful about the deal; especially the supporters of the reformers, who had high hopes about the strengthening of the Iranian economy and Iran's re-integration into the international system. Those expectations and hopes failed. The Iranian people are now faced with newer and harsher sanctions. Skeptics of the agreement in the West and the region were proven to be right as Iran used the resources and the international legitimacy it gained to expand further in the region. Iran used its resources in sponsoring its sectarian expansion in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran invested a lot of economic resources to keep the Assad regime in power within the Syrian civil war.
Iran's renewed regional ambitions after the JCPOA also triggered its counterforce, more hawkish actors took control in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Those actors formed their counter-alliance against Iran and tried to pressure the actors that choose to stay neutral in this sectarian polarization. Turkey and Qatar were the victims of such polarization, whereas Kuwait and Oman were concerned about such rising tensions in the region. As a neighbor of Iran, which had deep economic and cultural ties and strong trade relations, the relief of the sanctions also excited many actors in Turkey. The Turkish business community's and Turkish people's expectations about a new opening to Iran turned into disillusionment.
Regardless of the pressures from the U.S. and the other actors, Iran should try to normalize its relations within the region. No actors other than Israel benefits from polarization and fragmentation in the region. It is at the same time clear that it is not possible to reach holistic peace in the region without ensuring the security concerns of Israel. If Iran responds to Trump's moves in similar ways and withdraws from the JCPOA, it may be the loser in such a game. However, if Iran promises some credible steps to normalize its relations with its neighbors and other principal international actors and takes confidence-building steps, this may corner the hardliners in Washington. Post-deal diplomacy has proven to be more challenging because the signatories of the agreement never worked on altering the nature of their mutual relationships.