It was a crowning diplomatic achievement. After negotiating assiduously for many years, the parties managed to resolve the perilous conflict over the Iranian nuclear programme by concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, also known informally as the nuclear agreement with Iran. The E3+3 and Iran signed the agreement on 14 July 2015. In return for Iran accepting strict technical conditions and continuous transparency controls on its nuclear activities, the agreement provides for an easing of the sanctions imposed on the country by the United Nations, the EU and the United States. Should Iran be in serious breach of the agreement, however, these sanctions can quickly be re‑imposed.
The JCPOA entered into force on 16 January 2016 and was implemented successfully at first. It also remains an important element of the global non‑proliferation architecture and helps to promote security in the Middle East and to foster European and global security. Until mid‑2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) repeatedly confirmed in its quarterly reports that Iran was adhering to the JCPOA undertakings. Iran also benefited from the agreement. Sanctions were eased, as arranged, and the country’s economy grew.
The JCPOA in crisis
On 8 May 2018, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA. Since then, the US has no longer taken part in any meeting of the JCPOA participants. Moreover, it has re‑imposed its previously suspended sanctions against Iran and gradually enforced further restrictive measures. Many of these measures are secondary sanctions, which also affect Iran’s trading partners in third countries.
Since 1 July 2019, Iran has gradually dropped its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA by increasing the production of low‑enriched uranium, raising the enrichment level to up to 4.5%, abandoning the agreed limits for research and development on advanced centrifuges, recommencing uranium enrichment at the underground plant in Fordow and announcing that its enrichment programme is no longer subject to any restrictions whatsoever.
In August and September 2020, the US attempted to trigger the snapback mechanism, that is, the process for re‑imposing comprehensive UN sanctions against Iran, in the UN Security Council. However, the vast majority of the members of the UN Security Council, including the remaining JCPOA participants, rejected this step by the US as legally invalid because the US had withdrawn from the agreement in 2018.
Attempts to settle the dispute
The German Government is continuing to work with its partners from France and the UK to preserve the JCPOA as it stands and to ensure it is fully implemented. To this end, they established INSTEX in February 2019, a special purpose vehicle intended to make it possible to engage in legitimate trade with Iran despite the re‑imposition of US sanctions. Further European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden) have also joined INSTEX. The first transaction was made in March 2020.
In January 2020, Germany, France and the UK activated the JCPOA’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism in response to Iran’s discontinuation of its obligations under the agreement. In July 2020, Iran also activated the Dispute Resolution Mechanism, arguing that other participants were not meeting their obligations under the JCPOA. In his capacity as coordinator of the JCPOA Joint Commission, EU High Representative Josep Borrell extended the deadline for the subsequent talks in both cases.
What are the key elements of the JCPOA?
Between July 2015 and January 2016, Iran had six months after the conclusion of the agreement to significantly scale back its nuclear programme. Since that time, the programme has been subject to strict constraints. In particular, Iran undertook to:
- dismantle two‑thirds of its centrifuges
- export almost all of its stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia
- render the core of the plutonium reactor in Arak unusable
- use only 5060 first‑generation centrifuges in the Natanz plant to enrich uranium for the next ten years
- restrict its uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent for a period of 15 years
- stockpile no more than 300 kilograms of low‑enriched uranium (uranium hexafluoride) in the country at any time
- stop using the underground plant in Fordow to enrich uranium
- convert the research reactor in Arak so that it cannot be used to make weapons‑grade plutonium
- refrain from activities connected with spent fuel reprocessing for a period of 15 years
- submit to the strictest IAEA controls in the world and provisionally apply the IAEO’s Additional Protocol
- conduct future trade in nuclear technology and dual‑use goods via an internationally monitored Procurement Channel under the control of the United Nations Security Council.
Implementation of the JCPOA
Representatives of the E3/EU+2 and Iran usually meet once every quarter at the level of Political Director or Deputy Foreign Minister in the Joint Commission, which is chaired by the Secretary‑General of the European External Action Service and where they discuss the implementation and interpretation of the JCPOA. The IAEA monitors the technical restrictions and presents its findings in quarterly reports, which are discussed by the IAEA Board of Governors. It remains crucial that the IAEA continue its detailed monitoring and verification and that the Joint Commission carry on its dialogue on all issues concerning implementation of the JCPOA. To date, Germany has provided approximately five million euro to the IAEA to verify the JCPOA and previously to verify the Geneva Joint Plan of Action of November 2013.
The Procurement Channel is a new international export‑control instrument. Under the JCPOA, the export of nuclear technology and dual‑use goods to Iran is subject to a special export control regime. In addition to the requirement for a national export licence, exporting countries must secure approval from the UN Security Council. The E3/EU+2 and Iranian Joint Commission Procurement Working Group reviews incoming export applications and makes recommendations on them to the Security Council. The UN Security Council generally follows these recommendations, but may pass a resolution to reject a particular application.