Iran and JCPOA: The deal that aimed to save the Middle East from a nuclear attack but refused to fight for human rights
As the President of the United States Joe Biden continues unsuccessful negotiations regarding the return to the nuclear deal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deal, the world is left wondering about the effect these re-negotiations might have on international politics.(1) The United States had previously signed this deal together with the other United Nations Security Council permanent members and Germany, which are known as P5+1, and Iran as a part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) programme regarding negotiations about limiting Iran’s usage of nuclear power.(2) However, the United States withdrew in 2018 under the Trump administration due to susceptions of Iran not adhering to the agreements set out in the original JCPOA deal.(3) Hereby, the United States began the maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which renewed all previously-halted sanctions on Iran.(4) Responding to this, Iran has resumed some of the actions agreed to be halted under the JCPOA.(5)
Yet, the situation is troubling not only from the perspective of Iran’s holding of the nuclear power or international law agreements. The discussions surrounding JCPOA have also raised concerns from the international community regarding the fact that while President Biden continues to negotiate with Iran, the Iranian society is left suffering from government-led human rights abuses and discrimination, which have not been addressed in the 2015 deal.
This article will inquire more into the aforementioned situation. It will begin with a summary and analysis of the JCPOA deal, focusing specifically on its importance for the Middle Eastern region and the main motivations of the signatories. Secondly, human rights issues surrounding the execution of this deal will be analyzed by examining the role played by the United States through the years following the original ratification.
1) Samuel M. Hickey and Manuel Reinert, ‘What’s Iran’s Nuclear Deal?’ (War on the Rocks, August 31, 2021) <https://warontherocks.com/2021/08/whats-irans-nuclear-deal/> accessed September 6, 2021.
2) Arms Control Association, ‘The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance’ (Arms Control Association, July, 2021) <https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/JCPOA-at-a-glance> accessed September 6, 2021.
3) Kali Robinson, ‘What Is The Iran Nuclear Deal?’ (Council on Foreign Relations, August 18, 2021) <https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal> accessed September 6, 2021.
4) ibid (n 1).
5) ‘Iran resumes enriching uranium to 20% purity at Fordo facility’ (BBC News, January 4, 2021) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-55530366> accessed September 6, 2021.
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
The main motivation of the P5+1 to begin negotiations with Iran to compose the JCPOA lies in the desire to halt the nuclear program previously pursued by Iran.(6) Before the deal, Iran was producing great amounts of nuclear content, which, allegedly, could have been used in the instance of a military conflict to create a nuclear weapon.(7) At the time, countries in the region began installing precautionary programs in case this situation escalated further.(8) Israel began a series of militant measures and operations (that continue to this day) surrounding the nuclear facilities in the Iranian territory in order to ensure regional safety.(9) The Syrian government was planning to follow with similar actions.(10)
The P5+1 believed that having a nuclear deal could prevent Iran from creating nuclear weapons. The deal comprised of agreements that in return for the suspension of the nuclear activity – including non-production of highly enriched nuclear contents, ensuring that the nuclear plants would be used for a civilian activity or research only and limitations of centrifuges that can operate in those nuclear plans – the other signatory countries would relieve sanctions placed on Iran in the past.(11) The mentioned sanctions included those on export, weapons and others, except those related to Iran’s support of terrorist groups and human rights abuses.(12) Also, the US agreed to relieve sanctions on the exportation of oil.(13) All of these agreements also followed the decision on the monitoring program on Iran, which would be done by the
6) ibid (n 3).
7) ibid (n 3).
8) Kunal Singh, ‘The Limits of Military Coercion in Halting Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Programme’ (ORF, August 6, 2021) <https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-limits-of-military-coercion-in-halting-irans-nuclear-weapons programme/> accessed September 6, 2021.
9) Raz Zimmit, ‘Israeli Campaign to Stop Iran’s Nuclear Program’ (The Iran Primer, July 15, 2020) <https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/jul/15/israeli-campaign-stop-irans-nuclear-program> accessed September 6, 2021.
10) ibid (n 8).
11) ibid (n 3).
12) ibid (n 3).
13) ibid (n 3).
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly.(14) Hereby, the United Nations also agreed to lift the ban on transferring weapons and ballistic missiles if the IAEA reports showed that Iran was complying with the JCPOA. The exact negotiations for this deal continued for two years before it was finally signed in 2015.(15)
Signatories after announcing the agreement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015.(16)
Although preliminary agreements have been met and the signatories fulfilled their promises regarding the sanctions, the JCPOA has been followed by unsuccess. After the US withdrew, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom launched a barter system INSTEX to continue some of the promises made to Iran.(17) However, in response, the Iranian government began exceeding previously agreed nuclear limits upon the alleged breaches of the deal from the P5+1. 2020 has also been marked by further actions from Iran after the US killed the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.(18)
Iranian human rights in the light of United States withdrawal
14) International Atomic Energy Agency, ‘Verification and Monitoring in Iran’ (IAEA) <https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iran> accessed September 6, 2021.
15) ibid (n 3).
16) Steve Carmody, ‘Michigan’s congressional delegation split on nuclear deal with Iran’ (Michigan Radio, July 14, 2015) <https://www.michiganradio.org/post/michigans-congressional-delegation-split-nuclear-deal-iran> accessed September 6, 2021.
17) Agence France-Presse, ‘Six European Countries Join Barter System for Iran Trade’ (VOA, November 30, 2019) < https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/six-european-countries-join-barter-system-iran-trade> accessed September 6, 2021.
18) Emma Graham-Harrison, ‘Iran steps up nuclear plans as tensions rise on the anniversary of Soulemani’s killing’ (The Guardian, January 3, 2021) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/03/iran-nuclear-plans-tensions anniversary-qassem-suleimani-killing> accessed September 6, 2021.
When the negotiations regarding the nuclear deal started around 2009, the Western parties of the JCPOA were primarily concerned with ways that could drive the process further in the fastest way. This was especially true for the administration of the United States President Barack Obama19, who was still holding office at the time of negotiations. A great number of Iranians considered the lack of attention to human rights problems during the negotiations as ‘Western abandonment’. Barack Obama himself did not engage in stark criticism of the regime, suspected due to unwillingness to jeopardize any agreements in the future.(20)
By 2013, Iran had a new president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned for increased political tolerance and nuclear transparency.(21) Since the JCPOA was still under negotiations by the start of Rouhani’s presidency, there have been numerous suggestions for the United States to negotiate the nuclear agreement based on the model of the Helsinki Accord and include human rights in it.22 However, this plan was abandoned again due to the wish to close the nuclear deal as soon as possible. Instead, the Western countries continued to hope that somehow the JCPOA would naturally foster more political transparency, which, in turn, would lead to less human rights abuses and more respect for human freedoms.(23)
In reality, all of these desires of the West were unattainable. From 2015, the year that the JCPOA was adopted, the Iranian Islamist regime increased the repressions on social groups that could be connected to the Western liberalization movement,(24) for example, women’s rights activism groups or those advocating for various civil freedoms.(25) The repressions include arbitrary arrests, murders, torture and a number of other degrading treatments.(26) Overall, Iranian society has been deprived of a number of freedoms, including freedom of the press, internet, peaceful assembly, and education.(27) Discrimination is also a big issue in Iranian society,
19) Wang Xiyue, ‘Don’t Let Iran’s Human Rights Be Sacrificed At The Altar Of A Nuclear Deal’, (Hoover Institution, March 9, 2021) <https://www.hoover.org/research/dont-let-irans-human-rights-be-sacrificed-altar nuclear-deal> accessed September 6, 2021.
21) ‘Hassan Rouhani wins Iran Presidential election’, (BBC News, June 15, 2013) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22916174> accessed September 6, 2021.
22) ibid (n 20).
23) ibid (n 20).
24) Tzvi Kahn and Alireza Nader, ‘The JCPOA Has Not Improved Iran’s Human Rights Record’ (FDD, May 8, 2020) <https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2020/05/08/jcpoa-not-improved-irans-human-rights-record/> accessed September 6, 2021.
26) Iran Action Group, ‘Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities’ (United States Department of State) <https://am.usembassy.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/92/286410.pdf> accessed September 6, 2021. 27 Freedom House, ‘Iran: Freedom in the World 2021’ (Freedom House) <https://freedomhouse.org/country/iran/freedom-world/2021> accessed September 6, 2021.
where religious and cultural minorities are deprived of their rights.28 The same holds true for the LGBTQ+ community.29
These abuses intensified in 2018 when President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, returned the sanctions on Iran and imposed preconditions for a new deal.30 Yet, none of these measures addressed the need to end human rights abuses. Although it has been 3 years since the United States withdrawal, the country has not yet ended the cycle of new negotiations or returned to JCPOA.31 The newly elected American President Joe Biden made it his mission to restore the nuclear deal and called out not only the need to strengthen it but, finally, highlighted the need for inclusion of human rights topics into the final agreement.32 The talks surrounding the revival of the JCPOA deal have continued in 2021, and by September there have already been six rounds of negotiations.33 The situation is further hindered by the transitioning American-sceptic Iranian government and President Biden having to deal with domestic issues.34 However, it is still debatable what approach would be most suitable for a new deal that would deter the regime from human rights abuses as well as make it agree on the nuclear program.
30) ibid (n 20).
31) ibid (n 20).
32) ibid (n 20).
33) Ali Harb, ‘Iran nuclear deal: What’s next for the JCPOA?’ (Al Jazeera, September 3, 2021) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/3/iran-nuclear-deal-whats-next-for-the-jcpoa> accessed September 6, 2021.
It is clear that the West has a crucial role in helping the Iranian society escape the repression and torture of the Iranian Islamist government. However, only by adding increasing tension and pressure on Iran can this be done. Yet, it is debatable to what extent should the pressure be put in order not to deter the Iranian representatives from the deal completely. What this means for Iranian society is that the politics behind the deal push the deadline for the end of torture further.