Iran has not only irreversibly shredded the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but—much more worryingly—it has long been in violation of the original nuclear agreement: the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Rather than pursuing yet more unproductive diplomacy with Iran over the JCPOA, President Biden should focus on working with his European counterparts to push Iran back into NPT compliance, lest Tehran’s wanton disregard spell the beginning of the end of the world’s most successful arms control regime.
Since the treaty entered into force in 1970, more countries—190 total—have joined than any other arms control agreement ever, and none have attained nuclear weapons as a signatory. This effectiveness stems from a basic tradeoff: Parties gain access to peaceful nuclear technology in exchange for forgoing enrichment. Article IV speaks only of an “inalienable right to develop research, production and use” of peaceful nuclear energy, and this right is conditioned explicitly on not pursuing, transferring, or possessing nuclear explosive devices. The treaty also effectively ties this right to adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
However, Iran asserts an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium under the NPT, even as it has worked on a nuclear explosive device and failed repeatedly to comply with safeguards. These efforts and Tehran’s covert enrichment activities prompted inspectors to declare Iran in violation of the NPT in 2005. By 2010 the U.N. Security Council had imposed six resolutions, five of them legally binding, requiring Iran to suspend enrichment and come clean on its other NPT violations, including past development of a nuclear weapon. Tehran did no such thing, despite the IAEA issuing a lengthy 2011 report detailing Iran’s covert weapons program and its blocking of inspectors.
This formed the immediate backdrop to the JCPOA and the 2013 interim deal, which blessed Tehran’s self-proclaimed right to enrich and declared “Iran’s nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.” The JCPOA’s preamble even said the deal would “mark a fundamental shift” in the world’s treatment of Tehran’s nuclear program. Rather than actually compelling Tehran to address its NPT violations, the deal dismantled the legal case against Iran’s illegal nuclear activities. Accomplishing this entailed ending all Security Council sanctions on Iran, via a perfunctory roadmap that failed to address the 2011 report or confirm the peaceful civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear activities. The JCPOA nevertheless took effect in January 2016.