What Does Iran’s Threatened Withdrawal from the 2015 Nuclear Agreement Mean for U.S.-Iranian Tensions?

What Does Iran’s Threatened Withdrawal from the 2015 Nuclear Agreement Mean for U.S.-Iranian Tensions?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran will begin to reduce its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if the remaining members observing the deal fail to ease the weight of U.S. sanctions. European efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions have thus far rendered insufficient results due to the overwhelming economic pressure of the U.S. measures. Europe’s apparent rejection of the withdrawal suggests that the European members are not convinced that Iran will follow-through with its threatened action. Iran’s tensions with the U.S., however, will ostensibly continue to escalate. In early May, U.S. officials sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region to deter Tehran from taking aggressive action against U.S. interests abroad. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) have also been identified as having facilitated attacks that damaged four tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on May 12th, 2019. Tensions will continue to amplify as pressure from U.S. sanctions leaves Iran with minimal economic recourse to salvage its energy markets until both states can find a resolution.

On May 8th 2019, a year after the United States (U.S.) withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran will begin to reduce its compliance with the deal if the remaining members fail to find a solution to its continued losses due to decrease in trade1. Up to this point Iran has abided by the terms of the JCPOA, but sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in December 2018, and its recent move to cancel waivers for countries trading oil with Iran as part of a ‘maximum pressure’ approach, have placed substantial strain on the Iranian economy23.  

European efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions have failed to ease the economic burden imposed on the Iranian economy. In its announcement, Tehran demanded that Europe compensate for economic casualties or it will increase its stockpiles of low enriched uranium and heavy water. Europe, for its part, subsequently rejected President Rouhani’s demands and urged restraint, noting that an announcement on its own does not constitute an official withdrawal from the deal4.

Iran’s proposed withdrawal from the JCPOA comes at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations are particularly contentious. In addition to the canceled waivers, in April 2019 the U.S. government designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), an unusual classification considering that the law guiding FTO classification has long been interpreted as designated for non-state actors and not for another state’s duly-constituted military branch5. Iran responded in kind by designating the U.S. military a terrorist organization just hours after the U.S. declaration.  

During the May 3rd weekend, U.S. officials unexpectedly sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, to the Persian Gulf region to deter Iran from taking aggressive action against U.S. interests. National Security Advisor John Bolton stated that the move was made in response to ‘a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings’ of potential Iranian retaliation to U.S. sanctions. The New York Times reported that the threat appears to be targeted at the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Iranian-patrolled waters around the Persian Gulf. Reprisal from Iran could come in the form of aggression by one of Iran’s proxies, the IRGC, or a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz which represents one of the world’s most crucial geoeconomic chokepoints. An admiral with the IRGC publicly stated that if sanctions render the strait unusable for Iran, they would close access to the strait with the intention of disrupting global energy markets. Roughly two weeks later, multiple parties including the U.S. military and the Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual Risk Insurance Association (DNK) concluded that IRGC were “highly likely” to have been responsible for an attack that damaged four vessels traveling near the Strait of Hormuz. The attacks may not have been carried out directly by the IRGC but potentially a proxy such as the Yemeni Houthi rebel group, which has left shrapnel bearing similarity to that found from damage after previous attacks6.

The Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy is meant to bring Iran back to the table to negotiate a stricter nuclear agreement. In dissolving the deal, President Trump justified the withdrawal by citing Iran’s consistent support for terrorist organizations and involvement in proxy conflicts. Beyond current tensions, a renewed agreement would be complicated by the fact that the other signatories of the JCPOA remain committed to the deal. In the interim, as U.S. sanctions continue to mount pressure on Iran’s economy, U.S.-Iranian relations will remain tense until (and if) a solution is reached.

1.  Dagres, H. Iran Withdraws From Certain Aspects of the Nuclear Agreement. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-withdraws-from-certain-aspects-of-the-nuclear-agreement2.  America and Iran are on a collision course. (2019, May 8). Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/05/08/america-and-iran-are-on-a-collision-course
3.  Johnson, K. (2019, May 6). How Dangerous Are U.S.-Iran Tensions? Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/06/how-dangerous-are-u-s-iran-tensions/
4.  Tamma, P., Herszenhorn, D. M., Tamma, P., & Herszenhorn, D. M. (2019, May 8). European powers say they will stick with Iran nuclear deal. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://www.politico.eu/article/iran-europe-nuclear-united-states/
5.  Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Named Terrorist Group. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://mailchi.mp/thesoufancenter/irans-revolutionary-guard-corps-named-terrorist-group?e=a2d187c3ff
6.  Saul, J. (2019, May 17). Exclusive: Insurer says Iran's Guards likely to have organised... Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-iran-oil-tankers-exclusive/exclusive-insurer-says-irans-guards-likely-to-have-organised-tanker-attacks-idUKKCN1SN1OS 

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