Disentangling the complex past, present and future of the Iran nuclear deal

By Thomas Kelsall and Kelly Hughes  | @Thomas_Kelsall @KellyHughes96

In light of United States President Donald Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, relations between Iran and the US have reached a new low.

The decision comes as the Middle East’s ‘Cold War’ continues to grow between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and there are renewed fears a catastrophic conflict could break out between the regional powers.

But why are the US and Iran at odds? Why was the Iran nuclear deal so important? Why was President Trump so eager to get out of it and what does this mean for the future?

The answers to these questions are nuanced and contentious, but understanding them requires contextual knowledge about Iran’s history, as well as modern day

History of US-Iran relations


National Review
Former Iranian President Mohammad Mossadegh with supporters in Tehran, 1951.
Image Source: National Review

The contemporary tensions between the US and Iran can be traced all the way back to the 1950s.

Historically, Iran was of major importance to British oil companies and America’s strategic interests in the Cold War.

In 1952, secular nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh was democratically re-elected Prime Minister after his initial appointment to the position by the Shah of Iran in 1951.

Mossadegh was an economic populist and began a sweeping program of economic reforms.

He outlawed forced labour, ensured workers received benefits while sick, injured or unemployed, and taxed landowners to create a fund for public utilities and services.

Mossadegh was also a firm supporter of religious freedom, women’s rights, and the independence of universities and courts.

However, Mossadegh’s reformist agenda went too far after he nationalised Iran’s oil fields.

In 1950, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC)—the precursor to what is now BP—had over 450 oil wells in Iran, including the world’s biggest oil refinery in Abadan.

The British Government had a 51 per cent share in AIOC’s profits, and the company had been extracting oil from Iran for over 40 years, exporting an estimated 338 million tons of oil from the country.

With such large quantities of oil at stake, Mossadegh’s decision in 1951 to bring the oil fields under national control sparked a huge diplomatic row.

Britain decided to boycott Iranian oil sales and refused to transport their oil to countries around the world, creating an economic crisis for Mossadegh to deal with.

This gave the Shah a chance to remove Mossadegh from office, but three days of rioting against this power grab forced the Shah to reappoint Mossadegh.

The US—concerned by Iran’s flirtations with the Soviet Union—decided to team up with Britain to overthrow Mossadegh and put the western-friendly Shah back in power.

Recently declassified documents reveal the CIA’s role in the coup: funding fake protests and a persistent campaign of propaganda to destabilise the country into chaos.

The Shah would rule Iran for the next 26 years.

The rule of the monarchy was brutal and repressive.

The former Iranian intelligence agency, the SAVAK, ruthlessly crushed dissent and kept the population in control.

Iran also developed a very westernised economy and cultural model, creating resentment between the regime and Islam.

The Shah was a long-standing friend of the west, and Iran-US relations reached a high point in the 1960s and 70s as the two countries developed a strong and mutually-beneficial military alliance.

But the Iranian Revolution of 1979 changed everything

Clerical opposition to the monarchy as well as general economic dissatisfaction and anti-imperialist sentiment, spilt over into mass protests on the streets.

In part due to the Shah’s inability to deal with the problem, the monarchy was overthrown and a new Islamic Republic was formed under the supreme leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The new system was just as or nearly as repressive as the first, with the key difference being Iran’s negative foreign relations with the US, which culminated in the Iranian hostage crisis.

In October 1979, US President Jimmy Carter decided to give the ousted Shah political asylum, sparking huge protests outside the US embassy in Tehran.

The mob of protesters eventually stormed the embassy and took 66 US citizens hostage, later reduced to 52 under the Ayatollah’s orders.

This was the beginning of a 444-day diplomatic row which still influences US-Iran relations to this day.

President Carter exercised several options to get the hostages back.

Diplomatic negotiations failed, a covert military rescue ended in disaster after eight American servicemen and one Iranian citizen were killed, and freezing all Iranian assets held in US banks was also unsuccessful.

Domestic opinion in the US was fiercely opposed to Iran and saw President Carter’s actions as weak, while the hostage crisis strengthened Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule as well as the legitimacy of his theocratic and anti-American agenda.

The hostages were released hours after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President, after the countries had come to terms on lifting an Iranian trade embargo.

The events between 1979 and 1981 permanently scarred US-Iran relations.

In 1988, a US navy ship in Iranian waters shot down an Iran Air flight and killed 290 people on board.

This event quickly served to recreate the atmosphere around the hostage crisis as many Iranians thought the attack was purposeful and a US invasion was inevitable.

Relations were seemingly thawing after the events of 9/11, as Iran offered support for the capturing of al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan.

But President George W Bush’s 2002 State of the Union famously labelled Iran as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’, once again entrenching hostile mentalities in each nation.

It was not until President Barack Obama entered office that US-Iranian relations would reach a breakthrough.

The Iran Nuclear Deal

Members of the JCPOA in 2015.
Image Source: ABC

A historical deal was struck in 2015 with Iran and the P5+1 powers (US, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany) to denuclearise and minimise the threat of conflict in Iran.

The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ended the 12-year standoff between the west and Iran over mounting concerns Tehran was becoming a nuclear-weapons state.

Iran argued their intents to build nuclear warheads were ‘peaceful’ but their activities were non-compliant with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and gave way to multinational talks that led to the P5+1 negotiation.

Iran agreed to curb their nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that had stifled their economy for decades.

The previous sanctions put immense limitations on Iran’soil revenue, financial institutions, imports and trade.

Under the terms of the new deal, any elements that could be used to make nuclear weapons in Iran were shipped out of the country.

In order to ensure Iran did not violate its agreement, the JCPOA installed highly-skilled atomic inspectors to check for illicit procurement and cheating.

The International Atomic Energy Agency were given complete access to Iran’s factories, military bases, underground sites and laboratories to monitor any suspicious behaviour.

The deal forced Iran to reduce its uranium by 98 per cent and limit its research and development of nuclear weapons for 15 years.


Iran reduced its nuclear production in exchange for economic sanction relief.
Image Source: Getty

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal not only had massive implications on Iranian citizens, but also radically changed the geopolitics of the Middle East.

For a resource-dependent country like Iran, sanctions relief was hugely beneficial in restoring a stable economy.

President Hassan Rouhani, generally considered a moderate reformist, was accepting of the Iran nuclear deal in the hopes of it restoring the living standards for many Iranians.

Why did the US pull out of the deal?

Contrary to the claims of the US and Israel, Iran has not violated any provisions of the nuclear deal.

Dismantling the JCPOA has been a long-time goal of President Trump, members of his administration and Congressional Republicans.

Trump labelled the Obama-era agreement “an embarrassment” and it was a constant policy during his presidential campaign.

Trump told his supporters in January he would leave the agreement unless permanent sanctions were put on Iran’s uranium enrichment.

Under the JCPOA, Iran was forced to limit enrichment for 15 years, which Trump believed was far too lax.

National Security Advisor John Bolton says pulling out of the deal was a better way to deal with Iran.

“The fact is the deal has been flawed from the beginning,” Mr Bolton told Fox News.

“He [President Trump] gave the Europeans and others a chance to fix it, it was not doable because the flaws go right to the foundations of the deal.

“It’s in our security interest to get out of this flawed deal… the objective should be to prevent Iran from getting deliverable nuclear weapons, the deal not only didn’t accomplish that objective, in many ways it facilitated Iran’s efforts.

“What President Trump did by pulling out of the deal is get back to what the real objective should be: stopping this dangerous regime from threatening us and our friends around the world with nuclear weapons.”

Mr Bolton has been one of the greatest critics of Iran and its nuclear deal.

His stance on Iran has been pessimistic, once calling for Iran to be bombed and that President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal was a ‘diplomatic waterloo’.

Co-founding Editor of The InterceptGlenn Greenwald wrote in 2015 about why Republicans have such a fundamental opposition to the agreement.

“As usual with neocons (neoconservatives), they are being deceitful about their actual intent,” Mr Greenwald said.

“They don’t want a ‘better deal’: at least not one that’s plausible, they want to keep Iran isolated and demonised and ultimately to depose its leadership through war or other means of aggression.

“They hate the Iran deal precisely because it’s likely to avert that aggression and normalise the world’s relations with that country, making the war they’ve long craved much less likely.”

Mr Bolton has long advocated for regime change in Iran and as National Security Advisor to the President, his hard-line views have been heard by Trump.

Independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders says the decision is based on the Trump administration’s desire for war with Iran.

“You have some people in Washington—Bolton being one of them—who believe that war and militarism is the answer to everything,” Senator Sanders told CNN.

“This is a man who was a key advisor to President Bush in urging him to get involved and to invade Iraq… as I think most Americans now know, that effort in Iraq was the worst foreign policy disaster in the modern history of this country.”

Another key reason for President Trump’s decision is the US’s relationship with Israel.

The geopolitics of the trade deal

The Atlantic.png
Image Source: The Atlantic

The US’s relationship with Israel began during the Cold War era when the US viewed Israel as a key buffer in the Middle East against Soviet influencers.

Since then, the formidable forces have backed each other in military and diplomatic matters, as well as ideological and intelligence interests.

Historically, America has been more sympathetic towards Israel than Palestine, with Republicans taking on a hard-line ‘pro-Israel’ position.

However the support has sparked tension in allied regions in the Middle East, as well as the US’s own allies’ who question whether their support for Israel is worthwhile.

In 2016, the US and Israel signed a 10-year military-assistance deal, the largest of its kind in American history.

The diplomatic and military alliance, outlined in a memorandum of understanding is worth up to $38 billion over the course of the decade, a 27 per cent increase from its last agreement.

Al Jazeera.png
The US financially aids Israel through a ten-year memorandum of understanding agreement.
Image Source: Al Jazeera

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the power struggle between arch-foes Iran and Israel has intensified.

Iran denies Israel’s right to exist, calling it an illegitimate occupier of Muslim land.

In return, Israel sees Iran’s existence as a threat in the Middle East and has strongly advocated against Iran ever getting its hands on nuclear weapons.

Iran’s involvement in the Syrian war has been huge, sending thousands of military advisors and fighters to back the Syrian government.

Israel is sceptical of Iran’s connection in the war, convinced it is sending weapons to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, another enemy of Israel.

Israel fears Iran is building bases in Syria to use against it and as Iran increases its sphere of influence, Israel has increased its strikes on Iran.

President Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal was strongly supported by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Domestic reaction

According to a CNNpoll, 63 per cent of Americans said the US should not withdraw from the agreement, while only 29 per cent of Americans said they should.

Statistics highlighting the preference for continuing the JCPOA.
Image Source: CNN

Former President Obama slammed the decision in a statement shortly after the withdrawal was announced.

“Walking away from the JCPOA turns our back on America’s closest allies, and an agreement that our country’s leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated,” President Obama said.

“The consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America’s credibility, and puts us at odds with the world’s major powers.”

Iranian hardliners, who have long thought President Rouhani was adhering too heavily to western values, are pleased Iran and the US are no longer in agreement.

World reaction

Both UK and European allies remain committed to the deal, despite the US’s intent to exit.

Trump’s assurance to pull out of the deal has sparked increased tensions between Washington and its closest allies, who have pleaded with the US through ongoing negotiations to honour their side of the agreement.

Saudi Arabia:
One of the US’s closest allies was one of the first to welcome President Trump’s decision.

Saudi Arabia’s view of Iran is one of regional rivalry and the two countries have butted heads in the past for regional domination.

Australia believed the Iran nuclear deal was the best option for verifying Iran’s compliance with nuclear commitments.

A country who signed the JCPOA is committed to where the deal stands regardless of the US exit.

Potential implications

In light of the US pulling out of the deal and threatening to impose sanctions on Iran, President Rouhani is at risk of being blamed for failing the Iranians and renewing their hardships.

Trump’s decision to opt out of what was largely a successful deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers has raised concerns he may have brought the Middle East closer to a regional war.

If the deal falls through, countries such as China and Russia would likely benefit by exploiting the US’s exit to strike deals with Iran.

The failed deal would also have an immense impact on America’s transatlantic alliances.

As other members of the JCPOA are still support the deal, the US’s exit could create great tension between the US and NATO allies.

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