The negotiation, conclusion and collapse of the JCPOA did not take place in a vacuum, but in a highly dynamic period of geopolitical change in the Middle East. In 2002, when the first signs of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s covert development of nuclear capabilities emerged, the region was perched between two major events that would reverberate for years to come. The first was the US-aided overthrow of the Afghan Taliban in 2001 as revenge for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US mainland. The US-led international security force that was intended to get the country ‘back on track’ subsequently got stuck in a guerrilla war with Taliban ‘remnants’, which has lasted until today. The second was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the pretext of acting against the threat of Saddam Hussein obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

Box 1
Basic facts related to the JCPOA process

International scrutiny of the nuclear capability of the Islamic Republic of Iran dates back to 2002 when the existence of its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and heavy-water plant at Arak came to light.

The ‘E3’ (Germany, France, UK) formed in the summer of 2003 as an EU mini-coalition. It continues to exist today. The EU High Representative facilitated the JCPOA negotiations that also included Russia, the US and China.

The JCPOA was concluded in 2015 after a series of UN resolutions, sanctions and negotiations created enabling conditions. Only the aborted 2004 Paris agreement had come close to clinching a deal in the period 2002–2015.

By mid-2018, the JCPOA had been turned upside down due to the US breaching its commitments and imposing sanctions.

Between 2018 and 2020 the clock on the nuclear question of Iran was turned back to 2002, amplified by even deeper mistrust.

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These operations had a paradoxical effect on Iran’s security situation. On the upside, they removed two enemies of Tehran from power – Saddam Hussein and the Taliban – which cleared the way for greater Iranian influence in the region, especially in Shi’a majority Iraq. On the downside, both operations also brought ‘US encirclement’ about, which was reinforced by President Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ label in January 2002. Against a backdrop of deep mutual suspicion and hostility – the 1979 hostage crisis for the US; large-scale US support for Iraq in the later stages of the Iran-Iraq war – it was, in fact, surprising that the 2004 Paris agreement on Iran’s nuclear capability development almost succeeded.[8] But the election of the ‘radical fundamentalist’[9] Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency in 2005 closed the opportunity before it could be brought to full fruition.[10] The next eight years were a crescendo of UN Security Council resolutions, Iranian resistance and prevarication, as well as mounting international sanctions. In parallel, the US and Iran fought a protracted shadow war in Iraq (2005 to 2009) that culminated in the departure of US troops in 2011. Only after the election of President Rouhani in 2013 did negotiations resume.

Meanwhile, the Arab Uprisings had turned Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria into sites of protracted political crisis or internationalised civil war. The uprisings pitted authoritarian regimes against broad but diverse popular movements that desired better livelihoods, more civil liberties, and a greater share of political power. The intensity of the protests and speed of change took regional and global powers by surprise, leaving them struggling to formulate a coherent response. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq had taken Baghdad out of the regional power equation while the overthrow of Morsi in 2013 had a similar effect in Egypt. But Turkey and Saudi Arabia gradually squared off as the champions of, respectively, Islamic majoritarian democracy[11] and Islamic autocracy. Iran responded cautiously in the beginning, even though it publicly echoed the language of rights and revolution based on its own recent history.[12]

However, when the revolutionary fire scourged the Assads in Syria, Tehran mobilised swiftly. As longstanding ally, conduit to Hezbollah and essential element of its ‘defence in depth’[13] strategy, Assad’s fall would have created major strategic risks for Iran. To prevent this, it used several stratagems to help Damascus suppress the rebellion against its rule, including replicating its own Basij model, mobilising militia across the Shi’a world, and sending elements of its own revolutionary guard.[14] Paradoxically, the Iranian intervention in Syria grew in significance as the JCPOA negotiations progressed. The Obama administration and the E3 compartmentalised the issues by largely ignoring Iran’s support for Assad’s bloody repression and destructive reconquest of Syria in order to clinch the nuclear deal. They considered a nuclear-armed Iran as a potential global threat, while they viewed continuation of the Assad dictatorship as more of a regional issue. Nevertheless, the brutality of the Syrian civil war, Iran’s support for Assad and its working partnership with Russia in Syria after 2015 negatively influenced Iran’s image in Europe as well as in the US, making it more difficult for the E3 to defend the JCPOA after the US revoked its participation in 2018.[15] As one European interviewee put it: ‘There is nothing to win by supporting Iran and the domestic costs are high.’

The rise of Islamic State (IS) in 2014 further raised the stakes of regional power competition as it offered Iran a chance to deepen its influence in Iraq through its support for a number of armed groups that are part of the Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi – a collection of Iraqi paramilitary forces that fought against IS based on a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani – temporary practical cooperation with Global Coalition forces notwithstanding. Some of these Hashd groups subsequently branched out into politics and economics.[16] Today, Iraq is also an essential safety valve for the sanction-hit Iranian economy – for example, in terms of Iraqi electricity imports, its Central Bank conduit to the dollar, religious visits, and informal trade.[17] Iranian support for Iraq in defeating IS came, however, at the cost of greater Iranian influence in Baghdad, with the additional advantage to Iran of geographically linking Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad with Tehran. Although one could argue that this ‘alignment’[18] is made up of one country in recurrent political crisis (Lebanon), another destroyed by war (Syria), and one devastated by ethno-sectarianism (Iraq), it nevertheless poses enough of a menace to regional powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia to rally strongly against both the JCPOA and Iran itself.

Israel and Saudi Arabia use the anti-Zionist and anti-Sunni rhetoric of high-ranking Iranian politicians, as well as Iranian support for militant organisations like Hamas, the Houthi and Hezbollah, to paint Tehran as an aggressive and revisionist actor. Although some of these concerns are well founded and understandable, they also reverse causality in a number of cases in which Iranian support largely followed initial aggression on the part of others (e.g. Israeli expansion predates Iranian support for Hamas).[19] As the Obama administration gave Israeli and Saudi concerns a relatively cold shoulder, they took matters into their own hands after the conclusion of the JCPOA. Events like the Saudi invasion of Yemen (2015), the blockade of Qatar (June 2017), the hostage taking of Saad Hariri (November 2017) and the frequency of Israeli airstrikes in Syria should at least in part be seen as indications of a growing regional concern about Iran’s influence.

The events outlined above all played their part in ripening a regional security dilemma that the Trump administration could shift from passive to active with relative ease by rescinding its JCPOA obligations. Stepping back, one could take the perspective that the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq came to be seen in Tehran as putting Iran ‘on notice’ due to the accompanying ‘axis of evil’ label in a context of decades of mistrust, but also Iran’s own nuclear activities. Iran responded by making life difficult for US forces in Iraq and expanding its influence based on the alliances it had formed across the region in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.[20] This response against US neoconservative militarism acquired greater salience once the Syrian civil war started and Iran also visibly expanded its position in Syria, creating a contiguous area of greater influence as Assad weakened. The rise of IS in Iraq made it necessary for Iran to engage its military to safeguard its own national security, but conveniently also provided Tehran with another opportunity to increase its sway, which further enflamed regional security concerns.

In contrast with the Obama administration that worked with Iran against IS in Iraq and sought to leverage the JCPOA to create a more stable regional equilibrium, the Trump administration re-oriented its Iran policy towards one of direct confrontation in favour of its allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. It used the JCPOA as fulcrum and sanctions as lever to defund Iran’s ability to sustain its regional influence and encourage domestic unrest. But the US appetite for military confrontation remained limited, as has been illustrated by a range of security incidents in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the internationalized Syrian civil war, fight against IS as well as Washington’s more recent strategy of economic coercion have played well into Iran’s ‘resistance narrative’.[21] Tehran’s more assertive posture after the spring of 2019 shows it standing up against hostile US, Israeli and Saudi Arabian pressure across the region, while its economic woes can be framed as a patriotic duty that its citizens have to shoulder for their country. Faced with an uncompromising US stance, Iran’s political elites of all stripes have dug in and the centre of gravity in Iranian domestic politics is shifting to the conservative factions that the US would like to see out of power.[22] Paradoxically, the US maximum pressure campaign has so far hardly altered Iran’s foreign policy behaviour in the Middle East but has made its population significantly more dependent on the Iranian government due to the economic hardship resulting from sanctions. The Covid-19 pandemic further deepens this development.

In this geopolitical tableau of clashing forces, European countries are stuck between a rock and a hard place with respect to the JCPOA. They wish to honour the deal and are of the view that the US position is both too uncompromising and poorly thought out given the disastrous experiences of regime change and statebuilding in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, Iran’s foreign policy actions in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as its poor domestic human rights situation, simultaneously cause it to be perceived as an awkward actor on whom it is difficult to spend substantial political capital. At the same time, European countries face an unprecedented divergence of interest with the US that extends beyond Iran and includes their relations with Russia, China and the Gulf, as well as the nature of global trade. Defending their own interests requires a number of western European countries to liberate themselves rapidly – but selectively – from institutional and financial dependencies centred on the US that were constructed over decades.

Supreme Leader Khamenei vetoed the deal because of remaining suspicion of Western intentions; the US also remained skeptical at the time. See: Straw, J., The English Job: Understanding Iran and why it distrusts Britain, London: Biteback Publishing, 2019; The Guardian, 8 November 2004, online (accessed 13 June 2020).
Katouzian (2010), op.cit.; Brumberg and Farhi (2016), op.cit.
In a majoritarian democracy there is less consideration of minority/individual rights and representation than in a constitutional democracy. The legitimately elected majority acts as having the right to rule as it sees fit as long as it is in power. Examples include Turkey under the AKP and Hungary under Fidesz.
It is worth noting that even in its first revolutionary decade Iran had little success in exporting its 1979 revolution across the region other than in the ideological /inspirational sense. See: Esposito, J. (ed.), The Iranian revolution: Its global impact, Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990.
This concept could only be truly operationalised after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq since Saddam Hussein represented a formidable barrier between Hezbollah/Assad and Tehran.
Ahmadian, H. and P. Mohseni, ‘Iran's Syria strategy: the evolution of deterrence’, International Affairs, Vol. 95, Issue 2, March 2019, pp. 341–364.
The argument sometimes heard in Tehran that the US and Europe also carry responsibility for the misery of Syria’s population by having encouraged Turkey, Qatar and the UAE to create a protracted ‘dirty war’ in Syria makes some sense only if one starts by accepting that the fundamental problem was an autocratic regime using brutal suppression to stay in power against the wishes of a large part of its population.
See for instance: Van Veen, E. and N. Ezzeddine, Who’s afraid of Iraq’s Hashd?, War on the Rocks, online, 2019.
On electricity imports: Radio Farda, online, 2020; on the informal economy: Badawi, T., Iran’s economic leverage in Iraq, Carnegie Sada, online, 2018; on the Iraqi Central Bank’s dollar access: Greenwald, M., The effect of US sanctions on the Iran-Iraq alliance, Atlantic Council, online, 2020.
President Bush’s ‘axis [of evil]’ dates from 2002 and King Abudullah II’s ‘Shi’a crescent’ from 2004. In both cases, these terms referred to imaginary constructs. Only from about 2010/11 onwards did a geographically contiguous axis of resistance come into being in an operational sense.
Dabashi, H., Shi’ism: a religion of protest, Cambridge: Bellknap Press, 2011.
Brumberg and Farhi (2009), op.cit. Also consider the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections in Iran in which conservatives made large gains. See: Fathollah-Nejad, F., Where is Iran going?, Orient XXI, online, 14 April 2020.