The future of the 2015 deal between the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and Iran over the Iranian nuclear programme, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was called into question by the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. He had denounced it several times during the campaign and maintained hostility towards it after inauguration.
The US Congress passed legislation to require the President to report back to Congress every 90 days to ‘certify’ both that Iran was complying with its terms and that the deal continued to be in US interests. Twice the President reluctantly certified the deal to Congress, partly under pressure from other senior ministers. At the third opportunity, in October 2017, President Trump declined to certify the deal, on the grounds that Iran’s actions were not proportionate to the sanctions relief granted under the deal.
Decertification does not end the deal, nor does it even mean that the US is walking away from it. It does give Congress a 60-day opportunity to re-impose sanctions on Iran using an expedited procedure. The initiative is now with Congress to decide how to act.
Many supporters of the deal accept that it has not changed Iran’s foreign policy, which continues to be disruptive. Many opponents accept that it is not clear how to replace the deal, which is succeeding in imposing limits on Iranian uranium enrichment, if not on the Iranian ballistic missile programme (something which it was never intended to do).
Some have suggested re-negotiating the deal (the ‘sunset clauses’, by which limitations on the programme expire after a certain time, are particularly controversial). Iran has explicitly rejected renegotiation, and other signatories do not support it.
Reacting to the decision not to certify the deal, European leaders sent a unified message of support. The reaction of the EU could be the key to the survival or otherwise of the agreement. The US, through presidential or congressional action, could walk away from the deal, but some in both the EU and in Iran have argued that the deal could survive if the other signatories continue to support it. For the EU to confront the US in this way would be legally complicated and politically difficult, however. Some have suggested reviving a 1996 EU Directive protecting EU companies from the extraterritorial effects of US sanctions legislation, which could help EU-Iran trade to continue even after the re-imposition of US sanctions.
Several analysts have argued for a new, separate negotiations that would address concerns about the ballistic missile programme and regional policy, leaving the nuclear deal in place.