The Iran Deal's Future Remains Uncertain

Four scenarios for the future as the JCPOA approaches one year.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has now been in effect for a year. It has withstood multiple political tests in Washington and Tehran and its key provisions have thus far been implemented by Iran and its seven partners (the P-5, Germany and the European Union). The short-term success of the agreement in peacefully rolling back worrisome aspects of Iranian nuclear activity and subjecting the remainder to more rigorous verification arrangements is reassuring—certainly if we bear in mind that the core of the JCPOA should remain in force for another decade or more. Yet, the future of the agreement nevertheless seems highly uncertain.

Barring an existential crisis it seems highly unlikely that Iran will break out from the nuclear restraints of the JCPOA in the next ten years, or, conversely, that Iran will totally pacify its nuclear program. Four different and more ambiguous scenarios are more plausible for the future. They could unfold in combination, perhaps sequentially. Uncertainty will remain for quite some time. These four scenarios may be described in shorthand as routinization, renegotiation, death spiral and time bomb. Each entails serious risks and few opportunities. Taken together these scenarios suggest the danger of resting on negotiating laurels hoping that the short-term gains of the JCPOA will automatically translate into a satisfactory, enduring peaceful solution to the nuclear challenge presented by Iran.


Routinization essentially envisages the JCPOA continuing to evolve into a typical arms-control agreement, lacking special attention, emphasis or visibility, certainly on the Western side. Political authorities on all sides would hardly spend any time on its implementation, relegating this task to the professional bureaucracies. The same would gradually occur at the IAEA. People would complacently assume that if the agreement has survived its acute early tests it would actually survive for its duration.

On the face of it, a routinization scenario seems most reassuring because it implies that the JCPOA will remain largely on track for its duration. Yet equating the formal survival of the agreement (even if it could be assured) with the accomplishment of its goals is misleading. Routine could be established around less-than-complete implementation. The key is to achieve effective implementation and to make that routine. Many challenges confront this more appropriate, ambitious objective.

One challenge is the emerging complacency surrounding the agreement. A second is the gradual loss—by retirement or transfer—of the political and bureaucratic supporters who sought the agreement and provided the expertise that was mobilized to negotiate it and implement its early provisions. Furthermore, as the Iranian nuclear issue is naturally eclipsed by other more pressing agenda items, bureaucratic pressures are growing to do away with the anomalous structures that were created to negotiate and begin implementation of the agreement. A case in point is the pressure to move the JCPOA implementation office in the Department of State from the Office of the Secretary to the offices normally assigned routine nonproliferation and arms-control tasks. Prioritization of resources and interagency efforts to assure effective implementation will inevitably wane. The risk that long-term funding stability will not be guaranteed to support the IAEA’s special verification arrangements in Iran is growing. Thus far, the IAEA’s reporting of its activities—another potential challenge—has been laconic and less transparent than what is either normal or desirable. These trends could increase temptations to exploit ambiguities and vulnerabilities in the JCPOA.

The risks of routinization are exacerbated by reluctance to acknowledge the limitations and uncertainties of the JCPOA. This may have been expedient for negotiating purposes. Avoiding focus on the agreement’s problematic elements may have been necessary in Washington and Tehran to avoid political defeat of the agreement. Yet these shortfalls, most painfully evident in the settlement of the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) issue and the sample-taking procedures applied in Iran, could be managed effectively only if they are soberly noted and understood. Such attention and comprehension could then lead to contingency plans to address the unhelpful provisions. For example, more attention would be devoted now to obtaining Iran's full compliance with the Additional Protocol requirements as well as effective implementation (that thus far remains elusive) of the JCPOA key clauses pertaining to weaponization activity and the Procurement Channel.

Fundamentally, with international business and political ties with Iran growing, routinization runs the grave risk of generating a false sense of confidence in the integrity of the agreement. Worse still, there is a real possibility that heavy pressure will be exerted on intelligence communities and the IAEA (as well as within its ranks) not to rock the boat even if concerns arise or at least uncertainty grows whether the JCPOA indeed is being faithfully implemented. The Joint Committee set up by the JCPOA to politically oversee the special IAEA verification in Iran and resolve disputes does not (yet?) inspire much confidence in its ability to address these concerns.