The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Too Little, Too Late?

Nessa Trombetta, Editor

The signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran Nuclear Deal as it is colloquially known in the United States, are slowly moving toward revival of the ill-fated agreement. Almost 10 years after negotiations began for the JCPOA, lines of communication have been reopened in order to update and adjust the agreement so it may once again enter into force1. However, there are significant roadblocks standing in the way of the JCPOA’s revival, and the resolution of these challenges is far from certain.

The JCPOA originally faltered when the Trump Administration made the historic decision to withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran in May 20182. All other parties to the JCPOA restated their commitment to the agreement in the wake of this withdrawal. Tensions were reignited, however, in 2019. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear power watchdog, had found a number of undeclared nuclear materials in Iran, for which it requested an official explanation from the Republic3. Iran appeared to have no such explanation, which contrasted with the regime’s official stance claiming that all nuclear materials from its pre-2003 weapons program had either been declared or destroyed4.

Although the IAEA’s activities and the JCPOA are separate, the inability of the regime to adequately account for these materials bodes poorly for its potential compliance with a re-negotiated JCPOA. For this reason, the reestablishment of the deal hinges largely on the ability of the IAEA and the Islamic Republic to reach agreement about the origins and eventual fate of these materials. Furthermore, because the Biden Administration cannot ensure a future withdrawal by the next United States president will not occur, trust is lacking on the Iranian side as well. The United States may have to make more concessions in order to surmount this diplomatic challenge, which could be highly disagreeable to some of Iran’s adversaries in the region and even within Congress5.

In response to President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic has reduced its “breakout time”, or the time it would take to build a nuclear warhead if it so desired. Iranian leaders claim that with the imposition of the Trump administration’s sanctions, its economy has been crippled6. While the renegotiation of the deal may seem like an attractive action to diffuse the tensions between the United States and Iran through the removal of these sanctions and the reexpansion of Iran’s breakout time, the strategic situation in the Middle East may render this progress useless.

Primarily, the Israeli government stands in opposition to the deal’s renegotiation, citing distrust of the regime and a lack of surveillance capacity by the United Nations as sources of instability in the agreement7. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone as far as to say that with the completion of the new deal, Iran will  have the capability to “take the entire world hostage”8. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates contend that the removal of sanctions on the Islamic Republic would allow the regime more room for involvement in regional conflicts, further contributing to instability in the area9. These concerns must be weighted against the promise of stability through nuclear disarmament in Iran.

Furthermore, the recent invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation has appeared to complicate JCPOA revival talks. Russian officials demanded guarantees that Western sanctions imposed on the Federation because of the war in Ukraine will not impact its future dealings with the Islamic Republic. Another late-in-the-game obstacle to the deal’s clearance, it seemed that the agreement’s future was again significantly compromised. However, Russia has walked back these demands as of March 15th, as it announced it received “written guarantee” that this demand has been met10. After this announcement, analysts have put the probability of the new agreement’s entrance into force at an optimistic 80%11.

Still, the battle is far from won. The IAEA has recently agreed to a three-month series of negotiations with Iran to help clear up the issue of the undeclared nuclear materials. However, it is unclear as to the fate of the deal if the materials are not explained, or some other type of arrangement is not reached12. Additionally, one final threat to the negotiations is currently materializing. Almost simultaneously to Russia’s announcement of their written guarantee, Iran released three British-Iranian nationals who had been detained in Evin prison for years13. This was initially seen as a positive sign, but on March 19th, it was reported that one of these prisoners, Morad Tahbaz, was returned to jail in Tehran14. The Islamic Republic claims Tahbaz was returned to be fitted for an ankle bracelet, but he has not yet been returned to the United Kingdom15.

This and other situations described above serve as potent reminders of the fragility of Iranian-Western relations–and the ability of current events to upset years of diplomatic progress. These negotiations will not be complete until international leaders put pen to paper and sign on. The longer complications surrounding the deal drag on, the less likely it is that a resolution will be reached. Time is of the essence, but the chaos of the everyday world stops for no man–and no multilateral agreement.


  1.  Motamedi, Maziar. “Iran, IAEA Hold Talks as Nuclear Negotiations Near Finish Line.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 5 Mar. 2022, 
  2. Landler, Mark. “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 May 2018, 
  3. “IAEA Investigations of Iran’s Nuclear Activities.” Arms Control Association, Arms Control Association, Jan. 2022, 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Turak, Natasha. “Iran Nuclear Talks Restart as Critical Time Pressure and Distrust Builds.” CNBC, CNBC, 10 Feb. 2022,
  6. Turak, Natasha. “Iran Nuclear Talks Restart as Critical Time Pressure and Distrust Builds.” CNBC, CNBC, 10 Feb. 2022,
  7. Cook, Steven A. “A New Iran Deal Means Old Chaos.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 28 Feb. 2022, 
  8. Creitz, Charles. “Netanyahu Warns Iran Could ‘Take the Entire World Hostage’ If West Approves New Nuke Deal.” Fox News, Fox News Network, 18 Mar. 2022,
  9. Cook, Steven A. “A New Iran Deal Means Old Chaos.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 28 Feb. 2022, 
  10. Motamedi, Maziar. “Russia Says It Has Received US Guarantees Over Iran Nuclear Deal.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 15 Mar. 2022, 
  11. Turak, Natasha. “Russia Backs Down on Demands in Iran Nuclear Deal Talks, Making Revival of 2015 Pact Imminent.” CNBC, CNBC, 18 Mar. 2022, 
  12. Motamedi, Maziar. “Iran, IAEA Hold Talks as Nuclear Negotiations Near Finish Line.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 5 Mar. 2022, 
  13. Hansler, Jennifer. “Detainee in Iran with Triple Nationality Who Was Released as Part of Deal with UK Is Sent Back to Jail .” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Mar. 2022, 
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.

[Image Credit Kevin Lamarque, Reuters]