April 6, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1306

Iran Will Not Cancel The JCPOA – Because It Grants Iran Nuclear State Status And Is A Western Guarantee For The Regime's Survival

April 6, 2017 | By A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1306


The JCPOA grants the Iranian regime two historic achievements – the status of a nuclear state and immunity against a Western attack due to its nuclear development. This is effectively a Western guarantee of the Islamic Republic regime's survival. These achievements cannot be cancelled unless the agreement itself is declared invalid.

Iranian spokesmen have stressed that even if President Trump's administration cancels the agreement, the agreement cannot be cancelled – because Iran, in its prescience, involved the EU and the UN in backing the agreement. Even if the U.S. alone were to cancel the agreement, it would still remain in force – that is, Iran's status as a nuclear state would remain.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani stressed, for example, at a November 11, 2016 cabinet meeting, the day after Trump was elected president, that there was no way to cancel the agreement. He said: "Iran's wisdom in the nuclear agreement was in the fact that it had the JCPOA approved as a UN Security Council resolution, and not as a [bilateral] agreement with a particular country or administration. Therefore, it will not be changed by any decision by a particular administration."[1]

Following the JCPOA's Implementation Day, in January 2016, and even previously, Iranian regime officials repeatedly warned that if the U.S. violated the agreement, and especially if more sanctions were leveled against Iran, Iran would cancel the agreement and revert to the status quo that existed before the agreement, and would even advance beyond it?

For example, an October 21, 2015 letter of guidelines from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to President Rohani constituting "conditional approval" for the agreement stated: "Throughout the eight-year period, any imposition of sanctions at any level and under any pretext (including repetitive and reiterated pretexts of terrorism and human rights) on the part of any of the countries party to the agreement will constitute a violation of the JCPOA and the [Iranian] government would be obligated to take the necessary action as per Clause 3 of the Majlis resolution and stop the activities mandated by the JCPOA."[2]

Iran Is Changing Its Policy – From Threats To Cancel The Agreement To Threats Of A Parallel Response

However, after the U.S. leveled additional sanctions against Iran, during both the Obama and Trump administrations, it became clear[3] that Iran was not going to implement its threats. Instead, Iran presented a new formula that does not obligate it to abrogate the agreement, as it previously threatened. The new formula determined that the Iranian regime would respond to any U.S. violation of the agreement with its own parallel violation.

Indeed, on March 26, 2017, after the U.S. State Department's March 24, 2017 announcement of new sanctions against companies and individuals connected to Iran's missile program, Iran's Foreign Ministry announced counter-sanctions against 15 U.S. companies. Additionally, in response to the Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, currently under consideration in the U.S. administration and the U.S. Senate designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, Majlis National Security Committee chairman Ala Al-Din Boroujerdi announced, on March 25, 2017, that the committee would present to the Majlis a plan to designate the CIA and U.S. Armed Forces as terrorist organizations, to be carried out after the March 21 Iranian Norouz holiday.[4]

On April 3, 2017, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated: "If the moment comes that the Americans are not implementing the JCPOA, our reversion [to the pre-JCPOA situation] will be very swift, and we will arrive at even more than what we once had... We have enough guarantees for the day when the [Iranian] regime decides and feels that the level of America's breaking of its promises is so high that we must revert to the pre-JCPOA [situation]. But it does not appear to me that this will happen." [5]

It should be noted that in his threats about the possibility of Iran's reversion to the status quo that existed prior to the agreement, Zarif does not set out any red line or specific condition whose violation will oblige Iran to cancel the agreement. Instead, he states that Iran will act "when it feels" that the U.S. is ratcheting up its level of violations against Iran. Furthermore, Zarif adds that such a situation, in his assessment, will not occur.

Iran's backing down from its previous threats and warnings regarding the JCPOA's continuing validity even if the U.S. cancels it is testimony to the agreement's historic importance for the Iranian regime. In our assessment, Iran will not cancel the agreement even if the U.S. continues to level sanctions against the country, even if it is involved in military action against Iranian interests. Iran will not cancel an agreement that endows it with nuclear-state status and that constitutes a guarantee of the regime's survival and provides immunity from a Western attack aimed at regime change. These historic achievements for Iran were granted to it by the Obama administration by means of the JCPOA.

Needless to say, the threat to revert to the pre-JCPOA situation is in itself an empty threat, because if the regime does this, it will bring itself back to a situation defined by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as "a two-month [nuclear] breakout time."[6] By doing so, it will bring closer the risk of attack by the West.

The JCPOA – A Tool To Ensure The Survival Of The Iranian Regime

The Iranian regime is clinging to the JCPOA because this agreement guarantees its survival. President Obama promoted the Iranian regime from the status of a "defendant state", subject to Security Council sanctions for its nuclear program, to the status of a legitimate nuclear state that can negotiate with the rest of the world powers over upgrading its nuclear activity.

The existential threat that led Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to revive Iran's nuclear project in 2002, (after the founder of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stopped the country's Shah-era nuclear project), was the threat to the regime's survival. The regime was under threat both from being attacked directly by the West, with the aim of bringing about regime change, and indirectly by mobilizing opposition elements at home, which the regime labeled "fitna" – such as the fitna – i.e. civil unrest – following the 2009 presidential election, which it suppressed. For this reason, Khamenei, during the negotiations for the JCPOA, demanded that the U.S. stop the American broadcasts in Farsi to Iran, suspend its political and economic support for Iranian opposition groups, and stop criticizing Iranian censorship of the Internet – all three demands pertain to regime survival (see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 837, Khamenei's Aim at the Nuclear Talks – Securing the Survival of His Regime, May 15, 2012).

With the JCPOA, Khamenei gained a double achievement, assuring both the survival of his regime and Iran's membership in the nuclear club. The Iranian regime's original aim in pursuing the JCPOA was to guarantee the survival of the regime in the face of all the possible threats, from within and without – and was not intended to obtain massive economic aid nor to bring Iran into the Western economy in order to ease its people's economic distress – which Khamenei intends to do with the "resistance economy," the main thrust of which is self-reliance and rejection of economic cooperation with the West and foreign investment in Iran.

Iran's nuclear status, promised to Khamenei by the Obama administration in the agreement that is backed by Europe, allows him to both continue to repress the Iranian people and to continue exporting the Iranian Revolution in the region.


*A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iranian Media Project; Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] ISNA (Iran), November 9, 2016.

[3] Tasnim (Iran), March 26, 2017.

[4] IRIB (Iran), March 25, 2017.

[5] Farsnews (Iran), April 3, 2017.

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