Is Iran Already Plotting Its Escape From the Agreement?

A close reading of the P5+1 deal shows that Iran could easily defect whenever it wants.

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Who will enjoy the last laugh following this week's agreement between Iran and the world powers?
Who will enjoy the last laugh following this week's agreement between Iran and the world powers?Credit: AP

For years, discussion of the P5+1 talks with Iran has focused on one core scenario of noncompliance: Iran violating a deal and the P5+1 needing to react. But the early history of negotiating with Iran has given us another scenario to consider: Iran simply defecting from the deal altogether.

Defection would mean Iran announcing that it is unilaterally exiting the deal. Iran’s argument in this scenario would be that it has scrupulously upheld its end of the agreement, while the other side has not acted in similar good faith. As such, it has no choice but to defect. The reason this is cause for concern is that Iran has already done it twice – in 2004 and again in 2005 – when it felt that the agreements it concluded with the EU-3 were no longer serving its interests.

Fast-forward to the current JCPOA, and one sentence jumps off the page: In essence, this is Iran's “defection clause,” which it can implement in short order. The sentence appears under a discussion of sanctions: “Iran has stated that it will treat such a re-introduction or re-imposition of the sanctions specified in Annex II, or such imposition of new nuclear-related sanctions, as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” Just to be clear, Annex II is more than 80 pages long, about half the document. These pages include extensive lists with the names of hundreds of entities, companies and Iranian shipping lines.

According to this statement, Iran has clarified that it would need no deliberations, have no need to convince a committee, and would not have to go through a prolonged process. If any of those sanctions are re-introduced, for whatever reason, Iran has said it will view that as grounds to exit the deal. Iran would defect and accuse the other side of providing the pretext. So simple.

Let's consider two possible scenarios. The first regards sanctions snapping back in the face of an Iranian violation or lack of cooperation. This is supposed to be a mechanism that keeps Iran in line. And if the international powers initiate snapback sanctions in some future scenario, their intent would most likely be to confront the violation, not to end the deal. But the above clause says that Tehran could decide that the reimposed sanctions mean the deal has ended: for Iran, snapback sanctions are a violation of the deal that would justify its exit.

So, if Iran wants to defect, all it needs to do is violate some aspect of the deal – preferably something ambiguous so it can argue that it is not in fact a violation – and wait for the sanctions to snap back. The next step: immediate exit of the deal. And if sanctions are not reimposed, Iran has still gained from the violation while simultaneously exposing international weakness to confront it. Iran can also use this provision as leverage to keep the international powers from calling it out on violations in the first place, so as not to launch this chain of events that would kill the deal. Iran sanctions specialist Mark Dubowitz has already dubbed this “Iran’s nuclear snapback.”

In the second scenario, Iran might be able to look to the part of the sanctions section that addresses the tension between sanctions set at the national level and at the state levels in the United States. The clause says that the U.S. will take action to encourage officials at the state and local levels to take into account changes in national policy on sanctions. But what if those state and local officials do not adhere? Or if confronting them takes a long time? Again, these sanctions could provide an easy pretext for Iran to defect from the deal.

Supporters of this agreement have promised a 10-year deal, or a 15-year deal, or a deal that lasts until the end of days. The reality is none of the above. This deal lasts as long as the parties want it to last. And Iran may already be plotting its escape.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012). Follow her on Twitter: @EmilyBLandau. Owen Alterman is a Research Fellow at INSS

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