In July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran, and hailed as a landmark agreement. The JCPOA is concerned with the alleviation of sanctions levied against Tehran in return for the scaling back of its nuclear programme. Indeed, the JCPOA represents the first significant international agreement involving the Islamic Republic Iran regime (IRI), which has been somewhat politically isolated since its formulation, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. There have been a myriad of studies and analysts positing in the lead up to and following the signing of the JCPOA, that sanctions are what brought the IRI to the table. A more concentrated perspective has argued that it was the US sanctions placed on Iran for over three decades which resulted in the JCPOA. Either way, the developments leading up to July 2015 tell us at least one thing: unilateral actions to economically isolate a targeted country are becoming increasingly impotent. I argue this case in my article titled The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations (2005-2014) which focuses on the period leading up to the JCPOA. Indeed, my argument was convincing enough to warrant being asked to include a post-article commentary on how my conclusions fared up to the JCPOA, which came into place after I had written my original study.
In the article, I concentrate on the 2005 to 2014 timeframe and focus on the period which captures Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and US President George H.W. Bush’s simultaneous times in office, Ahmadinejad and current US President Barack Obama’s times as leaders of the two respective countries and during the first twelve months of the Obama and the current Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani’s time in office. These spates of differing US-Iranian presidency stances also included significant changes in policies towards one another, specifically when concerned with the nuclear programme and sanctions being levied not just on a bilateral level, but also in the form of US pressure on other aligned states in the international system to multilaterally slap Iran with sanctions.
My argument is embedded in the literature and theory concerned with economic interdependence and the ability of such a relationship to foster results and agreements in the security sphere. Specifically, this economic interdependence-security relationship is predicated on the idea that economic means are increasingly incorporated into foreign policy tools. However, I posit that this stance fails to take into account that the increasingly globalised nature of the international economic and political systems has a knock on effect of diluting the ability of unilateral actions by a specified state, the US in this example, to have the desired effect without the buy-in from other actors in the international system. Using the case study of Iran, I then detail and argue that it is this multilateral level of support which led to the desired effect, i.e. the political goals of reaching an agreement which is ultimately geared at scaling back Iran’s nuclear programme.
It is also worth noting that the P5+1 also had stumbling blocks and barriers which appeared and were needed to be overcome in order for the JCPOA to come into fruition. Indeed, a number of instances, usually off the back of a P5+1-Iran round of talks, demonstrated that there were disagreements within the P5+1 itself when drawing up the nuclear agreement – compounding the issues surrounding a multilateral approach to the problem. Further, this also conveyed the need for such an internationally hailed and pivotal agreement (the JCPOA) to come into place, then there must be buy-in on a multilateral level. As a result, it is clear that the effectiveness of policies adopted unilaterally, the US sanctions on Iran in this particular example, will be increasingly diluted as the international economic and political systems become increasingly globalised and interconnected with one another. This notion was realised when it came to July 2015 when the JCPOA noted that its implementation “will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UNSC sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme.” The significant point here being that the sanctions were being referred to on a multilateral level, therefore demonstrating how cognisant the JCPOA was of the importance of adopting such a policy on multilateral and not just on a unilateral level.
Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With Energy Secretary Moniz As He and Fellow P5+1 Foreign Ministers Hold Nuclear Program Negotiating Session in Austria With Iranian Officials, courtesy of State Department Photo/ Public Domain.