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In 2015 Iran agreed a deal with China, the EU, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US to limit the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal was intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons programme. It did not include measures on Iranian foreign policy or ballistic missile programme.

During his 2016 Presidential campaign Donald Trump made it clear that withdrawing the US from the deal would be one of his top foreign policy priorities and, after gradually distancing, the US finally withdrew from the deal in 2018.

As well as re-imposing sanctions lifted by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump Administration went further, implementing a policy of “maximum pressure” in the hope of persuading Iran to conclude a better deal. “Maximum pressure” included extra sanctions, designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation and assassinating the Iranian General Soleimani, head of the overseas Quds Force.

Some of these moves may have been aimed at scuppering the incoming US Administration’s hopes of reviving the JCPOA.

The US has also boosted its military presence near Iran including keeping the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf.

Iran has gradually moved to break its commitments under the JCPOA, breaching the limit of low-enriched uranium stockpile in June 2019. Iran has also passed legislation requiring the Government to speed up its resumption of nuclear activities if certain sanctions have not been lifted by February 2021. In January 2021 Iran started enriching to 20%.

Iran has also conducted large military exercises and has indicated its willingness to defend itself “openly and directly”.

Where next for the JCPOA?

Critics say the JCPOA is too narrow in scope, doing nothing about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region or its ballistic missile programme. The ‘sunset clauses’, whereby restrictions on nuclear activities start to expire after 2025, have also come in for criticism. Some argue that the JCPOA should be expanded to cover these areas.

Many others agree that the only practical approach would be to revive the JCPOA as it is and leave other areas for future negotiations.

Many in the incoming Biden Administration argue that a return to the JCPOA as it is would bring immediate security gains to the region, although there are voices arguing for a more comprehensive approach. European Union and UK officials also support a direct return to the JCPOA.

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