LFI chair Steve McCabe MP.

In the first week back after the conference recess, parliamentarians debated Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA nuclear deal in a Westminster Hall Debate organised by Stephen Crabb.

A refresher

  • The JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was agreed in 2015 after some 20 months of negotiations.
  • Signed in Vienna, the signatories included Iran and the P5+1: China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, United States and European Union.
  • The deal was designed to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities in order to deny it the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
  • Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent, and reduce the number of its gas centrifuges by two thirds over 13 years.
  • In exchange, the P5+1 ended economic sanctions against Iran, which had had a crippling effect on the country’s economy.

Withdrawal symptoms

Reflecting longstanding Republican criticism of the deal signed under president Obama, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in 2018, and reimposed all sanctions as part of its failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. Having already allegedly failed to comply with certain requirements under the deal, the Iranian regime effectively withdrew from the JCPOA too in 2018.

Following his campaign pledge to re-enter the agreement, talks have been ongoing in Vienna between representatives of the Biden administration and Iran. Despite early optimism, the coming to power of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran – known to have been involved in the mass killing of Iranian dissidents in the 1980s – has significantly damped the prospects for a speedy return to the deal.


Since the American withdrawal, Tehran has taken a number of steps to almost entirely violate the agreement’s terms.

  • May 2019: Iran lifts limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium and heavy water. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that it surpassed those limits on 1 July 2019.
  • July 2019: Begins enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, beyond the 3.67 percent cap.
  • September 2019: Lifts limits on the research and development of centrifuge technology and begins to install more advanced centrifuges at Natanz.
  • November 2019: Resumes enrichment at the Fordow nuclear facility.
  • January 2020: Lifts limits on the number of centrifuges in operation, the last operational restriction on the development of its nuclear programme.
  • December 2020: Iran informs the IAEA of its intention to continue research and development into the production of uranium metal.
  • January 2021: Following the passing of Iran’s new nuclear laws in December 2020, Iran starts enriching uranium to 20 percent.
  • February 2021: Iran suspends implementation of the Additional Protocol to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement and reduces cooperation with the IAEA.
  • April 2021: Iran informs the IAEA it will begin enriching uranium to 60 percent, following an attack on the Natanz nuclear facility where Iran has been installing new advanced centrifuges.
  • August 2021: The IAEA verifies that Iran has produced a small quantity of uranium metal, enriched to 20 percent, which it concludes is not suitable for medical research purposes.

Stronger and longer

Many of the JCPOA’s critics, including a number of Arab states and Israel, have warned since 2015 of the original deal’s shortcomings. A number of issues remain unresolved and are seen as opportunities for Iran to continue its malign activities even when in compliance with the deal.

President Biden has repeatedly stated that he wants to fix these loopholes through a “stronger and longer” deal that would “strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provision, while also addressing other issues of concern”. This would form part of a “renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy – and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy – to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behaviour in the region”.

Outstanding problems with the JCPOA include:

  • Sunset clauses, including a conventional arms embargo which expired in 2020, were too short-term to have a meaningful impact, expiring in 2020, 2024 and 2030 respectively.
  • The JCPOA had no provision constraining Iran’s usage of ballistic missiles, significantly weakening the deal’s capacity to reduce Tehran’s military threat in the Middle East.
  • Concerns remain around inadequate inspection and verification regimes, including the 24-hour notice period and access to undeclared sites.
  • Iran’s destabilising activities in the Middle East, including its longstanding support for militias and terrorist proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Gaza, were excluded from the agreement.

Westminster debates

The Westminster Hall Debate, which took place on Tuesday afternoon, was well attended by parliamentarians from a number of parties, including Labour MPs.

  • Tulip Siddip, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, made clear that the JCPOA “cannot just be seen through the lens of Iran’s nuclear capability”, pointing to the regime’s hostage taking practices.
  • Siddiq spoke about the experiences of her constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been wrongly detained and imprisoned in Iran since April 2016.
  • LFI chair Steve McCabe pointed to Iran’s longstanding record of non-compliance with the JCPOA and warned of Raisi’s ambitions to “purify Iran of internal dissent and bolster the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps”, the state-backed security force that dominates Iran’s politics and economy and which is recognised as a terrorist group by the United States.
  • “We mustn’t give too much too soon”, McCabe continued, pointing to the JCPOA’s failure to deal with outstanding problems with Iran’s military and foreign policies.
  • “There will also come a point”, McCabe added, “where any gains from the JCPOA will become meaningless if Iran’s research and development passes the threshold within which the original agreement was designed to hold them”.
  • Labour’s shadow minister for the Middle East, Wayne David, responded on behalf of the Opposition frontbench, making clear Labour’s view that the negotiations for the US and Iran to re-enter the JCPOA should consider placing Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support for destabilising terrorist groups and proxies in the region “near the top of the agenda”.
  • David concluded that “there needs to be a short term approach, but also a longer-term perspective as well, if we are serious about dealing with the issue of Iran in the long term”.

What next?

All of Iran’s actions in the last few months would indicate a new Government that is attempting to gain leverage in any future negotiations. However, as has been noted many times, American patience for talks to resume is not limitless, and the advances in nuclear knowledge that Iran is acquiring while talks are stalled will at some point render the benefits of returning to the JCPOA meaningless.

If the deal is to survive then compromise will be required. If diplomacy fails, however, the return of international sanctions, a rapid expansion of Iranian nuclear activity and a heightened risk of military tension in the region are considered likely outcomes.