I keep seeing articles in the US media recently, claiming that Iran is in violation of a 'nuclear deal'. For example:

The head of Iran's nuclear program said on Monday that Tehran was now operating double the amount of advanced centrifuges than was previously known in violation of its atomic deal with world powers.

NBC News - Iran spins more centrifuges on U.S. Embassy crisis anniversary

Iran announced new violations of its collapsing nuclear deal with world powers as it also marked Monday the 40th anniversary of the 1979 student takeover of the U.S. Embassy ... The head of Iran's nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the Middle Eastern nation is now operating 60 IR-6 advanced centrifuges in violation of its 2015 landmark atomic deal with world powers

USA Today - Iran announces nuke deal violations 40 years after U.S. Embassy takeover, hostage crisis

However, didn't Donald Trump withdraw the US nuclear deal with Iran? In that case, in what sense can they be viewed as violating a deal that the US chose to cancel?


5 Answers 5


The deal was not only between the USA and Iran, as other countries and the EU were signatories:

  • China
  • France
  • Germany
  • European Union
  • Russia
  • United Kingdom

The situation with those signatories is complicated, as neither they nor Iran have withdrawn from the treaty. Those signatories are not trading with Iran due to USA sanction regimes; the pact is formally in place even if the U.S. has withdrawn.

Even if we ignore the above point and consider the nuclear deal extinct, the provisions of the deal could be considered a "measuring unit" to give some context to the public. For example, saying that "Iran has 1000 centrifuges" can be factual but not very informative; saying that "Iran has 1000 centrifuges while by the pact they agreed to have 500" gives more information and would definitely be different from "Iran has 1000 centrifuges while by the pact they agreed to have 999".

  • 9
    The JCPOA is not a treaty. It's non-treaty nature is very relevant to exactly how the Trump administration was able to quickly withdraw from it.
    – Joe
    Nov 4, 2019 at 21:01
  • 50
    It's not a treaty in terms of how it was implemented in the US legal framework, but it is a treaty in the colloquial sense of an international agreement signed by two or more countries. The treaty / non -treaty distinction is a peculiarity specific to the US, and I doubt that e.g.Iran's internal legal structures make the same distinction.
    – PhillS
    Nov 4, 2019 at 21:14
  • 3
    @Joe: I agree with PhiliS. See more discussion in the 2nd part of my answer on another question politics.stackexchange.com/a/32810/18373 Nov 4, 2019 at 21:43
  • 9
    Although not by their own choice, the other signatories are failing to carry out their obligations under the agreement. Nov 5, 2019 at 4:29
  • 25
    @PatriciaShanahan - Yes. If Iran agreed to the terms of the agreement in exchange for concessions and lifting of sanctions, and the US backed out and is now forcing other nations to bend to the US's wishes, from Iran's perspective, why should they be the only nation that has to abide by the agreement? I think it's unrealistic to think that any nation would accept that. Furthermore, when you look at conditions like the amount of uranium they can stockpile/have on hand, a mechanism was built for them to export enough to stay under the limit. That mechanism has been shut off, for example. Nov 5, 2019 at 15:12

American media is, unsurprisingly, biased with a pro-American viewpoint. Thus, we see that Trump "withdraws" from the agreement where Iran "violates" the agreement. In fact, it is more correct to say that America violated the agreement, as the word violation suggests acting in bad faith. By every account, Iran had held to the terms of the deal in good faith until the Trump administration decided to sabotage the whole thing. Iran is no longer bound to honor the agreement because it has already been dishonored by the other side.

American media works constantly to skew the perspective to present Iran in the worst light, and the US in the best light. They do this with the words that they choose, strategically applying euphemisms to influence public opinion.

  • 12
    As someone who is immersed in American media, I'd push back on the implication that accurately reporting the facts would somehow nessecarily be anti-American. It might be inconvenient for Trump, but the two are not the same. At some point you have to operate in the Real World, so lying to yourself serves you ill in the long run.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 6, 2019 at 14:23
  • 6
    @T.E.D. where does klojj imply that accurately reporting the facts would be considered 'anti-American'?
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 6, 2019 at 14:30
  • 5
    @Jasper The vast majority of American media is presently anti-current-American-administration and takes any opportunity they get to cast said administration in a bad light (and, to be fair, said administration gives them lots of opportunities to do that.)
    – reirab
    Nov 6, 2019 at 17:29
  • 3
    The only "acting in bad faith" that could really be said of the agreement in regards to the U.S. was Obama "signing" it in the first place, against the express will of Congress. Of course, the Iranians were fully aware that Obama did not have the support of Congress and that Obama did not have the authority to bind the U.S. to the agreement. This would be basic knowledge for any diplomat dealing with the U.S. (or at least any even remotely competent one.) They hoped they could put enough political pressure on future administrations to honor it anyway. They were wrong.
    – reirab
    Nov 6, 2019 at 17:33
  • 5
    Trump "withdrew" from JCPOA because he formally indeed did so. Iran "violates" JCPO because it did not formally withdraw from it, so is in fact violating it. Simple.
    – Genli Ai
    Nov 7, 2019 at 0:06

The basic issue US media has with this situation is the same issue they have had a lot in the Trump era: accurately reporting what was done (in this case, the US broke its word on an international agreement) would look a lot like a partisan political attack. This would violate the principle of "balance", which by training and ideology they just cannot make themselves do.

US mainstream media during the 20th century essentially grew up during a period of consolidation and monopolistic competition. This meant the consumer had some, but not a lot, of alternatives (usually 2 or 3), so everyone had to play for a general audience and build up loyalty with a "brand". They couldn't really shoot for a niche and survive. If a reader lost trust that what they were reading was going to be an attempt at truth, but instead simple political propaganda, they'd change channels or switch their subscription to the morning paper.

So mainstream US media developed a semi-formal code of political "balance". The idea was that on political issues they would try either not to weigh in at all, or failing that, give the side that the reporting made look bad some chance to respond. In practice this works out to a heavy bias in favor of centrism and normalcy.

Political operatives in the US started learning how to play this media desire for "balance" to their favor back in the 1970's to get themselves softer coverage (particularly the Tobacco companies and arguably the conservative movement).

The difference can be seen quite starkly any time a US ideologue foolishly agrees to be interviewed overseas. (See the relatively tame Frost Nixon interviews, or a lot of folks from the US far right interviewed lately by the BBC). Even relatively savvy US political operatives don't know how to deal with a proper adversarial press interview, because they get so little experience with that in their native country.

This "balanced" reporting works pretty well in normal times for normal stories where normal things are being done and both sides are acting in good faith performing actions that can reasonably be argued are not to the detriment of the honor or interests the political unit they are leading. However, it fails spectacularly when that condition does not apply.

From a Krugman op Ed (during a government shutdown crisis, but I think the point is timeless):

this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.

With today's proliferation of media and pseudo-media outlets, conditions may be changing. A lot of newer media outlets are starting to reject what they call false balance. A bit of that is starting to leak into more mainstream outlets, but organizational culture there does not change easily.

  • 1
    I have to say that the picture you paint of US media in general espousing balanced reporting doesn't match at all with my experience of it. As someone who grew up in the UK and moved to the US a few years ago, there seem to be many US media outlets that are extremely biased politically. Political bias seems much more common in the media here than in the UK or Europe. In fact, it was one of the things that really hit me in the face when I first moved here.
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 6, 2019 at 18:54
  • 1
    @Time4Tea - By and large those will be non-mainstream sources, like I was talking about in the final paragraph (Admittedly, throwing the likes of MSNBC and Fox News under the rubicon of "non-mainstream" is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but they are relatively new and non-traditional sources.)
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 6, 2019 at 19:48
  • The US didn't break it's word on a treaty, because the Executive Agreement was never ratified as a Treaty. Jan 15, 2020 at 2:55
  • @DrunkCynic - You're right in a technical sense. "treaty" has a specific constitutional meaning in the US, and it wasn't one of those. It was actually an agreement by the executive to cease some economic sanctions that Congress had authorized by law, but not dictated. (Why Congress chose to give the POTUS that kind of latitude is a different issue). But I think you're right that this technicality is important, so I've changed the verbiage.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 15, 2020 at 17:17
  • @Time4Tea Anyone who has lived through the last four years of the Brexit imbroglio, would be unlikely to recognise large sections of the right-wing British press as free from "political bias".
    – WS2
    Jan 15, 2020 at 20:14

Note that Iran themselves point out how they are gradually disengaging from the deal, e.g. news from Oct 16:

On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, said: “In the fourth step of reducing JCPOA commitments, we will probably impose limits on inspections, which means the International Atomic Energy Agency’s surveillance on Iran’s nuclear activities will be reduced.”

“We will certainly take the fourth step of reducing commitments to the JCPOA; Europeans have not honoured their part of the commitments and we have not seen any practical step taken by the other side.”


By leaving the JCPOA in May 2018, the US did not cancel the agreement.

The agreement continued, with the agreement of the remaining parties.

The US was not in violation because no rule was broken. There is no rule in the agreement stating that a signatory cannot exit the agreement unilaterally.

Furthermore, under US law, the JCPOA was not even a treaty, making exiting the agreement even easier for the US President.

In May 2019, Iran announced an “increase” in uranium enrichment activity in violation of the terms of the agreement.

In May, Iran announced it was quadrupling its uranium production capacity and mid-June it would exceed the stockpile limit by the end of the month.

Of course the relation of such pronouncements to the truth is open to debate. The move was leveraged by both the Iranian regime and US domestic opposition, to discredit the incumbent US administration.

Counterintuitively, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated in November 2019 that Iran was continuing to pursue the JCPOA agreement to win the benefits of a lifted arms embargo in 2020 as part of the terms of the deal.

As to whether Iran violated the JCPOA, the wording of the agreement is such that as long as a majority of the EU+3 are happy with the evidence provided by Iran, then no violation occurs (para. 78).

Until May 2018 the IAEA maintained that Iran had been in compliance with the JCPOA. This is the source of the numerous "Iran is [or was] in compliance" claims.

However, since the original signing of the agreement in 2015 - including before the Trump administration - Iran repeatedly (2015) stated (2017) that IAEA inspectors are denied access to their military sites - even those at which nuclear research was previously known to have been conducted.

Remember: the entire purpose of the JCPOA is to ensure Iran does not militarise nuclear technology.

From the preface (my emphasis):

[the signatories] welcome this historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which will ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful...

Iran therefore stayed in "compliance" of the agreement on the volition of the EU+3, and then latterly, after the 2016 Presidential Election, the EU+2 (ie. without the US).

In other words: if a majority of the EU+3 were to demand access to an Iranian military facility to check for compliance, then Iran would likely immediately fall into non-compliance.

But the signatories other than the US never requested such access, and hence Iran stayed in compliance.

Compliance checking necessarily involves verification of stated compliance. Simply accepting Iran saying "we are in compliance" does not suffice. If we fully trusted Iran, then the JCPOA and the inspection regime would not be necessary.

A thorough check, therefore, cannot be completed without access to military sites; yet, per the above, no violation occurs until the a majority of the signatories agree it has. The US executive was, for good reason, not happy with the inability of IAEA inspectors to access Iranian military sites for compliance checking.

The US requested access for the IAEA inspectors, and were denied. The terms of the treaty gave them no veto power, so they exited the agreement in May 2018 - as was their right.

The reason why the IAEA never requested access to military sites for the checking of compliance - when it would seem a straightforward matter of due diligence - is open to speculation.

With the persistent refusal to ask for inspectors' access to likely sites of nuclear weapons development, the nature of the JCPOA changes hue. It becomes a fig leaf - a pretence - that the Iranian regime is on a path to rehabilitation. Clearly all sides know this.

In addition to the nuclear-related aspects of the JCPOA, it encodes more than $100 billion in sanctions relief for the Iranian regime.

Also noteworthy, is the January 2015 flight, in an unmarked plane, of $400 million in cash to Iran. The Obama administration denied this was payment for the release of hostages.

The Wall Street Journal reported that this was the only the first instalment of a $1.7 billion payment to Iran. These "repayments" were claimed to settle an outstanding "debt" to the Iranians for non-delivery of military equipment in 1979.

Due to the fungibility of money, these payments can easily be argued to have subsequently been used to support Iran's various proxies against the coalition effort in the region.

This debt repayment and sanctions relief at a time when the theocratic regime was involved in a kinetic proxy war with the US; plus the fact that the agreement doesn't actually close-off a path to a bomb informs us about possible motivations for the US (and possibly others) signing the JCPOA.

One can speculate that the deal - presented as a way to prevent an Iranian nuclear break-out - was, instead, realpolitik designed to empower predominantly-Shia Iran as a counter to other powers in the region: Israel and predominantly-Sunni Saudi Arabia. Possibly to engineer a regional stalemate of sorts.

  • please remember to provide evidence for your claims Jan 15, 2020 at 16:46

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