This fact sheet is current at April 2020.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an agreement between Iran and the international community, represented by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – plus Germany. It was reached in 2015 and sought to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
Iran never fully met its JCPOA commitments. In response, the US withdrew from the agreement in May 2018, following which Iran began to openly violate many of its main provisions. As of 2020, the deal appears effectively dead, even though some nations continue to call for a return to it.
History of Iran’s nuclear weapons program
In 1987, Iran secretly bought materials and designs for uranium enrichment centrifuges, crucially needed for producing atomic weapons, from Pakistani nuclear proliferator, AQ Khan. Subsequently, Teheran secretly developed elements of the nuclear fuel cycle including local production of the military-grade fissile material required for a nuclear bomb, using either enriched uranium and/or plutonium.
From 1989 to at least 2003, under the secret AMAD project, Iran conducted works aimed at producing at least five nuclear bombs. This included procurement of knowledge, equipment and materials for an atomic warhead from various sources, and research and tests in various locations in Iran, all in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Negotiations and conflict with Iran
Following the discovery of Iran’s undeclared nuclear facilities in the town of Natanz in 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) launched an investigation into “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program.
In 2005, the IAEA found Iran was not compliant with the NPT – the cornerstone international document that forbids the spread of non-civilian nuclear technology, and which Iran signed in 1968 and ratified in 1970. The Iranian nuclear file was then referred to the United Nations Security Council, which passed several resolutions demanding Iran cease its NPT violations and imposed sanctions on the country.
Since then, the international community, acting primarily through the UN Security Council, has both signed several agreements with Iran and imposed a variety of sanctions on it. However, Iran has continued to make gradual progress towards military nuclear capabilities.
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
In 2013, the US administration of President Barack Obama initiated secret negotiations with Iran. These accelerated after the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President in June that year. An unsigned agreement, the JCPOA, was reached two years later. It was adopted in October 2015 into UNSC Resolution 2231.
The agreement was reached between Iran and permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, UK, France, China, Russia – as well as with Germany and the EU.
The aim of the deal was to keep Iran at least 12 months away from acquiring enough fissile material to build one nuclear warhead, according to the US and other states involved.
The main points of the JCPOA
Iran committed itself to:
- Limit uranium enrichment capacity for 10 years.
- Restrict deployment of advanced centrifuges for at least eight and a half years.
- Cap its fissile material stockpile for 15 years. Convert its nuclear enrichment facility in the town of Fordow so it would produce only stable isotopes for civilian purposes.
- Neutralise the Arak heavy water reactor that the Iranian Government was constructing – capable of producing plutonium – and committed to build no new heavy water reactors or stockpile heavy water for 15 years.
- For 15 years, allow extensive IAEA monitoring on nuclear activities, materials and equipment, including access by inspectors to any relevant Iranian site.
- Fully clarify outstanding issues being investigated by the IAEA, including the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.
Other signatory states promised to:
- Gradually remove and/or waive all nuclear-related financial sanctions on Iran if the Iranians met their JCPOA commitments, as judged by the IAEA.
- In the event of a claim of non-compliance, a complex dispute resolution was to be invoked, which could eventually result in a “snap–back” of UN sanctions on Iran.
Limitations and criticisms of the JCPOA
- The removal of sanctions on Iran instantly released billions of dollars of the regime’s funds that had previously been frozen. Rather than using this money to support the Iranian people, the Iranian Government used much of this money in Gaza, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to fund terrorist groups and entrench its destablising presence there.
- For decades, Teheran has been purchasing and manufacturing a large and diverse long-range ballistic missile arsenal, mostly from North Korea. The JCPOA ignored Iran’s ballistic missile program, which evidence overwhelmingly suggests is meant to provide a delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons.
- In an effort to safeguard the deal at all cost, all parties to the JCPOA – with the exception of the US – avoided enforcement of any penalties on Iran for its breaches of the JCPOA. This allowed Teheran to continue gradually progressing towards its goals.
Critics have also identified some major flaws in the terms of the JCPOA itself:
- The JCPOA contains sunset clauses beginning in 2023 that essentially lift all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, including allowing Iran to enrich as much uranium as it wants and undertaking any nuclear activity, as long as it is ostensibly for peaceful purposes.
- The deal permits Iran to continue researching advanced ultra-fast centrifuges. Once deployed, these could potentially allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons at virtually any time without the outside world having time to stop it.
- Limitations on the ability of IAEA inspectors to check certain Iranian sites, such as Iran’s self-declared “military sites”, which the regime has kept off-limits to inspectors.
Iran never fully met its commitments
- To ensure the agreement came into effect, signatory states pressured then–director general of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, to declare on December 15, 2015 that the agency file on the past military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program was closed. However, subsequently released material has proved that Iran never complied with its JCPOA obligations to make full declarations about its past program (see below).
- Iran secretly concealed in Teheran an archive that documented Project AMAD. This archive should have been disclosed to the IAEA. The archive was exposed when Israeli intelligence officers stole thousands of documents from Iran in January 2018. Hiding this archive seemed to be proof that Iran never intended to reveal the full extent of its nuclear activity.
- In the JCPOA preface, Iran promises “that under no circumstances” will it “seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”. The archive obtained, however, showed that Iran could have resumed its atomic bomb project from the point at which it left off. The archive included a design for a nuclear warhead – a direct violation of the NPT.
- Reports suggest the heavy water reactor core in Arak was never fully neutralized as required by the JCPOA, with Iranian regime figures having boasted they could reactivate it quickly at will.
- The Fordow facility was not repurposed to become a site producing civilian-only isotopes and has now been reopened for uranium enrichment.
JCPOA – current status
In May 2018, US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the JCPOA and resumed unilateral sanctions on Iran. Tensions between the US and Iran have since escalated, while the Iranian Government is gradually and publicly breaching more and more of its JCPOA commitments, including those related to the amount of enriched uranium it is entitled to stockpile, the degree of enrichment it can undertake, and the kinds and numbers of centrifuges it is permitted to employ.
According to IAEA reports, as of March 3, 2020, Iran possesses more than a tonne of low enriched uranium, which brings it within a few months of having enough fissile material for one nuclear warhead, if further enriched. In addition, obstruction of IAEA inspectors’ work in Iran has escalated. The European states that are party to the JCPOA threatened in January 2020 to initiate the JCPOA dispute mechanism that can result in the “snap-back” of sanctions on Iran by the UNSC.
As of mid-2020, the deal as originally constituted appears unrecoverable. Even if renewed in some form in the future, any deal would almost certainly have to include new provisions that, at a bare minimum, address the ongoing Iranian breaches of the JCPOA, and prevent the lifting of almost all restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program in a few years’ time under the JCPOA’s “sunset clauses”.