**Updated May 16, 2022**
By Samuel M. Hickey
We will update this page as new questions and information arise, and you can submit questions to be answered by tweeting at @nukes_of_hazard.
Iran Deal Specifics
- What did the Iran deal accomplish?
- Under the Iran deal, why can’t Iran build a secret nuclear bomb?
- Will sanctions relief allow Iran to fund terrorism more while Washington turns to other issues?
- Don’t key pieces of the JCPOA expire in a few years, so why make a deal that is not permanent?
- What are the objections to the JCPOA?
- Why didn’t the 2015 Iran deal sufficiently address Iran’s ballistic missile program?
- In what ways does the nuclear deal manage Iran’s missile program?
- Is the United States putting restrictions on Iranian missile and arms transfers and sales?
- What is Russia’s role in the Iran nuclear deal?
- How did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impact the Iran deal negotiations?
- Why would Russia support the Iran nuclear deal?
International Support for the Iran Deal
- Why do the Europeans support the Iran deal?
- Why does China support the Iran deal?
- What do Israel’s nuclear experts think about the Iran deal?
What did the Iran deal accomplish?
Despite its politicization, the Iran nuclear deal represents the next-generation non-proliferation verification design to prevent any country from cheating its way to a nuclear weapon in a hurry. The objective of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was to constrain Iran’s nuclear program verifiably and to impede progress toward a nuclear weapon. In the absence of the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced further, and Iran’s introduction of advanced centrifuges means that valuable knowledge was gained that cannot be taken away. Without the deal, Iran will only distill more knowledge through experiments that push it closer to permanent nuclear-threshold state status.
Specifically, the Iran nuclear deal caps the quantity and level of enrichment of uranium as well as the number and sophistication of the centrifuges that are operating and limits heavy water production. It also provides continuous monitoring of centrifuges and centrifuge rotor tubes; continuous access to Natanz; the monitoring of the production or acquisition of any uranium ore concentrate; and enhanced managed access, meaning the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), can inspect a suspected violation.
Further, the deal delves into weaponization — the first agreement ever to do so — and creates the principle that the IAEA should be allowed to monitor a halt on weaponization activities. Not only are 18 nuclear facilities and nine other locations in Iran under IAEA safeguards, but the deal set up a procurement channel to monitor the materials and technologies Iran seeks to acquire that could be diverted to a secret program. In fact, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2231 requires countries to obtain prior approval from the Council for certain specified activities with Iran.
Although some of the bans on Iran’s specific activities have an expiration date, the world is undeniably more secure while Iran is complying with them. The Biden administration has said it intends to negotiate a “longer and stronger” agreement that will seek to address these concerns.
It is now a goal of the technical non-proliferation and safeguards communities at U.S. national labs and universities to achieve continuous monitoring of sensitive nuclear facilities and access upstream in the fuel cycle to activities such as mining, milling and conversion to every country with an advanced nuclear program. Until it is topped, the Iran deal is the new gold standard.
Why didn’t the 2015 Iran deal sufficiently address Iran’s ballistic missile program?
Critics of the JCPOA argue that it did not sufficiently constrain Iran’s ballistic missile program because they maintain that Iran’s continued testing of dual-use launch vehicles may provide a nuclear-capable delivery vehicle, should they attempt to build a bomb. The overwhelming interest, however, is in limiting the possibilities of Iran developing nuclear weapons. It took a multilateral pressure campaign from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, European Union and the UN to bring Iran to the table in the first place. Had the U.S. insisted on including a complete ban on Iranian missile development, it would have collapsed the multilateral pressure campaign, meaning no deal on nuclear weapons.
China, Russia and Iran blocked efforts to include specific prohibitions on missile development in the 2015 deal as there is no international treaty that sufficiently controls indigenous (domestic) development. This issue did not start with Iran and programs of similar sophistication are growing in nations across the Middle East. Ballistic missiles should be the subject of vigorous non-proliferation diplomacy but are perhaps better suited for a regional discussion.
In what ways does the nuclear deal manage Iran’s missile program?
UNSC resolution 2231, which endorses and helps implement the JCPOA, is not completely without mention of ballistic missiles, but there are a few points of contention. First, this provision only “calls upon” Iran to not take certain actions. It does not “decide” that Iran must not undertake certain actions, unlike the 2010 UNSC Resolution 1929, which prohibited Iran from launches using ballistic missile technology that could be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. As such, there is disagreement over Iran’s ability to violate this provision.
Second, this provision on Iran’s missile development is set to expire after eight years, in October 2023. It was added at the urging of China, Russia and Iran, and their initial preference was to lift the ban even earlier, in 2016.
Finally, there is an issue of intent. By describing the ballistic missiles as “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” there is sufficient ambiguity of intent. Proving an intent to build a missile meant to carry a nuclear weapon versus a conventional weapon is very difficult; particularly when Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon.
Moreover, in addition to any such provision being difficult to include or enforce within the Iran deal, indigenous missile development is not yet controlled by any international treaty, in part, because such development poses numerous other challenges pertaining to intent and the end goals of the program. The line between civilian space programs and missile development can be blurred, so it is difficult to develop a set of legitimate activities versus potentially nefarious research and development. For that reason, the international community has thus far focused on export controls on weapons transfers to Iran like the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
Is the United States putting restrictions on Iranian missile and arms transfers and sales?
Yes. Recognizing the limits of what the JCPOA sought to accomplish and the ongoing challenge of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the United States uses many mechanisms to restrict and put pressure on Iran’s missile program.
First, it embargos arms transfers to terrorist and non-state groups. In coordination with its partners in the region and the international community, the United States levies arms embargoes and interdicts destabilizing actions, including Iranian arms transfers to the Houthis in Yemen, Shia militants in Iraq, Hizballah in Lebanon, Libya and North Korea.
Second, it limits missile-related sales. Through the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the United States works with more than 100 countries to help limit Iranian missile-related imports or exports. This initiative aims to prevent the spread of WMD, including shipments of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, their means of delivery, and the illicit transfer of dual-use goods that could be used to produce such weapons. A key impetus of PSI’s creation was the failed 2002 attempt by the U.S. and Spanish navies to confiscate the cargo of the So San, a North Korean merchant ship carrying ballistic missiles and missile components to Yemen.
Third, it prohibits transfers of ballistic missiles. The United States and the international community use the MTCR to deny the transfer of Category I systems, including ballistic missiles, that would support Iran’s missile program. Category I items are missiles capable of delivering a warhead weighing 500 kilograms or more to ranges exceeding 300 kilometers, as well as their major subsystems like engines and re-entry vehicles.
Fourth, it sanctions anyone that helps Iran’s missile capability. The United States can and does sanction any person or entity that materially contributes to Iran’s ability to manufacture, acquire, develop or transfer missiles. All of these activities will continue with or without a revived nuclear deal.
Will sanctions relief allow Iran to fund terrorism more while Washington turns to other issues?
“The sad reality is that it is not very expensive for Iran to support its proxies in the region.” –Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy. Restricting Iran’s ability to fund terrorism is not a question of how much sanctions pressure the United States can impose or if sanctions relief frees up even more money for Iran to fund its proxies in the region. Rather, it is about Iran’s perceived threat environment.
In fact, the Trump administration released an estimate that between 2012 and 2018 — before the JCPOA existed (2012-2015) and while it was operational (2016-2018) — Iran regularly spent about $2 to $3 billion a year supporting its proxies around the Middle East. For a country with an annual budget of around $158 billion while under maximum pressure sanctions, $2 to $3 billion is simply not a large percentage and sanctions relief is unlikely to affect Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorist proxies. Consequently, Iranian behavior actually got worse after the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement and while under the subsequent maximum pressure sanctions regime. Attacks on U.S. personnel based in the region increased, and Iran took calibrated steps that decreased its proximity to a nuclear weapon to increase its leverage.
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price quantified the impact of the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA this way: “From 2012 to 2018, there were no significant attacks, there were no attacks against U.S. service members, diplomatic facilities in Iraq. That changed in 2018. And between 2019 and 2020, the number of attacks from Iran-backed groups went up 400 percent. This was in the aftermath of the decision to abandon the JCPOA. It was in the aftermath of the decision to apply the FTO designation to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was in the aftermath of the killing of Soleimani, the IRGC chief.” Iran sought to impose consequences on America’s actions.
Some of the United States’ Arab and Israeli partners are also worried that once the nuclear file is closed, Washington will feel the Iran folder is closed, and pay less attention to Iran’s support for proxy groups and other regional activities. This concern, in part, stems from the bipartisan consensus within the United States to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, draw down U.S. military presence in Iraq and the broader Middle East, and pivot to East Asia, as Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both supported. However, even critics of the JCPOA have noted that the Biden team has struck a different tone, arguing, “Biden’s approach toward Iran is clearly different from what they [Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis] perceived Obama’s to be.” Reviving the JCPOA will not resolve all of the United States’ issues with Iran, nor was it ever meant to, but it can tackle the more immediate threat of neutralizing Iran’s nuclear program so that other issues can be addressed.
What is Russia’s role in the Iran nuclear deal?
Russia has been involved in the Iranian nuclear program since 1995 when it agreed to resume work on the partially complete Bushehr nuclear power plant that had been languishing for decades. Russian support was key to gaining Iranian concessions in 2015, and it shares an interest in a non-nuclear Iran today. In the present negotiations, Russia continues to follow its own interests, which sometimes differ from those of the United States, but the broader challenge of preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is a shared strategic priority of both states.
Despite claims that Russia is negotiating a revival of the 2015 deal on behalf of the United States, the true intermediaries are the Europeans who hold the pen, specifically, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell and his chief of staff Enrique Mora. Mr. Mora has traveled between Washington and Tehran in the past few weeks sharing the other side’s proposals to secure a deal. Russia does, however, play a key role in the implementation of a revived JCPOA.
As per the 2015 agreement, under a revived deal Russia will ship out excess uranium from Iran and is in charge of converting the deep underground Fordow nuclear facility from an enrichment site into a research center for the production of stable radioactive isotopes for medical purposes. Finally, Moscow is in charge of delivering nuclear fuel that is not suitable for weapons to the Tehran research reactor and the Bushehr reactor, and repatriating spent fuel back to Russia.
How did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impact the Iran deal negotiations?
During the last round of negotiations in Vienna, which coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Russia inserted last-minute demands for carve-outs in Ukraine-related sanctions. This move, a typical Soviet-style negotiating tactic, was meant to see if the other negotiating parties were desperate enough to secure an agreement that they might weaken the recently imposed sanctions. The move was a miscalculation, however, and should be viewed as another instance of Putin underestimating the world’s reaction to Russian aggression.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov demanded on March 5 that the United States “give us written guarantees at the minimum level of the Secretary of State that the current [sanctions] process launched by the [United States] will not in any way harm our right to free, fully fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran.” These demands went far beyond the role that Russia is supposed to play in the implementation of the nuclear agreement. The United States had no problem in issuing waivers for Russia to conduct work as part of its responsibilities under the JCPOA, but holding the talks hostage to get Western concessions on Ukraine was, of course, completely unacceptable.
Ten days later, Russia claimed it received the written guarantees it sought, but these guarantees were related to the nuclear cooperation part of this agreement. They were not the broad guarantees that Russia was after. For now, it seems Russia has backed off from its demands.
After floating that trial balloon and quickly withdrawing it, Moscow likely does not want to completely wreck its credibility as a negotiating partner by once again reneging on its position. However, if Moscow did attempt to hold up the talks again, it is likely that the United States and the Europeans would attempt to bypass Moscow and complete a deal with Iran that does not involve Russia. The nuclear-related activities Russia is required to implement could potentially be done by another partner. However, this would mean that a different deal would need to be negotiated and it is unclear how long this would take. There are many variables to such an equation.
Why would Russia support the Iran nuclear deal?
In the long-term, Moscow’s strategy vis-à-vis the nuclear deal has not changed because Russia does not want Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Iran getting a nuclear weapons capability is potentially destabilizing for Russia because it could start a domino effect with countries in the region also pursuing their own nuclear capabilities — that would weaken Moscow’s global position and unleash currents it could not control. Putin often sees the world in zero-sum terms, and as such, tends to view Iran, because of its opposition to the United States, as a partner and a means to undermine U.S. strategy. A war in the Middle East, even if it did not involve nuclear weapons, could alter that picture, and remove (in Putin’s view) one country from his column.
In the short-term, Moscow’s strategy has changed because it does not want the West alone to reap the benefits of reviving the JCPOA while it faces international isolation, nor does it want Iranian oil and natural gas on the market at this moment. As the United States and the West seek to cutoff Russia from the global economy in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is a need to replace Russia’s oil and natural gas exports for countries all over the world. Iran has the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, behind Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Canada, while Russia is eighth. Also, Iran has the second-largest natural gas reserves, behind Russia, so it has the resources to buoy up the global energy market, should it be relieved of sanctions.
However, it seems Moscow miscalculated and did not anticipate Iran’s reaction to its effort to tie the crisis in Ukraine to the nuclear talks. A resumption of the nuclear deal lifts sanctions on 85 million Iranians in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program and a rigorous monitoring regime, and toying with these people’s livelihoods at this late stage clearly appeared like foul play to the Iranian public. While Iranian government officials toed the public line of blaming the United States, there were public concerns that Iran was tying itself to Russia and would be trapped under Ukraine-related sanctions as well.
Efforts to tie non-nuclear obstacles to the Vienna talks have plagued the negotiations for months, but it seems that Russia does not want to burn its ties with Iran over Ukraine and withdrew the demand. The non-proliferation benefits of the JCPOA’s restoration are still in Russia’s interests.
Under the Iran deal, why can’t Iran build a secret nuclear bomb?
The JCPOA is built on verification, not on trust.
There are two paths for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon, by enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium , and the JCPOA verifiably blocked both paths. However, as the long history of U.S.-Iran relations shows, neither side trusts the other, so the JCPOA baked in mechanisms to challenge Iran if there were concerns or suspicions that it might be cheating.
To build a nuclear bomb clandestinely using uranium, Iran would need to build, staff and run four facilities without getting caught. These facilities are for mining and milling , uranium conversion, a separate enrichment facility and a location for metallurgy and weapons R&D. Similarly, for Iran to build a nuclear bomb clandestinely using plutonium, Iran would need to build seven facilities, including facilities for mining and milling , conversion, enrichment, fuel manufacturing, likely a heavy-water nuclear reactor, reprocessing, and a location for metallurgy and weapons R&D. All of this would have to be done while the world’s intelligence agencies and IAEA nuclear inspectors look for them. The JCPOA provides the IAEA with the capability to request inspection at any place it believes clandestine activity may be occurring.
If the JCPOA is revived, the IAEA will be able to visit any suspicious facility within 24 days. This is the quickest time ever negotiated and it is not possible anywhere else in the world. Without the JCPOA, Iran can block the IAEA’s access to a suspicious site that is outside of its safeguards agreement without being in contravention of international law. The reason 24 days is sufficient is because it can take six months to several years to clean a site (remove any evidence that nefarious activity was underway), so IAEA nuclear inspectors and the world will know.
Why do the Europeans support the Iran deal?
It is safe to say that European countries do not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon that could potentially hold any one of their cities hostage. For this reason, Europeans and Americans have a common interest in remaining vigilant over Iran’s enrichment facilities in particular and its nuclear program in general into the future.
Iran’s nuclear program has advanced in the absence of the JCPOA, and France, Germany and the United Kingdom have made numerous statements reflecting the urgency of the matter. By reducing the proliferation potential of Iran’s nuclear program, the incentive for military action that could quickly escalate to war would decrease and there is room to manage other issues on a regional level.
Why does China support the Iran deal?
As China has become a major world power, greater proliferation anywhere would challenge China’s power but Iran in particular becoming a nuclear weapon state would be radically destabilizing for China’s interests. China has played an unlikely constructive role in the talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, despite the concerns about a recently signed 25-year trade and military partnership that many have characterized as the “selling off” of Iran to China.
China is now the top trading partner for many countries in the Middle East, not just Iran, and as such, Beijing has pursued a careful balancing act so as not to wade into long-running regional disputes. The recent upgrade in the China-Iran relationship really just brings Iran into line with the countries China has already done this with like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Any shifts in the strategic balance of the Middle East — like Iran getting a nuclear weapon or even getting too close to a nuclear threshold state status — would be disastrous for Chinese investments.
Within this context, Beijing is a supporter of regional peace for the financial incentives.
What do Israel’s nuclear experts think about the Iran deal?
Despite the Israeli government’s opposition to the deal, many Israeli defense and nuclear experts have recognized the deal’s benefits and many view it as in Israel’s national security interests — especially versus no deal at all. It is not just a late change of heart by former officials, but a widely held belief in the Israeli national security establishment.
For instance, Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, which advises the government on nuclear issues, endorsed the JCPOA in October 2015. Yair Golan, Former Deputy IDF Chief of Staff and current Deputy Minister of Economics and Industry, argued in April 2022 that , “A return to the JCPOA is critical to Israel’s national security… Symbolic issues, such as removing the Revolutionary Guards from the terrorism list, cannot be allowed to cloud our judgment.”
Further, the Israeli intelligence community’s analysis of Iran’s nuclear program concurs with the IAEA’s and U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Iran is not now pursuing a bomb. Describing Iran’s nuclear advancements due to the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, Israel’s Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Tamir Hayman said in October 2021 that, “There is an enriched amount [of uranium] in volumes that we have not seen before and it is disturbing. At the same time, in all other aspects of the Iranian nuclear project, we see no progress.”
Hayman continued, “Not in the weapons project, in the financial area, not in any other sector. Therefore the period of time that still remains of two years has not changed. Because even from the moment you have a breakout, there is still a long way to go before a bomb.” Increasing the barriers and adding to the breakout time by restoring the JCPOA is in Israel’s national interest.
Don’t key pieces of the JCPOA expire in a few years, so why make a deal that is not permanent?
Every day without limits in place is a day Iran moves closer to nuclear weapons capability. Freezing that, even if not permanent in every respect, would be better than progress continuing.
The problem is Iran is not only advancing its nuclear program, but also limiting IAEA nuclear inspector access. The inspection regime of the JCPOA is the most invasive ever negotiated and Iran believes it can use its noncompliance with the deal’s inspection regime as leverage to compel the United States to reach a better deal. As time goes on, there is greater and greater uncertainty about the civilian nature of Iran’s program. If Iran reaches nuclear-threshold-state status, there are gaps in the limited inspection regime that could theoretically be exploited.
While Iran has not made the decision to move toward a military nuclear program, the world would not have confidence in the strictly civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear program. If the stalemate in the talks continues, some analysts assess that we could reach that point by the end of 2022. Reviving the deal, even if not permanent, avoids this situation and opens the way to further negotiations from a position of confidence, not uncertainty.
What are the objections to the JCPOA?
Most of the objections to the deal emanate from Iranian behavior in other spheres. Opponents argue that the 2015 arrangement could have, or should have, included provisions addressing Iranian regional behavior and its missile program. They also argue that by only addressing the nuclear file, the United States gave up leverage to get a comprehensive deal on the Iran folder.
Most recently, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) found majority support from 62 senators for a non-binding motion to instruct (MTI) that “any agreement negotiated by the United States with the Islamic Republic of Iran addressing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons” also include provisions that deal with the “full range of Iran’s destabilizing activities.” The MTI cited Iran’s missile program, support for terrorism, and evasion of sanctions in the trade of petroleum products with China. The MTI primarily sought to keep the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps designation as a foreign terrorist organization on the books, which is the last major hurdle to reviving the deal.
The MTI does not, however, mention anything about Iran’s nuclear program or the ability of the JCPOA to prevent Iran from building a secret nuclear bomb, a significant omission when stemming proliferation is such a high priority. The JCPOA does what it intended to do.
Demanding a single-shot deal to resolve all the issues with Iran could backfire and further close off all avenues for diplomacy. This was tried when the United States left the JCPOA and began its maximum pressure policy, which has not succeeded. The JCPOA assures the international community that Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon without sufficient notice for a global response and in that way, prevents the loss of life that comes with military action. Iran’s destabilizing activities, human rights abuses and support of terrorism are serious concerns, but it remains a higher priority to rebuild confidence that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons capability.