The Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran’s nuclear capabilities have been the subject of global hand-wringing for more than two decades. While Iran’s leaders long insisted the country was not building nuclear weapons, its enrichment of uranium and history of deception created deep mistrust. In 2015, after more than two years of talks and threats to bomb the country’s facilities, Iran and world powers reached a deal that limited the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that had cut off oil exports and hobbled its economy. After President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact and reinstated sanctions in 2018, Iran began violating the deal’s restrictions and, in early 2020, said it would no longer observe limits on the amount of nuclear material it produces. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who was elected Nov. 3 to succeed Trump, has said he would return the U.S. to the deal if Iran resumes complying with it. 

The Situation

The revival of the nuclear agreement is not a given, despite the outcome of the U.S. presidential race. A presidential election in Iran in June may prove just as pivotal. The field is set to be dominated by conservatives whose influence has surged since the U.S. abandoned the deal, which President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, had sold to Iranians as a ticket to economic prosperity. Instead, the tighter U.S. sanctions provoked an economic contraction. A hardline successor to Rouhani may not be willing to simply reactivate the pact as is. For his part, Biden says that after rejoining the accord, the U.S. would work with its allies on additional negotiations to “strengthen and extend” the deal’s provisions, without saying specifically how. Trump’s policies produced division between the U.S. and the other parties to the accord— China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the European Union — which worked to preserve it. When the Trump administration, in an effort to bury the deal for good, pressed the United Nations to restore its sanctions against Iran in August, it was rebuffed by other members of the UN Security Council.

The Iran Nuclear Deal

The Background

Iranian statements and international contacts with Pakistani scientists prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to warn in 1992 that the Persian Gulf country could develop a nuclear weapon. While Iran reaffirmed its commitment to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it wanted the country’s “right” to enrich uranium recognized before it made concessions. A breakthrough came after Iran elected Rouhani president in 2013. The 2015 deal he made recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and Iran was allowed to keep 5,000 centrifuges to separate the uranium-235 isotope needed to induce a fission chain reaction. But Iran agreed that for 15 years it would not refine the metal to more than 3.7% enrichment — the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants — and would limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, or 3% of the amount it held in May 2015. The International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran eliminated its inventory of 20%-enriched uranium, which can be used to make medical isotopes and to power research reactors but could also be purified to weapons-grade material at short notice. Inspectors also confirmed that Iran destroyed a reactor capable of producing plutonium. U.S. officials under then-President Barack Obama estimated that the pact extended the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a bomb from a few months to a year. 

The Iran Nuclear Deal

The Argument

Trump administration officials say the 2015 deal emboldened Iranian activities that destabilize the Middle East and didn’t adequately address Iran’s ballistic missile program. They had some company in criticizing the deal. Middle East powers including Israel and Saudi Arabia say it empowered Iran’s theocratic regime to the detriment of regional security. And some members of the U.S. Congress say Iran can’t be trusted to make any fissile material, whether for energy, medicine or bombs. Like other enriching countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and South Africa, the technology gives Iran the ability to pursue nuclear weapons should it choose to break its commitments. Supporters of the deal say Iran would never agree to abandon enrichment entirely and that a decade’s worth of sanctions failed to stop its nuclear program. Keeping an enrichment capability was important to Iran, for reasons of national pride and because it was previously denied access to uranium on world markets. Defending the agreement, Obama has said that it prevented another war in the Middle East. Without a deal, supporters say, Iran would have been left free to pursue its nuclear ambitions unchecked.

The Reference Shelf

  • Related QuickTakes on U.S.-Iran tensions, how close Iran might be to a nuclear bomb, and Iran’s proxy network
  • Text of the July 2015 agreement and a New York Times graphic on the outcome.
  • Bloomberg published a layman’s guide to the Iran talks and a timeline about the country’s history of deception.
  • Council on Foreign Relations web page on the Iran nuclear talks.
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace April 2013 report estimating the costs and risks of Iran’s nuclear program.

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