Iran: Five Years of the Nuclear Deal

Vladimir Sazhin, Senior Researcher of the Department of Middle East Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ph.D.

July 14 marks the fifth anniversary of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal or Iran deal). In terms of its importance for the preservation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the JCPOA stands abreast with the fundamental document, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which came in force exactly 50 years ago on March 5, 1970.

On July 14, 2015, Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union (the P5+1), and Iran agreed on the JCPOA with a view to end the dissent over Tehran's nuclear program, which had concerned the global community for decades.

The road to consensus and agreement was difficult and thorny.

Iran’s nuclear program goes back more than 60 years. Nuclear research was initiated by the ambitious initiatives of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who planned a large-scale program for the development of nuclear technologies in Iran.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah also disrupted Iran's nuclear ambitions. After rising to power, the Iranian Revolution leader, Ayatollah Khomeini suspended research and the nuclear infrastructure in the country.

When the Iraqi army used chemical weapons against the Iranians at the height of the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-1980s, Iran’s leadership began to consider building its own weapons of mass destruction. Iran adopted a secret directive signed by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that recognized nuclear arms as a strategic guarantee for preserving the Islamic regime in Tehran.[i]

Since that time, the development of nuclear technologies has accelerated. Iran’s nuclear program was supported by purposeful, well-organized scientific research. Iranian nuclear scientists established a scientific and industrial foundation for a complete nuclear fuel cycle, from extracting uranium ore to storing nuclear waste. Dozens of large research institutes and centers, laboratories and pilot projects were established, including two large uranium enrichment centers in Natanz and Fordow and the IR-40 heavy-water reactor in Arak, with capacity of about 10 kpa of weapons-grade plutonium (enough for two plutonium bombs). Like highly enriched uranium, plutonium is known to be used in nuclear devices.

Additionally, the AMAD Project was developed to create a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile. Incidentally, the IAEA was the main source of information about the AMAD Project, publishing a 12-page detailed document entitled Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme at the end of 2011.[ii]

In response to this behavior, the global community stepped up the pressure on Iran, urging it to ensure the full transparency of its nuclear program and prove that the program existed for peaceful purposes alone. Between 2006 and 2010, the UN Security Council adopted six resolutions, four of which imposed sanctions. Unilateral sanctions by the United States and the European Union cut Iran off from the global financial system and significantly limited its oil exports. As a result, Iran’s economy gradually drifted into crisis.

In this context, secret negotiations between the United States and Iran started in 2012. No progress was made until August 2013, when Hassan Rouhani was elected the new President of Iran. Finding a solution to the nuclear issue was a priority in his foreign policy. [iii] As early as November 24, 2013, Iran and the P5+1 executed an interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action, which stipulated that sanctions would be eased in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program. It took another 20 months for the parties to work out all the details of the agreement due to the complexity of the issue and because certain forces both inside Iran and on the international level disagreed with the proposed plan.

Under Resolution 2231, which put the JCPOA in effect on the international level, Iran undertook a 15-year obligation to limit the number of centrifuges to 6,100 (by 2015, the number of centrifuges had increased to almost 20,000) and its stockpile of 3.67%-enriched uranium to 300 kg (by 2015, Iran had a stockpile of 10,357 kg of uranium enriched to 3-5% and 410.4 kg of 20%-enriched uranium, which was a sufficient volume for further processing in the centrifuge cascades into enough highly enriched material to produce five nuclear devices).

At the same time, the laws prohibited Tehran from producing highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons. The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant would be transformed into an engineering center, and the Arak nuclear facility would be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. All fuel processed in Arak would be transported from Iran during the reactor’s operating life. IAEA experts would monitor all nuclear facilities for 25 years. And if all the terms were met, Iran would see international sanctions lifted in 10 years.

After the implementation of these measures, Iran would be unable to develop nuclear weapons or engage in any significant, secretive military activity for the next 15 to 20 years.

Five years ago, the hope emerged that the JCPOA would be a success, and that the Iran nuclear deal would become a model for solving other complicated international problems. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

The Republican President Donald Trump, who came to power in 2016, has worked consistentlytodestroy all the achievementsof his predecessor, Democratic President Barack Obama, setting his sights first of all on the JCPOA.Trumprepeatedly called the Iran deal the “worst deal in history” and did his best to prevent it from happening.

On May 8, 2018, Trump announced US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the staged introduction of economic sanctions against the IRI. The whole world, including the United States’ partners in P5+1, opposed Trump’s anti-Iran policy. The UK, France, and Germany managed, with the approval of Russia and China, to develop, officially register, and launch the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges. Unfortunately, this instrument proved to be ineffective under the pressure of American sanctions.

Naturally, this political and economic impotence, primarily on the part of Europe, irritated Tehran, which had hoped for solidarity in resisting American pressure. For exactly one year, Iranian leadership had been expecting decisive actions to save the JCPOA, primarily from France, Germany, and the UK. But it was all in vain.

On May 8, 2019, Iran announceda staged phasing-out of its obligations under the nuclear deal.In just over a year, Iran made significant progress in restoring its nuclear infrastructure that was frozen under the JCPOA. The permitted stockpile of enriched uranium and heavy water expanded, the level of enrichment increased to 4.5% from 3.76%, new and more effective centrifuges banned by the JCPOA were developed to the stage of testing and used in production, and uranium enrichment resumed at Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, which is prohibited under the nuclear deal as well. Work is underway to increase the uranium enrichment level to 20%, an undoubtedly alarming step toward obtaining 90% weapons-grade uranium.

However, Iran has held off on exiting the JCPOA de jure, despite the fact that it is close to quitting. By participating in the JCPOA officially, Iranians clear a free path for themselves to pursue the unaccountable and sovereign development of their nuclear program, including its military applications.

Iran will not create nuclear weapons in a single day, of course. It will take several months to fully recover the nuclear infrastructure Iran had before the JCPOA. Then, even in the absence of any political, economic, and cyber push-back on the part of its opponents, Iran will need several years to create nuclear weapons if it chooses to move forward in that direction. On the eve of the JCPOA coming into force, realistic estimates put Iran at four to six years away from building a nuclear device without developing a nuclear delivery vehicle.

And delivery systems are a very important issue for Iran. Let us not forget that it took approximately 10 years for Pakistan to progress from the first underground testing of a nuclear device to the development of a nuclear warhead for a missile.

But – perhaps – this is not the main issue. Instead, the main issue will be how Israel and the United States react to the uncontrolled development of Iran’s nuclear potential. If the Iranians bring their nuclear operations to a level close to creating a nuclear weapon, there is little doubt that Israel and/or the United States will mount an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

It becomes increasingly obvious that the Iranian deal in its initial version cannot be preserved any more, but there is a chance that it could be brought back to life in a version 2.0. In order to do that, we need to preserve its base to serve as a foundation for negotiations on a future agreement.

And such negotiations are absolutely necessary, regardless of domestic political developments inside Iran (Majles elections were held in February 2020) and in the United States (the presidential election is scheduled for November 2020). This is a landmark moment.

On February 21, 2020, radical conservatives who dubbed themselves the Principlists (protectors of the principles of the Islamic revolution and the commandments of the Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini) won the election with a devastating score. They received 220 out of 290 seats in the legislative body. The share of liberal parties decreased seven-fold.

In such circumstances, Iran’s foreign and domestic policies will undoubtedly change in the near future. Although the executive power will stay in hands of “liberal reformers” until the presidential election in May 2021, their ability to implement pragmatic policy has been reduced to zero.

Donald Trump’s undermining of the foundations of the JCPOA may be the major driving force behind this internal political situation in Iran. The nuclear deal was the biggest ace held by liberal President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters. By lashing out at the JCPOA, President Trump delivered a blow to the liberal reformers who have been ready for some time to engage in dialogue with the West and even with the United States. Trump’s attack on the JCPOA was a gift for Rouhani’s opponents – radical conservatives who will always be against such agreements. Thanks to Trump, they grabbed legislative power in the Republic and are ready to go so far as to impeach Rouhani.

All things considered, the JCPOA will remain an important factor on the foreign policy track. Two scenarios are quite possible here.

The first scenario does not assume any unexpected action by Iran and covers the period until the presidential election in May 2021. According to this scenario, the anti-West Principlists will seek ways to solve the issue of sanctions and the JCPOA in general, possibly through dialogue. After all, Teheran has no other way out except negotiation. Iran’s economic and foreign policy situation becomes increasingly complicated, not to mention the oil embargo. In 2019, sales to Europe dropped 74% and hopes for an alternative in the East collapsed as well. Because of the far-reaching tentacles of American sanctions, sales to China and India decreased significantly (down 34% and 79%, respectively). [iv]

Europe (or rather, the three co-authors of the JCPOA – the UK, Germany, and France, who have supported Iran’s efforts to preserve the nuclear deal), may possibly turn a cold shoulder on Iran because of the influence of an increasing Western distrust of Iran.

It should be borne in mind that the United States will undoubtedly put pressure on Iran and exert its influence on any contacts with it. The US presidential election will be an important moment. In this regard, it should be taken into account that if the Democrats win in November, agreements with Iran may somehow be renewed, even if not immediately and not in their previous form. If the current Republican president wins the election, the situation will be less optimistic.

According to the second “no negotiations” scenario,it is possible that the situation around Iran will rile up Iranian radicals and that they will take extreme measures. In the context of increased anti-West propaganda, this could be withdrawal from the JCPOA (possibly a staged withdrawal) and from the NPT, with reduced IAEA control.

Meanwhile, Tehran, as noted above, will rebuild its nuclear infrastructure at an accelerated pace, aiming to create the conditions and a technical foundation for obtaining nuclear weapons. In this case, an Iran with a revived and renewed nuclear program will be even more unacceptable to the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Iran’s opponents than it was before the JCPOA. This will lead to a new surge of confrontation and the possibility of military conflict, which could erupt into large-scale war. We see this as a tragic scenario for Iran and the region as a whole.

COVID-19 changes the situation in Iran and around it. The pandemic impacts authorities’ decision-making, limits their opportunities, and changes the tactics of Iranian politics.

Obviously, key events related to Iran’s nuclear program and the JCPOA are not expected until Iran and the rest of the world lift the global lockdown in response to the insidious COVID-19.

Given the current situation in and around Iran, the fifth anniversary of the JCPOA, a breakthrough document for the non-proliferation regime, may become its last anniversary. What a pity!

The opinions of the author belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by the Editorial Board.

[i] T. Ganiev, S. Zadonsky, V. Karyakin, Military Power of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Volume 1 – Moscow: Middle East Institute, 2019, 536 pages, pages 283 – 284.

[ii] Report of the IAEA Director General // Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, November 9, 2011. GOV/ 2011/65 // Annex // Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme // Section С. Nuclear Explosive Development Indicators. Clauses 17-65. . [Digital source] – URL: (Accessed on November 2, 2019)

[iii] For more information on the JCPOA negotiations and content, see A. Arbatov, Nuclear Agreement with Iran: Politics and Technologies // Year of the Planet. Issue 2015. Moscow: Idea-Press, 2015. pages 83 - 94.

[iv] IPJ (International Politics and Society Journal) website, Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Germany), February 25, 2020. [Digital source] – URL: (Accessed on February 26, 2020)