In Brief

Is Iran’s Nuclear Program Back for Good?

The demise of the Iran nuclear deal does not make Tehran an immediate threat, but it opens the door to nuclear escalation.

The main provisions of the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are now no longer being carried out. CFR Senior Fellow Philip H. Gordon assesses what this means and what comes next.

Does this latest announcement that Iran is breaking the uranium enrichment limits set by the nuclear agreement mean the deal is effectively over?   

More From Our Experts

In practical terms the JCPOA is dead—at least for now. The United States has withdrawn from the agreement and, through its secondary sanctions on other countries doing business with Iran, it is preventing other parties from upholding their commitments. And now Iran is no longer abiding by some of the deal’s core provisions.

More on:

Iran

Iran Nuclear Agreement

United States

European Union

Treaties and Agreements

Both sides could sooner or later return to compliance, but the deal’s main provisions—international sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian nuclear restraint—are no longer being implemented. 

Will the European Union ease or tighten sanctions in response? 

There is a lot of speculation about whether the Europeans will support the snapback of UN and EU sanctions now that Iran is no longer implementing some of the deal’s provisions. Even though the Europeans accept that Iran is violating the deal, they are reluctant to do so, in part because they blame the United States for breaching the agreement in the first place, and in part because they know this would lead Iran to pull out entirely, an outcome they would prefer to avoid. 

The issue is less important than it seems, however, since the Europeans are already cooperating with U.S. secondary sanctions. A renewed EU oil embargo, for example, is irrelevant if Europeans aren’t buying Iranian oil because of U.S. sanctions. 

More From Our Experts

How far is Iran from being able to build a weapon?  

At the time the JCPOA was signed, Iran was believed to be only a few months away from being able to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. With the deal in place, that “breakout timeline” was extended to more than a year. 

Women walk past a mural along the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Women walk past a mural along the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s breach of the restrictions—which cover the size of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and a commitment to limit enrichment—does not dramatically change that timeline, but over time it could shrink it. Even with enough fissile material for a bomb, Iran would still have to master nuclear weaponization, the complicated process of developing the capability to detonate and deliver an explosive device. Most experts believe Iran suspended its past work on that process more than a decade ago.

More on:

Iran

Iran Nuclear Agreement

United States

European Union

Treaties and Agreements

The importance of these breaches is not that they will immediately bring Iran much closer to a nuclear weapons capacity but that by destroying the deal entirely they open the door to steps that would do so.  

What are the prospects for diplomacy between the United States and Iran?   

Both sides want to avoid a military conflict but that doesn’t mean a return to diplomacy will be easy. The Trump administration has said that it wants a new and better nuclear deal, but it has spelled out conditions—including Iran abandoning its enrichment program entirely, limiting its ballistic missile capabilities, and dramatically changing its behavior in the Middle East—that Tehran is highly unlikely to meet.

The Trump administration has now cornered Iran by effectively cutting off its oil exports. But Washington has also boxed itself in. If Iran continues to expand its nuclear program but refuses to accede to the administration’s demands—or even to accept negotiations—the United States will either have to accept the growing risk of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, or use military force to stop it.  

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
Close
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail
Close

Top Stories on CFR

Democratic Republic of Congo

France

With France raising taxes on big tech firms, Washington says American companies are being unfairly targeted.

Asia

We may well come to look back on this moment as the time in which Asia began to come apart.