Is the Iran nuclear deal effectively dead? Three questions.

Why We Wrote This

Escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran have put renewed focus on what remains of the Iran nuclear deal – and what, if anything, might ultimately replace it.

Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AP/File
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, like these seen at Iran’s Natanz facility in 2014, are expected to continue to monitor the nation’s nuclear capabilities.

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The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), took effect in January 2016. Negotiated between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – plus Germany, the deal imposed restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program in return for relief from nuclear-related economic sanctions.

Now the agreement appears to be falling apart. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in May 2018, saying that, among other things, it did not deal with Iran’s role in regional conflicts or the Iranian ballistic missile program. On Jan. 5, Iran all but abandoned the deal itself.

“Iran’s nuclear program will have no limitations in production, including enrichment capacity,” said the Iranian government in a statement.

On Wednesday, President Trump called on the relevant parties to “break away from the remnants of the Iran deal,” and “all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.” Here are three questions about the deal and what might happen next.

The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), took effect in January 2016. Negotiated between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – plus Germany, the deal imposed restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program in return for relief from nuclear-related economic sanctions.

Now the agreement appears to be falling apart. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in May 2018, saying that among other things it did not deal with Iran’s role in regional conflicts or the Iranian ballistic missile program. On Jan. 5, Iran all but abandoned the deal itself.

“Iran’s nuclear program will have no limitations in production, including enrichment capacity,” said the Iranian government in a statement. 

On Wednesday, President Trump called on the relevant parties to “break away from the remnants of the Iran deal,” and “all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.” Here are three questions about the deal and what might happen next.

What was the Iran deal supposed to do? 

In negotiating the agreement, the administration of President Barack Obama said its aim was to increase Iran’s “breakout time” to one year. That means that if the Iranians decided to race and produce enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon, it would take them a year, up from just a few weeks.

To accomplish that, the deal imposed limits on enriched uranium stockpiles and enrichment activities at Iran’s Fordow and Natanz sites. Specifically, it limited the number and type of centrifuges the Iranians can operate. Centrifuges are tall, thin metal tubes that spin at fantastic rates of speed, creating G-forces that separate isotopes of uranium gas and allow concentration of the U-235 isotope.

Uranium used in power plants is enriched to 5% U-235. Medical and research applications use 20% enriched material. Nuclear weapons require 90% enrichment.

The agreement also required Iran to render the core of its heavy water reactor at Arak inoperable. This type of reactor produces a plutonium byproduct that can be reprocessed into weapons-grade material.

In return for these actions, the U.S., European Union, and United Nations pledged in the agreement to lift all economic sanctions imposed on Iran as punishment for its previous nuclear activities.

Why is the deal in trouble?

Candidate Donald Trump proclaimed the Iran agreement a “terrible deal” during his run for the presidency. He objected that it placed no curbs on Iran’s wider military activities, and that it was time-limited, as its major restrictions expired after 15 years. President Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018, and reimposed economic sanctions meant to isolate Iran from financial markets and end its oil exports.

Iran said the withdrawal amounted to the U.S. reneging on its agreements. Some countries continued to import Iranian oil under waivers granted by the Trump administration, but the U.S. ended the waiver program in 2019. France, Germany, and the U.K., eager to keep Iran in the nuclear deal, began a barter system to allow transactions with Iran outside the American banking system, but it dealt only with essentials such as food and medicine.

Under this pressure, Iran said it would no longer be bound by the JCPOA. In July 2019, Iran exceeded limits set on its low-enriched uranium stocks. Since then, it has started to enrich some uranium to medical research levels and installed a small number of advanced centrifuge models, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In this context, Iran’s Jan. 5 announcement simply affirmed what was already clear. Iran said that, as far as it was concerned, it no longer faced any “operational restrictions” and that future actions would depend solely on Iran’s “technical needs.”

What happens now?

Iran has not yet completely withdrawn from the JCPOA. Notably, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran would continue to cooperate with inspectors from the IAEA, the U.N. arm charged with on-site verification of the nuclear deal.

That means the world will continue to periodically receive IAEA reports of Iran’s overt nuclear enrichment activities, including measures of enrichment levels and stockpile growth.

Whether the U.S., Iran, and other partners will resume nuclear negotiations, aiming for a broader deal that settles the Trump administration’s stated concerns about missile development and regional meddling, is much less certain. To this point, the U.S. policy of so-called maximum pressure has not brought Tehran back to the table, even though Iran’s economy contracted by 9.5% in 2019, unemployment has spiked, and protests have roiled Iranian cities.

Meanwhile, uncertainty as to Iran’s nuclear intentions will grow. In November, the IAEA reported that Iran now has 372 kilograms of uranium enriched to 5% U-235. If the country begins to produce five kilograms of such material each day – a production level Iranian nuclear officials say is possible – it could reach 1,050 kilograms in about four months. That amount of 5% enriched uranium when enriched to 90% is enough for a nuclear weapon, according to the Arms Control Association.

Iran has not said whether it plans to begin enriching to the 20% level, inching upward in enrichment escalation. But the U.S. may soon face a situation where it is unsure whether the Iranian “breakout time” to becoming a nuclear power is measured in months, rather than the year envisioned in the JCPOA.

To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.

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