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. After more than two years of negotiations and threats to bomb the country’s facilities, Iran and world powers agreed in 2015 to settle the dispute. The deal set limits on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that had crimped oil exports and hobbled its economy. Then in May 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. was abandoning the pact negotiated under his predecessor and would reinstate sanctions, leaving the other signatories scrambling to salvage the agreement.

The Situation

Exactly a year after the U.S. departure, on May 8, Iran imposed a 60-day deadline for the European signatories to salvage the accord and threatened that if they didn’t it would breach limits set on uranium enrichment. Less than two months later, Iran warned that it would exceed agreed caps on its inventories or low-grade uranium before the end of June. Iran wants the European states to help facilitate oil exports and trade, after U.S. sanctions waivers allowing some countries to buy Iranian oil expired. Iran had expected the pact to stimulate an economic revival, but U.S. sanctions have provoked a recession instead. Under the agreement — which was reached by Iran, the U.S., China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the European Union — Iran maintains the ability to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. It retains about 5,000 centrifuges capable of separating the uranium-235 isotope from uranium ore. It agreed for 15 years to refine the metal to no more than 3.7 percent enrichment, the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants, and pledged to limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, 3 percent of its stockpile in May 2015. The International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran eliminated its inventory of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which can be used to make medical isotopes and to power research reactors but could also be purified to weapons-grade at short notice. Inspectors also confirmed that Iran destroyed a reactor capable of producing plutonium. Subsequent IAEA assessments since the deal took effect found Iran sticking to its obligations.

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. Few countries were prepared to do that during the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who threatened Israel with destruction. The breakthrough came after more moderate President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013. 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. Trump officials countered that the deal emboldened Iranian activities that destabilize the Middle East and didn’t adequately address Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The Argument

Middle East powers including Israel and Saudi Arabia have also criticized the agreement, saying it empowers Iran’s theocratic regime to the detriment of regional security. Critics in the U.S. Congress say Iran can’t be trusted to make any fissile material, whether for energy, medicine or bombs. Skeptics aren’t satisfied by IAEA verification. They point out that Iran only acknowledged its two main uranium enrichment plants after they were exposed by people outside the country. 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, presumably for reasons of national pride. Like other enriching countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Japan and South Africa, the technology gives Iran the ability to pursue nuclear weapons should it choose to break its commitments. 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 by world powers and without the pact’s onerous inspections.

To contact the writer of this QuickTake: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Leah Harrison at, Lisa Beyer

First published May 7, 2015

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