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 agreed to settle the dispute. Their deal set limits on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that had cut off oil exports and hobbled its economy. Then in May 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would abandon the pact and reinstate sanctions. Iran responded  a year later by violating the deals’s limits on uranium enrichment.

The Situation

In July, 2019, Iran confirmed that it had surpassed agreed caps on uranium stockpiles and exceeded the allowable level of purity. It also added new enrichment capacity. Iran expects European parties to the nuclear accord — who want to keep the deal in place — to help it get around U.S. sanctions before it agrees to limit its activities again.  The country had expected the pact to stimulate an economic revival, but the U.S. move instead provoked a recession. Under the agreement, which was struck by Iran, the U.S., China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the European Union, Iran maintained the ability to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. It was allowed to keep 5,000 centrifuges to separate the uranium-235 isotope needed to induce a fission chain reaction. Iran had agreed under the accord 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.

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 2015 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. Although IAEA inspectors received unprecedented access to sites in Iran under the deal, skeptics aren’t satisfied by the agency’s 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, for reasons of national pride and because it was previously denied access to uranium on world markets. 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.

To contact the writer of this QuickTake: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at jtirone@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Leah Harrison at lharrison@bloomberg.net, Lisa Beyer

First published May 7, 2015

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.