Whatever he decides, Trump said, the international agreement would expire in seven years anyway, and Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons.
The nuclear accord came after years of diplomacy and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, culminating in 2015 during President Barack Obama’s administration.
“The Iran nuclear deal is a terrible one for the United States and the world,” Trump tweeted in April 2015, a day after the deal’s framework was finalized. “It does nothing but make Iran rich and will lead to catastrophe.”
Is Iran “free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons” after seven years?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was adopted in October 2015 and formally implemented on Jan. 16, 2016, by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — and Germany and Iran.
Iran agreed to constraints meant to ensure that its nuclear program will be used only for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. In exchange, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations agreed to lift a broad range of sanctions on Iran. U.S. allies say the Iran deal has helped maintain stability. Critics of the deal say that the broad lifting of sanctions has enabled Iran to increase its influence in a volatile region and that the accord does not restrict Iran from developing ballistic missiles.
Trump is one of those critics. But it’s not clear what he meant by saying the deal would expire in seven years. The White House did not respond to our questions.
The president may have been referring to “Termination Day” in October 2025, when provisions of a U.N. resolution endorsing the deal expire, or he may have been referring to the fact that some provisions of the JCPOA itself expire 10 years into the deal, in 2026.
“Nevertheless, President Trump’s statement indicates either abject confusion over the parameters of the JCPOA or a willful misinterpretation of that deal,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Either way, it is dangerous, as Iran will never be ‘free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons.’ ”
As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has pledged not to develop nuclear weapons — ever. In agreeing to the JCPOA, Iran recommitted itself to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Bell said. “The NPT is of indefinite duration and serves as the underpinning for the entire global non-proliferation regime,” she said.
Iran also has agreed to abide by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol. It has committed to ratify this agreement in 2023. The IAEA already has the ability to investigate nuclear facilities and activities disclosed by Iran’s government. The Additional Protocol supplements those powers by giving IAEA investigators the “ability to investigate undeclared nuclear facilities and activities by increasing the IAEA’s authority to inspect certain nuclear-related facilities and demand information from member states,” according to a 2017 report by the Congressional Research Service. Simply put, Iran has agreed to give international inspectors wide-ranging authority to peer into its nuclear activities.
According to a timeline from the Brookings Institution, Iran would be free to develop, test and use more advanced types of uranium-enriching centrifuges and upgrade a nuclear facility in Natanz after “Termination Day” in October 2025. But Iran would continue to be limited to peaceful programs; developing nuclear weapons would remain banned.
The JCPOA limits the number of IR-1 centrifuges Iran may have at its Natanz plant to 5,060, and it restricts the “number and type of more advanced centrifuges that may be tested over this period,” according to a timeline from the Nuclear Threat Initiative produced by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif. Those restrictions expire in 2026. (IR-1 centrifuges are decades old and not very efficient.)
[Note: We previously said these restrictions would expire in 2025, but they actually expire in 2026. The NTI timeline indicated 2025 as the sunset date, but the JCPOA says the provisions expire 10 years after the agreement’s implementation date, which was in 2016.]
Other parts of the JCPOA would remain in force for years after 2026, including international monitoring of Iran’s production of uranium ore and centrifuge parts, and restrictions on uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel. (Here are some details and an analysis of the centrifuge restrictions from the New York Times’s Max Fisher.)
“Many measures associated with the JCPOA sunset later than seven years, and others do not sunset at all,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He called Trump’s claim “completely false.”
The JCPOA strengthens the restrictions Iran faces under the Non-Proliferation Treaty in perpetuity, Lewis added.
“Under Article II [of the Non-Proliferation Treaty], Iran may not ‘manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,’ ” Lewis said. “But did Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons research constitute the ‘manufacture’ of nuclear weapons? I said yes at the time, but Iran’s defenders said that it did not — they claimed that research and development fell short of the definition of ‘manufacture.’ The JCPOA settles this debate by barring Iran from conducting research and development, prohibiting an itemized list of the pre-2003 activities. This provision does not sunset.”
Similar processes are involved in pursuing a nuclear energy program and a nuclear weapons program, which is why monitoring is key.
“Iran has nuclear programs that could potentially provide Tehran with the capability to produce both weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium — the two types of fissile material used in nuclear weapons,” according to the report from the Congressional Research Service. “Statements from the U.S. intelligence community indicate that Iran has the technological and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons at some point, but the U.S. government assesses that Tehran has not mastered all of the necessary technologies for building a nuclear weapon.” In addition to the production of weapons-grade nuclear material, a nuclear weapons program requires other key elements, such as warhead design and reliable delivery systems.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a skeptic of the Iran deal, and Andrea Stricker, a senior policy analyst at that institute, wrote in an op-ed in January that the nuclear accord potentially opens the door to Iran achieving “breakout capability” for a nuclear bomb in about a decade.
“Left unchecked, in about a decade Iran will be closer to producing enough nuclear fuel for a bomb — a ‘breakout capability’ — than it was before the agreement was finalized in 2015,” they wrote. “The Europeans recognize the danger of allowing the sunset clauses to stand, yet they haven’t offered any serious solutions. They are, however, rebuilding business with the Islamic Republic. Although the nuclear deal placed restrictions on Tehran’s gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment program, the regime will be allowed in just six years to ramp up the centrifuge manufacturing process essential for the production of thousands of advanced centrifuges.”
It’s worth noting that as part of the JCPOA, Iran said it was bound by this commitment: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” According to the Congressional Research Service report, “Officials from both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have certified that Iran is abiding by its JCPOA commitments.”
The Pinocchio Test
It’s fair to be skeptical of the Iran deal. But Trump’s assertion that the JCPOA is set to expire in seven years and that Iran would be free to build nuclear weapons afterward is simply not accurate.
Whether the president was referring to “Termination Day” in 2025, or to the portions of the JCPOA that sunset in 2026, Iran has pledged to never develop nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and other parts of the JCPOA — all of which Iran has committed to — run well past 2025, and key provisions apply indefinitely.
Trump knows how to hedge these types of comments about the Iran deal. He’s done it before. (“The deal allows Iran to continue developing certain elements of its nuclear program and, importantly, in just a few years, as key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint towards a rapid nuclear weapons breakout,” he said in an October 2017 speech.)
But in this case, the president’s misleading and inaccurate statements are worthy of Four Pinocchios. We’ll be watching to see whether he is more careful in the speech announcing his decision.
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