The Iran Nuclear Deal – A Missed Opportunity ?

After twenty months of multilateral negotiations, the Iran nuclear deal, formally called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in Vienna on 14 July 2015. The signatories were, on one side Iran, and on the other side the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, i.e. China, France, Russia, UK and US, together with the EU and Germany. The quite complex JCPOA included reciprocal commitments regarding limitations in Iran’s military nuclear programme and the lifting of all UN, multilateral and national sanctions.

At the time, JCPOA was hailed internationally as a win-win agreement and a great diplomatic success. The objective of the international community to limit the capabilities of Iran’s military nuclear programme was combined with the Iranian government’s need to get rid of international sanctions that suffocated its economy and to open its young and educated society to the world. At that time, about two thirds of the Iranian population were born after the 1979 revolution and university students increased to 6% of the total population. The potential of Iran and its human capital  were indeed key elements in favour of that agreement. The signing of the JCPOA thus ushered into a period of optimism and economic opportunities. During the first months after the agreement was signed, the Iranian GDP experienced a rapid rise and a wave of prospects and joint ventures flooded the country. There were also expectations that the long-term character of the deal would facilitate further future agreements in different areas.

The technical details

Several concrete actions related to Uranium and Plutonium processing by Iran[1] were agreed under the JCPOA. The main ones concerned Uranium enrichment and consisted in: a) reduction of enrichment capacity by reducing by two-thirds the number of gas centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant; b) limitation of the enrichment level up to 3.67% at the same Natanz plant; c) conversion of the Fordow enrichment plant into a nuclear physics and technology centre; d) limitation of the Iranian stockpile of up to 3.67% enriched Uranium hexafluoride to 300 kg; and e) use of the Iranian stockpile of medium-enriched (5-20%) Uranium for fabrication of nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Other concrete actions related to Plutonium were linked to: a) the redesign and rebuilding of the Iranian Arak IR-40 reactor to enable the use as reactor fuel of U-235 enriched up to 3.67%, instead of U-238, intended to perform research activities and to produce radioisotopes for medical and industrial uses rather than to produce Plutonium; b) the availability of the excess of heavy water for export to international markets; and c) the no engagement of Iran in fuel reprocessing, except for specific activities exclusively aimed at the production of medical and industrial radioisotopes.

The unravelling of the JCPOA

Many of the above actions included specific technical involvements of JCPOA signatories. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), verifying the fulfilment of all JCPOA actions, stated in March 2018 that Iran was implementing its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. However, two months later the Trump Administration unilaterally withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and imposed new sanctions with a global scope applying to all countries and companies doing trade and business with Iran, cutting Iran off the international financial system and rendering null the economic provisions of the JCPOA.

That move was welcomed mainly by Saudi Arabia and Israel, justified by their opposition to the non-inclusion of ballistic missiles in the deal. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA was, however widely rejected by the international community and by two thirds of the US public opinion according CNN polls. It was also considered a strategic mistake freeing Iran to build up its ability to fabricate nuclear bomb material. In a joint statement France, Germany and the UK tried to rescue the deal stating that the UN Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear deal remained the “binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute”[2]. China and Russia also criticized the withdrawal, while the European Commission declared the US sanctions against Iran illegal in the EU and banned European companies and citizens from complying with them. Nonetheless, the JCPOA was mortally wounded despite being formally supported by the other signatories, agreed JCPOA actions were not implemented, the military nuclear programme was not reversed and Iran continued to enrich U-235.

The impact on Iran’s economy, with giant commercial contracts cancelled, was huge. And the political impact was also decisive. During the 2021 electoral campaign the successful candidate for the Iranian Presidency, Raisi, attacked those Iranian actors who had negotiated the deal stating that the outgoing President, Rohani, had sold the country and that his Foreign Minister, Zarif, should be tried for treason. Nevertheless, interactions between Iran and the IAEA on a possible revival of the deal have not been severed and several negotiation talks took place during 2022. Even though Iran referred to the possibility of withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and abandoning the Iran-IAEA Safeguards Agreement, during the visit of the IAEA Director-General Grossi to Teheran in March 2023 Iran confirmed its readiness to continue its cooperation providing further information and addressing outstanding safeguards issues, as well as allowing the implementation of further verification and monitoring activities. According to US Secretary of State Blinken, the JCPOA’s future depends mainly on the economic benefit the deal will give to Iran.

What next?

It is considered that Iran has still not arrived at enrichment levels of weapons-grade Uranium, so that Iran does not possess nuclear bombs. Together with the recent death of President Raisi in a helicopter crash, the non-implementation of JCPOA actions does not help the security and the stability of the region. The preservation of the deal is currently very unfavourable with no visible diplomatic solution. Even though the missile exchanges of April 2024 between Iran and Israel did not affect Iranian military nuclear capabilities, the Iranian facilities remain a tempting target for Israel. The present escalation related to the Israel-Hamas confrontation and the resulting ordeal of the population of Gaza makes the situation extremely unpredictable. A war involving Iran could destabilise the whole Gulf and Middle East regions representing a huge challenge for the international community, including in terms of nuclear security.

APPENDIX: Background on Iran’s nuclear programme

Regarding nuclear proliferation, the main Iranian military nuclear facilities were and continue to be focused on the enrichment of Uranium and the production of Plutonium. In this regard, Iran has two underground enrichment plants, Fordow and Natanz. The enrichment of natural Uranium is performed through isotope separation aimed at increasing the percentage of the isotope Uranium-235 that is fissile, i.e. U-235 can produce nuclear reactions for various purposes depending on the level of enrichment. Certainly, enriched U-235 of about 3-4% is used as fuel in nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity and heat, while enriched U-235 of about 20% is used as fuel in research reactors typically for producing medical and industrial radioisotopes and for developing advanced materials. Finally, an enriched U-235 over 90% is weapons-grade Uranium used for production of nuclear weaponries. On the Plutonium issue, Iran has the Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor, which can be also used to produce fissile isotope Plutonium-239 through neutron capture by Uranium-238 isotopes and subsequent reprocessing. Plutonium is considered weapons-grade when it contains over 93% of the Plutonium-239 isotope.

Furthermore, Iran has two main nuclear technology centres and one nuclear power plant. Since its opening in 1984 with Chinese assistance, the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center (INTC) is the largest nuclear research complex operating three research reactors, all supplied by China, as well as a Uranium conversion facility, and plants for fuel production and zirconium cladding. Moreover, the Tehran research reactor (TRR), in operation since 1967 with US assistance, was converted in 1988 with Argentinian assistance following the Carter non-proliferation policy to operate with low-enriched Uranium of 19,75% from the previous highly enriched Uranium of 93%. In 2011 the Bushehr nuclear power plant was put into operation for electricity production and desalinization, based on the Russian rebuilding of one of the two reactors constructed by the German Kraftwerk Union and damaged by Iraqi air strikes during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war. Two new Russian-designed VVER-1000 reactors are presently under construction in the same Bushehr site.

[1] For background on Iran’s nuclear programme see Appendix at the end of the article.
[2]  Landler, Mark: “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned”. The New York Times, May 8, 2018.

Alejandro Zurita

Dr. Alejandro Zurita (Barcelona, 1955) is a nuclear engineer, has a PhD on nuclear safety (TU Hannover, 1985) and was nuclear safety inspector in CSN. At the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) he was chairman of the reactor safety committee and head of safety at the High Flux Reactor (HFR) in The Netherlands, principal administrator in nuclear safety and fusion research, and head of International Nuclear Research Cooperation (2008-16). In this last capacity, Dr. Zurita participated in the first exploratory missions at technical level to Iran on nuclear research and innovation. He also served as minister counsellor on science, technology, and innovation of the European Union in Brazil (2016-20).


1 comment

  1. 6 June, 2024 @ 21:19 JP. Martín-Vide

    Thanks to the writer for his clear, brilliant explanation on the issue.


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