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"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Section 4: Frequently Asked Questions
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Table of Contents

In response to the many inquiries we have received about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over the course of the past several weeks, the Arms Control Association has compiled the following brief responses to the most frequently asked questions.

1. Iran's Nuclear and Missile Programs

Is Iran still pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program?

No. According to evidence collected by and shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program, but abandoned it in 2003. These activities are referred to as the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran's nuclear program and are actively being investigated by the IAEA. 

This corresponds with the assessment from the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, which also stated with moderate confidence that Iran had not restarted its nuclear program. According to a 2011 IAEA report, activities that could be relevant to nuclear weapons development may have continued after 2003, but not as part of an organized program.

In the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also said that Iran would not be able to divert safeguarded nuclear material and enrich enough to weapons grade for a bomb without discovery. 

Does Iran have or is it developing long-range ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads? 

The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Iran may be technically capable of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with sufficient foreign assistance, but has not reported that they are doing so. 

To date, Iran has never tested any long-range missiles. Iran's longest-range systems (2,000 kilometers) are medium-range ballistic missiles, not ICBMs, as some have implied. Iran would need an ICBM with a range of over 9,000 kilometers to reach the United States. If Iran makes a concerted effort, deploying such a missile within ten years is theoretically possible, but unlikely. 

Additionally, if a comprehensive nuclear deal blocks Iran's potential pathways to a bomb, its ballistic missiles become less of a threat, because they cannot be armed with a nuclear weapon. 

2. Impact of the Joint Plan of Action

Did the 2013 interim agreement, or Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), halt advances in Iran's nuclear program?

Yes. The implementation of the November 2013 JPOA halted the expansion of Iran's nuclear program and rolled back the most proliferation-sensitive elements.  

Under the JPOA, Iran stopped enriching uranium to 20 percent, a key proliferation concern to the P5+1, because 20 percent enriched uranium is more easily enriched to weapons-grade material (greater than 90 percent U-235). Iran also took steps to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched-uranium gas. 

Iran halted major construction activities on its Arak heavy-water reactor, froze the number of its operating and installed centrifuges, and agreed to more intrusive inspections, including daily access to its enrichment facilities. Iran also agreed only to produce the centrifuges necessary to replace damaged machines.

Without the JPOA, Iran could have very significantly increased its uranium-enrichment capacity and possibly completed the Arak reactor.

Did Iran comply with the terms of the November 2013 JPOA, or did it violate it by operating an advanced centrifuge, the IR-5?

The IAEA's November 7, 2014 quarterly report noted that Iran began feeding natural uranium hexafluoride “intermittently” into a single IR-5 centrifuge at its pilot facility for the first time. While unhelpful, this was not a violation of the JPOA, which prohibits the use of advanced centrifuges to accumulate enriched uranium. However, to dispel any ambiguities, in the extension agreed to on November 24, 2014, Iran agreed not to feed the IR-5 with any uranium for the duration of the interim agreement.  

The IAEA has reported, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on November 24, 2014, that Iran upheld its commitments under the interim deal. 

3. Nuclear Negotiations with Iran

Did the UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to permanently halt enrichment, dismantle its enrichment facilities, and dismantle the heavy-water reactor at Arak?

No. Since July 2006, the Security Council has passed six resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and suspend construction work on the heavy-water reactor at Arak. None of the six resolutions passed by the UN Security Council called for Iran to dismantle its enrichment facilities or permanently halt enrichment. The call for suspension was intended to push Iran to comply with the IAEA investigation into concerns about past activities possibly related to nuclear weapons development, and to promote a diplomatic resolution to the concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

During debate on the most recent resolution in June 2010, British Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of the P5+1, said the resolution was intended to keep “the door open for continued engagement” with Iran over its nuclear program. He said that the purpose of such diplomatic efforts must be to achieve a comprehensive, long-term settlement, that respects Iran's legitimate right to the peaceful use of atomic energy. The Security Council resolutions were never intended to eliminate an Iranian civil nuclear program in the future that complies with the conditions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Did President Obama shift U.S. policy from stopping Iranian enrichment to managing it?

No. Beginning in mid-2006, it was the George W. Bush administration that shifted U.S. policy and opened the door for Iran to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes if it met certain conditions.19

The 2006 proposal states that the enrichment moratorium could be lifted if Iran demonstrates “credible and coherent economic rationale in support of the existing civilian power generation program.” Additionally, Iran would have been required to declare all nuclear facilities, demonstrate that it had no secret nuclear programs, and answer outstanding questions about the military aspects of its nuclear program.

It is a formula with some similar characteristics to the agreement reached in 2015 by the P5+1 and Iran.

By allowing Iran to continue its uranium-enrichment program, is the P5+1 recognizing a “right to enrich” under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Article IV of the NPT grants non-nuclear weapons states access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes in return for pledging not to pursue nuclear weapons and meeting their IAEA safeguards obligations. The NPT, however, does not specifically grant or deny enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing rights to member states. Iran interprets the treaty to include a “right to enrich” and has insisted that its right to enrichment be “respected” under a nuclear agreement.

The U.S. policy does not recognize a “right to enrich” under the NPT. In the interim agreement and in the JCPOA, the United States and its P5+1 partners acknowledged that Iran has an enrichment program and will retain a limited enrichment program commensurate with its “practical needs” for its civil nuclear activities.

Acknowledging that a program exists is not the same as acknowledging that a treaty affords a “right.” The United States has done the former, not the latter. And, after reaching the interim agreement in November 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that U.S. policy remains unchanged and since then has repeatedly said: “there is no inherent right to enrich.”

Why doesn’t the JCPOA require Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons capability?

Iran has had a nuclear weapons capability, but has chosen not to develop nuclear weapons. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed that Iran has developed a range of technologies, including uranium enrichment, nuclear warhead mechanics, and delivery systems, that would give it the option to launch a nuclear weapons development effort in a relatively short time frame “if it so chooses.” 

Eliminating that capability, including the knowledge, is, for all practical purposes, not possible. Even if Iran were required to completely “dismantle” its nuclear infrastructure, it could rebuild it. Tougher sanctions or a military strike also will not eliminate the knowledge and basic industrial capacity that Iran has developed and could rebuild.

When did the arms embargo and ballistic missile sanctions become an issue in the negotiations?

The UN arms embargo and ballistic missile sanctions were imposed on Iran as part of Security Council Resolution 1929 on Iran’s nuclear activities and were designed to help push Iran to the negotiating table. Following the conclusion of their framework agreement in April 2015, the two sides debated intensely over when to lift the UN Security Council-imposed heavy arms embargo and the ballistic missile restrictions emerged. Iran, along with Russia and China, argued for ending them upon implementation of the JCPOA, while the United States insisted on maintaining them for an extended period of time. The final agreement, which secures ongoing restrictions on heavy arms transfers to Iran and on Iran’s ballistic missile activities for five and eight years respectively, was a major achievement in the negotiations for the United States.

How effective are the existing multilateral constraints on ballistic missile development/proliferation?

Not all ballistic missiles pose equal risk. Ballistic missiles capable of carrying a 500 kilogram payload over 300 kilometers are generally recognized as having the minimum capability needed for delivering a nuclear weapon. A multilateral regime known as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is designed to limit the transfer of these systems, or related technologies, to nonmember countries. All of the P5+1 countries are members of the regime, except China, which voluntarily adheres to its guidelines. The MTCR restrictions have not stopped Iran’s program, but have inhibited Iran’s development of solid-fueled ballistic missiles. Additionally, U.S. restrictions on ballistic missiles will remain in place, as will UN restrictions on transferring ballistic missiles to Hezbollah.

4. The Impact of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities

Will the JCPOA block all of Iran’s nuclear weapons pathways? 

Yes. This comprehensive agreement will effectively block Iran's uranium and plutonium pathways to the bomb for 15 years or longer. Among other features, the agreement establishes verifiable limits on Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity and its stockpiles of enriched uranium. Under the JCPOA, the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb would increase to 12 months or more. It will also dramatically cut the output of plutonium at the Arak heavy-water reactor and eliminate Iran’s ability to pursue plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA will also put in place additional measures to ensure that any covert program is deterred or quickly detected. These measures will build on the additional monitoring and verification under the interim agreement, which expanded international oversight of Iran's nuclear program through increased IAEA access to sites. 

In addition, Iran is required to implement and ratify its additional protocol as part of the JCPOA. Specifically, the additional protocol gives the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites. With the additional protocol, the agency will continuously monitor Iran's entire fuel cycle, including facilities such as Iran's uranium mines, centrifuge production facilities, and its heavy-water production plant. This will make it extremely difficult for Iran to siphon off materials for a covert program without prompt detection.

The additional protocol also helps the IAEA check for any clandestine nuclear activities in Iran by providing the agency with greater authority to carry out timely inspections in any facility, civilian or military, that the IAEA has reason to believe is engaged in noncompliant activity. 

How does the JCPOA limit Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity after 10 years?

During the first ten years of the JCPOA, Iran may not enrich uranium to more than 3.67 percent U-235 and it may only do so with 5,060 first generation (IR-1) centrifuges at its Natanz site. 

During the first eight years Iran will be permitted to conduct testing with uranium on a single IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8 machines. Enriched uranium will not be extracted. 

After eight and a half years, Iran will be permitted to test up to 30 IR-6s and 30 IR-8s, again without withdrawing any uranium. The Joint Commission must approve any changes to the research and development plan, which must be submitted well in advance.

While Iran will be able to manufacture IR-6 and IR-8 machines after eight years, it will only be permitted to produce 200 of each type of machine per year and will not be permitted to produce the rotors. During this time Iran’s centrifuge production manufacturing will still be subject to continuous monitoring. 

After ten years, Iran will be permitted to produce complete machines but production levels must be consistent with Iran’s civilian enrichment needs, which will be low. 

In years 11–13, Iran can deploy more advanced machines, but it will need to remove the equivalent capacity of the operating IR-1 centrifuges so that the overall enrichment capacity remains the same. Excess centrifuges will be stored under IAEA seal.

As stated in annex I, section A, “Iran will begin phasing out its IR-1 centrifuges in 10 years. During this period, Iran will keep its enrichment capacity at Natanz up to a total installed uranium-enrichment capacity of 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges.” 

For 15 years, Iran may not possess more than 300 kilogram of low-enriched uranium, which also helps to limit its potential breakout capacity.

For years 14–15, Iran could increase its uranium-enrichment capacity, but Iran would still remain several months away from accumulating enough material, and if it tried to do so, it would promptly be detected in sufficient time to stop or delay such an effort.

What is an additional protocol and is it permanent?

An additional protocol is an expansion of a country’s comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. All countries that are members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are required to have a safeguards agreement in place. The additional protocol is optional, but strongly encouraged, and once ratified it is binding. The necessity of the additional protocol became clear after the Iraq and North Korean cases of the 1990s demonstrated that traditional safeguards are not thorough enough. 

An additional protocol broadens the scope of the IAEA’s monitoring to all facilities related the country’s nuclear supply chain and allows for short-notice inspections. It also allows for the IAEA to request access to undeclared sites, including military areas, if there are concerns about illicit nuclear activities. 

Once ratified an additional protocol is permanent. Iran negotiated an additional protocol and voluntarily implemented it between 2003–2006. As part of the JCPOA, Iran must update and implement its additional protocol before sanctions are suspended and it must seek to ratify its additional protocol no later than eight years after implementation day.

What is Code 3.1?

Code 3.1 is an extension of a comprehensive safeguards agreement. When Iran begins to implement this provision as required by the JCPOA, the IAEA will receive information about any plans Tehran has to expand its nuclear program much earlier than it would under the existing safeguards agreement. Under Code 3.1, Iran must notify the IAEA when it chooses to build a new facility as opposed to six months before the introduction of nuclear material. Iran would also be obligated to share any design changes to existing nuclear facilities in advance.

In 2003, Iran accepted modified Code 3.1 but reneged unilaterally in March 2007. The JCPOA commits Iran to implement Code 3.1 indefinitely.

Does the JCPOA provide the IAEA with "anytime, anywhere" access to suspected nuclear sites? 

The JCPOA provides timely access to any site, military or civilian if there are concerns about illicit nuclear activities. The IAEA must identify specific questions to be resolved and identify specific locations where it wants to send its inspectors. Providing the inspected party, in this case Iran, with this information will not provide it with information that helps Iran evade detection or stall the investigation.

There are 121 countries that have an additional protocol in force and 78 complementary access visits were carried out last year. Only in Iran is there a process to ensure timely access. 

Under the JCPOA, the request by the IAEA triggers a 24-day clock under which Iran and the IAEA have 14 days to come to an agreement on access. If not, the Joint Commission, created by the JCPOA, has seven days to make a determination on access, and if at least five of the eight members vote to allow the IAEA to investigate, Iran has three days to comply. 

If Iran tries to stall access beyond 24 days, there are consequences. If just one of the P5+1 countries is not satisfied with the decision of the Joint Commission on access, it could take action to re-impose earlier UN Security Council sanctions on Iran.

It is possible that there will be no delay, and in response to a request for urgent access by the IAEA, Iran will open the site for immediate inspection. 

If there is a delay, the IAEA will be closely watching a site once it becomes suspicious by ordering satellite imagery, perhaps continuing through the investigation, and by seeking corroborating information, especially from states willing to share intelligence information. 

Could Iran cover up illicit activities at a suspect site within in 24 days?

Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran is required to provide inspectors access to undeclared facilities (military or civilian) if the IAEA requests it under the terms of Iran’s additional protocol. Under an additional protocol, the IAEA can request explanations for suspect activity and access to a potential covert site to investigate evidence of undeclared nuclear-related activities.

Critics of the JCPOA site access provisions charge that 24 days may provide Iran with enough time to cover up certain types of nuclear activities. 

As IAEA safeguards veteran Thomas Shea has noted, when an IAEA request for timely site access involves a building, and especially when it involves uranium (or plutonium), 24 days will not be long enough to prevent detection.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told Politico on July 22 that Energy Department specialists assess that, “It is essentially impossible, certainly with confidence, to believe that you’re going to do this kind of work with nuclear materials and be confident at having it cleaned it up.”

Would the IAEA Depend on Iran for Nuclear Residue Testing?

No. Under managed access procedures that may be employed by the IAEA, the inspected party may take environmental swipe samples at a particular site in the presence of the IAEA inspectors using swabs and containment bags provided by the IAEA to prevent cross contamination. According to former IAEA officials, this is an established procedure.

Such swipe samples collected at suspect sites under managed access would likely be divided into six packages: three are taken by the IAEA for analysis at its Seibersdorf Analytical Lab and two to be sent to the IAEA's Network of Analytical Labs (NWAL), which comprises some 16 labs in different countries, and another package to be kept under joint IAEA and Iran seal at the IAEA office in Iran as a backup and control sample if re-analysis might be required at a later stage. The process ensures the integrity of the inspection operation and the samples for all parties.

How Long Does the 24-Day Limit on Suspicious Site Access Last?

Section C, page 9, paragraph 15 of the main section of the JCPOA states that this requirement will last for 15 years. After that point in time, Iran’s additional protocol will remain in place as will the Joint Commission to resolve any disputes.

Does the JCPOA require Iran to provide the IAEA with information about its past activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs)?

Yes. On November 11, 2013, Iran and the IAEA concluded a framework agreement for moving forward to resolve the outstanding concerns. Under the terms of the framework, Iran and the IAEA agreed to resolve all outstanding issues, including PMDs, in a step-by-step manner. Iran provided some but not all of the information. 

The new Iran-IAEA July 15 “roadmap” requires that Iran deliver to the IAEA all information by August 15 that is necessary to allow the agency to conclude its investigation. The JCPOA requires that Iran allow the IAEA to answer follow-up questions and respond with all necessary information by October 15, and before the implementation of the agreement and the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. This will provide the IAEA with key information necessary to make its final determination on the PMD issues and to verify that no such efforts are taking place in the future.

Resolving the questions about the past military dimension issue is important but is not a prerequisite for designing the verification and monitoring system. Nor is it realistic or necessary to expect a full "confession" from Iran that it pursued nuclear weapons in the past. After having spent years denying that it pursued nuclear weapons and having delivered a fatwa against nuclear weapons, Tehran's senior leaders cannot afford to admit that Iran hid a nuclear weapons program.

Is sanctions relief dependent on the PMD investigation?

Iran must provide the IAEA with the information and access the agency requires to complete its long-running investigation into the past possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program before Iran receives any relief from UN, U.S. or EU sanctions. However, sanctions relief is not dependent on the agency issuing its final report on the PMDs.

What is the IAEA’s broader conclusion?

The “broader conclusion” is a rigorous designation issued by the IAEA to provide assurance that a country’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. It requires implementation of the additional protocol for a number of years, and in Iran’s case, compliance with the JCPOA. The IAEA makes two conclusions as part of the broader conclusion, that there has been no diversion of nuclear materials and no indication of undeclared nuclear materials and activities. The broader conclusion goes beyond the conclusion issued to countries only applying a safeguards agreement or with outstanding questions. Under a safeguards agreement, the IAEA only reports that declared nuclear material has been used only for peaceful purposes for the year in question.

How does the JCPOA procurement channel work and how long will it last?

Under the terms of the JCPOA, if Iran wants to purchase any goods or materials that could be used for its nuclear program that are identified on established IAEA dual-use lists, the Joint Commission working group on procurement would need to review the request and authorize any purchases. The working group would also be permitted to conduct end-user checks to ensure that the materials ended up in the right places. Combined with the complete inventory of the materials that Iran uses for its nuclear program, this will help ensure a thorough accounting of dual-use materials to prevent siphoning off for a covert program. This procurement channel mechanism will be in place for no less than 10 years.

How long does the sanctions snap-back provision last?

For the 10-year duration of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, if a dispute is not addressed through the Joint Commission to the satisfaction of the P5+1, any one of the six-countries could act to snap back earlier UN Security Council sanctions on Iran. (The JCPOA specifies that if a complaining party believes that there has been a violation of the agreement even after good faith efforts to resolve it, it may call for a vote on a resolution to extend the suspension of earlier sanctions, which only requires one of the P5 to veto to trigger the re-imposition of UN sanctions.) The United States has said the P5 have agreed that they will maintain the same approach for an additional five years.

How long Does the Joint Commission last?

The JCPOA does not specifically state when the termination date for the Commission is, but some requirements of the JCPOA that the Joint Commission is responsible for overseeing will last 25 years. Therefore it will have responsibilities that last for 25 years, and possibly longer.

5. Other Issues

Does Congress have a right to see the confidential IAEA-Iran documents on concluding the agency’s PMD investigation?

As an independent organization, the IAEA's process should not be subject to approval of the P5+1 or the U.S. Congress. Nor should the IAEA be forced to disclose sensitive information that could also compromise Iran’s legitimate security concerns. While it is critical that Iran cooperate with the IAEA and provide the agency with the access and information it requires, the content of the agency's investigations and inspections are not typically public because sensitive information is at stake. 

Additionally, the IAEA laid out its concerns about past nuclear weapons work, and it should be up to the agency to determine what access is necessary to resolve its questions, not the P5+1. The IAEA does answer to its Board of Governors, where the United States is represented, and will be required to report on progress to the UN Security Council, where again, the United States will be fully appraised of the process.

Will the United States be able to impose more sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear related concerns?

Yes. The JCPOA prohibits the reissuance of sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear activities. If the United States imposes these measures then Iran can walk away from the deal. However, additional U.S. sanctions for terrorism and human rights related issues are fair game.

Will the JCPOA trigger or head-off a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, with countries like Saudi Arabia deciding to move toward nuclear weapons. 

The JCPOA imposes strict limits and monitoring on Iran’s nuclear program, thus reducing the risk that Iran may someday pursue nuclear weapons. This will provide assurance to the international community that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons and that any deviations from the deal will be quickly noticed. This will reduce, not increase, the temptation by some states in the Middle East—particularly Saudi Arabia—to pursue the technical capabilities necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.

The alternative—no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal—would lead to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with far less monitoring. This poses a far greater threat to countries in the Middle East and could increase the possibility of a "proliferation cascade" in the region.

How does the Iran Deal compare to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea?

Iran is not North Korea. The JCPOA differs substantially from agreements reached with North Korea in 1994 and 2005 regarding its nuclear program. 

The IAEA inspections and monitoring measures on Iran's nuclear program will be much more intrusive and stringent than those placed on North Korea, which were limited to one site. Iran has also demonstrated that it values its position in the region and international community and it wants UN Security Council sanctions on its program removed. This only comes through adherence to an agreement. 

The 1994 Agreed Framework, unlike the JCPOA, did not require North Korea to dismantle or modify its plutonium production reactor and it did not include stringent transparency and inspection provisions across the entire fuel cycle and across the country. As a result, North Korea was able to evade detection and pursue a secret uranium-enrichment program.

Is a “Better Deal” possible or necessary?

No. Nevertheless, some critics of the agreement like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) argue that Congress should reject the JCPOA and “urge the administration to work with our allies to maintain economic pressure on Iran while offering to negotiate a better deal.”

But that is wishful thinking. 

If Congress blocks implementation of the JCPOA, it would turn an American diplomatic breakthrough into a strategic disaster. The result would be that:

  • The United States would undercut its European allies and other UNSC members,
  • The necessary international support for Iran-related sanctions would melt away,
  • Iran would be able to rapidly and significantly expand its capacity to produce weapons-grade material,
  • The United States would lose out on securing enhanced inspections needed to detect a clandestine weapons effort,
  • The international nonproliferation regime would suffer a severe blow, undermining the stability of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as the foundation for international security, and
  • The risk of a nuclear-armed Iran and the risk of a war over Iran’s program would increase.

On balance, the P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal is a strong, effectively verifiable, long-term agreement that increases the security of the United States, its allies, and Iran. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to squander.