Frequently Asked Questions About the Iran Deal - Part One

Volume 7, Issue 10, August 31, 2015

The following is an excerpt from the Arms Control Association newly updated report, "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action."

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.

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 (Iran is not a member). 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.—KELSEY DAVENPORT and DARYL G. KIMBALL


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.