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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal) is an agreement reached in 2015 between Iran, the UK, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the US (the P5+1), to limit the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. It was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015).

The next milestone in the implementation of the JCPOA will be reached on 18 October 2023 (Transition Day).

Status of Iran’s nuclear programme

Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful and that it has no plans to develop nuclear weapons.

Since May 2019, however, Iran has continued to violate the terms of the JCPOA agreement. It has lifted the cap on its stockpile of uranium, which is now 18 times the level permitted; increased its enrichment activities to 60%, significantly beyond the 3.67% permitted under the JCPOA; expanded its enrichment capabilities and resumed activity at nuclear facilities that were previously prohibited under the terms of the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been prevented from satisfactorily monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities since February 2021.

In early 2023, the IAEA also reported the discovery of particles of uranium enriched to 83.7% (PDF), although subsequently accepted Iran’s explanation for the material. Weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90%.

The Iranian Government has linked its violations to the failure of JCPOA signatories to meet their commitments under the deal and to deliver sanctions relief. It has also stated that it would return to its obligations under the JCPOA if sanctions were lifted.

The US and the UK, France and Germany (referred to as the E3) contend that there is no credible civilian justification for Iran’s nuclear programme.

How close is Iran to a nuclear weapon?

Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran’s breakout time – the time it could take Iran to produce enough fissile material for nuclear weapons – had been estimated at one year. In June 2022 the United States estimated its current breakout time at a few weeks.

Estimates of breakout time do not account, however, for the technological capability and time required to build a deliverable nuclear warhead (which has been estimated by some at 1-2 years).

Status of talks

While the Biden Administration has sought to restore the agreement, and a deal was reportedly near to being concluded in summer 2022, formal talks have stalled, although neither side has said they have failed.

Efforts have been made to de-escalate tensions in recent weeks, highlighted by indirect talks held in Oman and the release of several US detainees in Iran, in exchange for a number of Iranians in the US and the release of $6bn in frozen Iranian funds, albeit with strict limits on how that money can be accessed.

Such efforts had raised hopes of continued diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme. It remains unclear whether those efforts will now be derailed by wider geopolitical developments in the Middle East.

What is the significance of Transition Day?

A timeline for the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran was an integral part of the JCPOA agreement.

Eight years after the adoption of the JCPOA (18 October 2023) all remaining nuclear-related sanctions will expire. That includes restrictions on ballistic missile technologies, the proliferation of sensitive technologies and the designation of various people and entities related to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

The UK, France and Germany (the E3) have said that Iran’s “consistent and severe non-compliance with its JCPOA commitments” warranted the retention of sanctions and, as such, the nuclear-related sanctions set out in UNSCR 2231 will instead be transferred into their domestic sanction’s regimes and that existing UK and EU nuclear-related sanctions would be maintained beyond the October deadline.

All UN member states will no longer be bound by the restrictions in UNSCR 2231, unless they also adopt similar domestic sanctions. There have been concerns that the lifting of restrictions related to Iran’s ballistic missile programme could allow Iran to “legally” increase its support for Russia in Ukraine, including the provision of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles.

Snapback remains an option

Under the terms of the JCPOA, which does not expire until 2025, all previous UN sanctions related to the Iranian  nuclear programme can be re-imposed in the event of “significant non-performance by Iran of JCPOA commitments” (the snapback provisions).

In September 2023, the E3 confirmed that they are “committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, including through the snapback process if necessary”.

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