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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 JCPOA agreement does not expire until October 2025. However, a significant milestone was reached on 18 October 2023 (Transition Day) when all remaining nuclear-related sanctions against Iran under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, including restrictions on ballistic missile and sensitive technologies, expired.

The UK, France and Germany (referred to as the E3) said, however, 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 would instead be transferred into their domestic sanctions regimes and existing UK and EU nuclear-related sanctions would be maintained beyond the October deadline.

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 27 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) says it 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 UK, France and Germany and the US 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 several analysts considered that Iran’s breakout time had reached zero (PDF) and in March 2024 the IAEA and E3 estimated that Iran had acquired enough highly enriched uranium that, if enriched further to 90% (weapons grade), would theoretically be enough for three nuclear explosive devices.

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). In its 2024 Annual Threat Assessment, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that while Iran does not appear to be currently pursuing development of a nuclear device, the nuclear activities undertaken since 2020 “better position it to produce a nuclear device, if it chooses to do so” (PDF).

Status of talks and sanctions

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 to de-escalate US-Iranian tensions in mid-2023, including the holding of indirect talks in Oman and the exchange of detainees, had raised hopes of continued diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme. Events in the Middle East since October 2023 have, however, sidelined those efforts.

Snapback remains an option

Under the terms of the JCPOA all previous UN sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme can be re-imposed in the event of “significant non-performance by Iran of JCPOA commitments” (the snapback provisions).

The E3 have confirmed that they are “committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, including through the snapback process if necessary”. This is a position that has been echoed in the aftermath of Iran’s attacks on Israel on 13 April 2024.  

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