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Iranian breaches of the JCPOA

On 14 July 2015, Iran and the P5+1 group—the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia—reached an agreement on a long-term deal regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, committed Iran to reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium, limiting further enrichment activities, and verified monitoring and inspections, in exchange for sanctions relief. It did not include broader measures on Iranian foreign policy or its ballistic missile programme. The deal was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231

Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is monitored and verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Since May 2019 Iran has incrementally violated the terms of the agreement. It has lifted the cap on its stockpile of uranium, increased its enrichment activities beyond the 3.67 per cent permitted under the JCPOA and resumed activity at nuclear facilities that were previously prohibited from uranium enrichment under the terms of the deal.

The Iranian Government linked those violations to the failure of the deal to deliver sanctions relief and, by default, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the deal in 2018 and reimpose sanctions.

At the beginning of January 2020, the Iranian Government went one step further and announced that it would no longer abide by any of its commitments under the JCPOA.  As a result, there would be no restrictions on Iran’s uranium stockpile or enrichment programme going forward and its nuclear programme would “be developed solely based on its technical needs”. The announcement fell short of a total withdrawal from the deal, however, as Iran confirmed that it would continue its co-operation with the IAEA and allow IAEA inspectors access to its sites. It also stated that it would return to its obligations under the JCPOA if sanctions were lifted.

On 14 January 2020 the E3 (UK, France and Germany) referred the matter to the Joint Commission of the JCPOA.

After almost a year of dispute resolution, in December 2020 the Iranian Parliament and Guardian Council passed legislation requiring the Government to speed up its resumption of nuclear activities if sanctions relief was not forthcoming by 21 February 2021. The law also provided for Iran to suspend implementation of the Additional Protocol on safeguards and to reduce cooperation with the IAEA, which it did on 23 February 2021. In line with its nuclear laws Iran started enriching uranium to 20 per cent in early 2021 and more recently moved to 60 per cent enrichment, far beyond what is considered necessary for civilian purposes. Weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90 per cent. In August 2021 the IAEA verified that Iran had begun producing uranium metal which has little civilian purpose and is applicable to nuclear weapons development.

Under the terms of the JCPOA Iran’s breakout time had been estimated at one year. The time it could take Iran to produce enough fissile material for nuclear weapons is now estimated at a few months.  Estimates of breakout time do not account, however, for the technological capability and time required to build a deliverable nuclear warhead, whether there is the political will to proceed toward weaponisation and the impact of likely pre-emptive action by external actors.

Iran continues to maintain that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes and that all activities initiated in the last two years are reversible if sanctions are lifted.

Status of talks

After President Biden indicated his willingness to re-join the JCPOA in early 2021, negotiators held six rounds of talks aimed at restoring the agreement. Progress was considered to have been made under the previous Iranian administration of Hassan Rouhani, despite significant challenges remaining, specifically in relation to Iran’s recent nuclear advancements, its missile programme and its regional foreign policies.

However, a deal was not concluded before Rouhani left office in August 2021. While there was hope that negotiations could resume quickly under the new President, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran has not yet returned to the negotiating table and continues to escalate its nuclear activities, in violation of the deal. 

While many view Iran’s actions as an attempt to gain leverage in any future discussions, there are concerns that, on its current trajectory, Iran will soon acquire irreversible nuclear knowledge that renders the JPCOA meaningless.

Further reading

A more detailed analysis of the prospects for the JCPOA is available in Commons Library Briefing Paper: Status of the Iran nuclear deal (14 October 2021).

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