The Iran Nuclear Deal

Persiana Saffari
February 21, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Foreign Affairs Ministers of the European Union, P5+1 powers, and Iran announcing the Iran nuclear agreement (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the height of fear that the Iranian government was actively pursuing the enrichment of Uranium and further development of a nuclear weapon, the international community mobilized to sanction Iran in 2008. In the most severe phase of economic sanctions in 2012, the Iranian Rial crippled to 80% of its value in 2011. [1] To relieve the crippling sanctions that left Iran's economy in shambles, Iran, the E.U., and the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, and Germany) sought to reach an agreement to quell the growing Iranian nuclear program in 2015 (see Fig. 1). The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has generated both praise and criticism. Considered a defining foreign policy achievement of former President Barack Obama, the Iran nuclear deal has been put up for considerable debate by the Trump administration - which insists that the deal is too lenient on Iran. To better understand the implications of the JCPOA, I will discuss the background leading to the deal, framework upon which the agreement is founded, and the deal's current status.


At the time the nuclear deal was reached in July 2015, Iran had nearly 20,000 centrifuges and a uranium stockpile of 15,000 kg across two uranium enrichment facilities. [2] In addition to pursuing its uranium enrichment ambitions, the international community was also concerned about Iran's plutonium pipeline. Heavy-water nuclear facilities were being developed in Arak, which could develop nuclear bombs from the spent fuel generated by the plant. [2] These public concerns - combined with the uncertainty of Iran's secretive developments - led the United Nations to sanction Iran's nuclear-trade activities, ban arms exports, and freeze foreign accounts of those associated with and involved in the nuclear trade between December 2006 and March 2007. [1] Despite the preliminary financial pressure, Iran's nuclear program did not slow down and anxiety of a nuclear Iran continued to rise. It was not until the final kick of sanctions on Iran's central bank, which sent Iran's economy into a tailspin, that Iranian officials became open to negotiating with the international community. Ultimately, the final version of the JCPOA placed substantial restrictions on Iran's ability to enrich uranium, prevent development of weapons-grade plutonium, and stymie its path to developing nuclear weapons.

The Deal

The JCPOA set forth restrictions to substantially curtail Iran's ability to further develop and make use of its nuclear reserve. Most notably, Iran's uranium stockpile is set to be reduced by 98% to 300 kg for 15 years, while also keeping its level of U-235 enrichment at 3.67%. [3] For reference, low-enriched uranium typically has a U- 235 enrichment between 3-4%, which can be used for nuclear power plants but not for nuclear weapons (which require uranium to be enriched to 90%). [2] Also, Iran is only allowed to install some of its oldest and least efficient centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site; and the radioisotopes produced from these centrifuges are strictly for use in agriculture, medicine, research, and industry. [2] Research and development at the Natanz site has been further restricted and may only continue for eight years past the agreement. A second underground nuclear site in Fordo will be converted into a nuclear, technology, and physics center, barring the facility from enrichment for another 15 years. Finally, to hamper Iran's plutonium pathway, the JCPOA prohibits the construction of any additional heavy-water reactors as well as the accumulation of excess heavy water for 15 years. [2] The manifestation of these restrictions into an agreement that lifted some of these most detrimental sanctions impacting Iran was historic. Furthermore, the JCPOA demonstrated how even decades-old tension between Iran and the United States can be overcome.

Through the Iran Nuclear Deal, the P5+1 powers also codified that Iran must comply with regular facility inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The 15 year timeline - at which point the deal will be revisited - provides Iran the opportunity to demonstrate its compliance. In addition, by cooperating with the IAEA and abiding by the restrictions set forth by the JCPOA, opportunities will arise for different trade embargoes to be lifted. Ultimately, the restrictions set forth by the JCPOA were made in exchange for easing economic sanctions on Iran. [4] Yet, despite the promise of a deal being reached, critics are concerned that Iran may not in full compliance and that a nuclear Iran is still a very real possibility.

Current Status and Beyond

While considered a defining foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, the Iran nuclear deal, which continues to be backed by all P5+1 powers, has come under scrutiny by President Trump. Referring to the JCPOA as "one of the worst deals" in history, President Trump extended the Iran nuclear deal with great hesitation, threatening U.S. withdraw from that agreement if "significant flaws in the deal" are not changed. [4,5] European allies have urged the preservation of the deal; and contended that cutting Iran out of any possible future negotiations would stifle relations and be counterproductive to international security objectives. [4] Notably, another year of U.S. approval has granted the waiving of sanctions to spare Iran's dire economy. Ultimately, the future of the nuclear deal is uncertain from the U.S. side of the equation; yet, European allies and other members of the P5+1 remain staunch supporters of the deal and of respecting the 15-year timeline in its entirety before reconvening at the negotiating table once more.

© Persiana Saffari. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Timeline: Sanctions on Iran," Al Jazeera, 16 Oct 12.

[2] "Iran Nuclear Deal: Key Details," BBC News, 13 Oct 17.

[3] M. R. Gordon and D. E. Sanger, "Deal Reached on Iran Nuclear Program; Limits on Fuel Would Lessen With Time," New York Times, 14 Jul 15.

[4] L. Kaplow, "Trump Again Keeps U.S. In Iran Nuclear Deal - But Threatens To Get Out Later," NPR, 12 Jan 18.

[5] K. Carusa, "Iran's Nuclear Program," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.