The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a landmark accord reached between Iran and several world powers, including the United States, in July 2015. Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief. 

However, the deal has been in jeopardy since President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2018. In retaliation for the U.S. departure and for deadly attacks on prominent Iranians in 2020, including one by the United States, Iran has resumed some of its nuclear activities. President Joe Biden has said the United States will return to the deal if Iran comes back into compliance, but analysts say that renewed diplomacy would have to overcome major political hurdles. And a revival of Iran’s nuclear weapons program would dramatically escalate tensions in the Middle East, they say, raising the prospects for conflict between Iran and its regional rivals, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Who are the participants? 

The JCPOA, which went into effect in January 2016, imposes restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. At the heart of negotiations with Iran were the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany—collectively known as the P5+1. The European Union also took part. 

Some Middle Eastern powers, such as Saudi Arabia, said they should have been consulted or included in the talks because they would be most affected by a nuclear-armed Iran. Israel explicitly opposed the agreement, calling it too lenient. 

Does it prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons? 

Many experts say that if all parties adhered to their pledges, the deal almost certainly could have achieved that goal for longer than a decade. Many of the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program have expiration dates. For example, after ten years (from January 2016), centrifuge restrictions will be lifted, and after fifteen years, so too will limits on the amount of low-enriched uranium Iran can possess. Some of

the deal’s opponents faulted these so-called sunset provisions, saying they would only delay Iran building a bomb while sanctions relief would allow it to underwrite terrorism in the region. 

What did Iran agree to? 

Nuclear restrictions. Iran agreed not to produce either the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium that could be used in a nuclear weapon. It also took steps to ensure that its Fordow, Natanz, and Arak facilities pursued only civilian work, including medical and industrial research. 

Monitoring and verification. Iran agreed to eventually implement a protocol that would allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, unfettered access to its nuclear facilities and potentially to undeclared sites. Inspections are intended to guard against the possibility that Iran could develop nuclear arms in secret, as it has allegedly attempted before. The IAEA has issued quarterly reports to its board of governors and the UN Security Council on Iran’s implementation of its nuclear commitments. 

What did the other signatories agree to? 

Sanctions relief. The EU, United Nations, and United States all committed to lifting their nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. However, many other U.S. sanctions on Iran, some dating back to the 1979 hostage crisis, remained in effect. They cover matters such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for terrorist groups, and human rights abuses. Though the United States committed to lifting its sanctions on oil exports, it keptrestrictions on financial transactions, which have deterred international trade with Iran. 

Weapons embargo. The parties agreed to lift an existing UN ban[PDF] on Iran’s transfer of conventional weapons and ballistic missiles after five years if the IAEA certifies that Iran is only engaged in civilian nuclear activity. 

How is the Iran deal enforced? 

If any signatory suspects Iran is violating the deal, the UN Security Council may vote on whether to continue sanctions relief. This “snapback” mechanism remains in effect for ten years, after which the UN sanctions are set to be permanently removed.

In April 2020, the United States announced its intention to snap back sanctions. The other P5 members objected to the move, saying the United States could not unilaterally implement the mechanism because it left the nuclear deal in 2018. 

Did Iran comply initially? 

The agreement got off to a fairly smooth start. The IAEA certified in early 2016 that Iran had met its preliminary pledges; and the United States, EU, and United Nations responded by repealing or suspending their sanctions. Most significantly, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration dropped secondary sanctions on the oil sector, which allowed Iran to ramp up its oil exports to nearly the level it was prior to sanctions. The United States and many European nations also unfroze about $100 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets. 

However, the deal has been near collapse since President Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2018 and reinstated devastating banking and oil sanctions. Trump said the agreement failed to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its proxy warfare in the region, and he claimed that the sunset provisions would enable Iran to pursue nuclear weapons in the future. 

Following the U.S. withdrawal, several countries—U.S. allies among them—continued to import Iranian oil under waivers granted by the Trump administration, and Iran continued to abide by its commitments. But a year later, the United States ended the waivers with the aim of halting Iran’s oil exports completely. 

What is Iran’s current nuclear activity? 

In response to the other parties’ actions, which Tehran claimed amounted to breaches of the deal, Iran started breaching the contract. 

How has the deal affected Iran’s economy? 

Prior to the JCPOA, Iran’s economy suffered years of recession, currency depreciation, and inflation, largely because of sanctions on its energy sector. With the sanctions lifted, inflation slowed, exchange rates stabilized, and exports—especially of oil, agricultural goods, and luxury items—skyrocketed as Iran regained trading partners, particularly in the EU. After the JCPOA took effect, Iran began exporting more

than 2.1 million barrels per day (approaching pre-2012 levels, when the oil sanctions were originally put in place). However, these improvements did not translate to a significant increase in the average Iranian household’s budget. 

The end of sanctions waivers on oil exports and the restoration of U.S. sanctions in 2018 has once again cut deeply into a vital source of national revenue: oil and petroleum products account for 80 percent [PDF] of Iran’s exports. 

What is the outlook for the agreement? 

The fate of the Iran nuclear deal remains uncertain. Biden has said the United States will rejoin the agreement if Iran returns to compliance, but that he also wants to negotiate a successor agreement to address Iran’s other activities, such as its missile program. 

Iran has called for the United States to return to the deal but has said it is not willing to discuss expanding the accord further. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CFR in September 2020 that Iran will “absolutely not” renegotiate and that the United States should compensate Iran for damages caused by sanctions, which he says amount to $1 trillion. 

However, the prospects for new negotiations could dim come June 2021, when Iran is set to elect a new president. Many analysts say a conservative, hard-line candidate will likely replace President Rouhani, whose popularity has plummeted with the unraveling of the nuclear deal.

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