The Revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Day After

A Conversation with Gary Samore

Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel, Associate Director for Research

March 4, 2021

In the nuclear deal reached in July 2015 between Iran, the U.S., and other global powers—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—Iran agreed to limit production of nuclear fuel and move the vast majority of its existing stockpile out of the country in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.[i] These steps were designed to increase the time it would take Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon.

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and imposed a series of unilateral sanctions on Iran; in response, Iran began a year later to exceed production limits outlined in the deal. During the 2020 presidential campaign and since entering the White House, President Joe Biden has said that if Iran returns to “strict compliance” with the original 2015 deal, then the U.S. will do the same. His administration will then seek to extend and strengthen the nuclear deal as well as reach agreements on limits to Iran’s missile program and regional activities, such as its support of armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon and involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.

In this Crown Conversation, we spoke with Gary Samore, Crown Family Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and Professor of the Practice of Politics at Brandeis, about the continued relevance of the original 2015 deal and the prospects for successful follow-up negotiations. Samore served in the U.S. government for over twenty years, focusing on nuclear arms control and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, especially in the Middle East and Asia. In that capacity, he served both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as the senior official in the National Security Council responsible for nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

How far has the Iranian nuclear program advanced since Iran began exceeding limits imposed by the JCPOA in mid-2019? Is the 2015 deal now moot? 

Since the U.S. withdrew from the deal in May 2018, Iran has gradually exceeded many of the nuclear limits in the original deal. Iran has increased enrichment levels, most recently resuming 20% enrichment, and increased its stockpiles of low-enriched (under 5%) uranium. It has also resumed enrichment at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, started enriching with advanced centrifuges, and begun production of uranium metal. Iran has also reduced cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), although inspectors still have access to Iran’s enrichment facilities.

There are three important points about the current status of Iran’s nuclear program:

First, Iran’s current enrichment capacity today is actually less than it was before the 2015 nuclear deal went into effect. For example, in 2015, Iran had roughly 18,000 operating centrifuges and around 7,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. Today, Iran has roughly 6,000 operating centrifuges and about 4,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. In other words, Iran has been cautious about exceeding the limits of the JCPOA. Of course, if Iran keeps doing what it is now doing, it will eventually surpass its 2015 numbers before the end of this year.

Second, Iran currently does not have a safe pathway for producing weapons-grade uranium (around 90%) without detection. So-called “break out time”—which is defined as the time required to produce 25 kilograms of 90% enriched uranium, or enough for a single bomb—may be a couple of months. But any attempt to produce 90% enriched uranium would be quickly detected by the IAEA inspectors who continue to monitor Iran’s enrichment facilities. So far, Iran has not been willing to take that risk.

The third point is that Iran can easily reverse the steps it has taken and restore compliance with the nuclear limits of the original deal within a matter of weeks, which could be verified by the IAEA inspectors. This would require Iran to reduce enrichment levels, ship out surplus stocks of low-enriched uranium, and shut down or dismantle a certain number and types of operating centrifuges to restore compliance with the nuclear limits of the JCPOA. The one activity that cannot be reversed is the experience Iran has gained by moving from research and development on advanced centrifuges (which is permitted under the JCPOA) to installing and operating entire cascades of advanced centrifuges.

Beyond Iran, what is the general state of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East? Israel’s program is an open secret. But Saudi Arabia and China recently announced several joint nuclear projects in the Kingdom, and the UAE’s first nuclear power station went online last year. Are these nuclear projects in Gulf states partly a hedge against Iran’s program?

Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have said that Saudi Arabia will pursue nuclear weapons if Iran acquires them. In practice, however, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear capabilities are extremely rudimentary, and the nuclear facilities that Saudi Arabia is seeking to purchase from China and other countries—such as uranium mining, small research reactors and power reactors—do not have direct military applications.

Just as Iran’s nuclear weapons program is based on enrichment technology and nuclear weapons designs it secretly acquired from Pakistan in the mid-1980s, Saudi Arabia would require very substantial foreign assistance to begin an indigenous nuclear weapons program. Even then, it would take many years for Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons, with a high risk that the program would be detected before it reached fruition. Similarly, the UAE’s Barakah Nuclear Power Plant does not provide a nuclear weapons option because the UAE does not have a reprocessing plant necessary to separate plutonium from the spent fuel of that plant. It is extremely unlikely that anyone will sell the UAE such a reprocessing plant or that the UAE could build one itself.

Since leaders in both Iran and the U.S. now seem to want to restore the original 2015 deal on the basis of “compliance for compliance,” do you see any obstacles to that occurring in the near term?

Yes, the immediate obstacle is agreeing on a sequence of graduated and reciprocal steps that the U.S. and Iran would take in parallel to restore mutual compliance with the JCPOA. The current position of the Biden administration is that Iran must restore compliance with the nuclear limits before the U.S. lifts any sanctions. Naturally, the Iranian position is that the U.S. must first lift sanctions to Iran’s satisfaction before it will reverse its nuclear steps. Partly because of domestic politics in both Washington and Tehran, and partly because of mistrust and bargaining tactics, neither side is willing to take the first step without confidence that the other side will reciprocate.

To break the impasse, the U.S. offered on February 18 to meet informally with the remaining parties to the nuclear deal, including Iran, to begin discussions on a pathway back to “compliance for compliance.” The European Union, which would host the meeting, is working to advance an interim agreement in which the U.S. would partially waive sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and Iran would freeze some of its nuclear activities prohibited by the JCPOA. On February 28, however, Iran rejected this offer to meet informally with the U.S., saying that the time was not right for such a meeting. In particular, Iran is upset that the IAEA Board of Governors, meeting this week in Vienna, is threatening to pass a resolution sponsored by the U.S. and Western European countries that would criticize Iran for limiting cooperation with the IAEA.

Eventually, I think, Iran will agree to hold informal talks with the JCPOA parties and the U.S., but this episode illustrates the fragility of even getting negotiations started. With respect to the substance of a deal to restore the JCPOA, reversing Iran’s nuclear steps is relatively straightforward and easy to verify, but reversing sanctions by the U.S. is more complicated. In addition to the nuclear sanctions that the Trump administration re-imposed when it withdrew from the JCPOA, it imposed a number of additional sanctions under statutes for counter-terrorism, human rights, and missile proliferation that effectively impede the economic benefits that Iran received under the nuclear deal—such as its ability to sell, ship, and insure oil exports and gain access to oil revenues. So any restoration of the status quo ante would presumably require the Biden administration to lift some of these non-nuclear sanctions in addition to the sanctions relief that is already embedded in the JCPOA. President Biden has the authority to lift these sanctions by executive action, but, of course, there would be strong opposition from Congress. Under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), Congress has the right to review any new nuclear agreement with Iran, but it is unlikely that Congress can muster the necessary two-thirds majority in both chambers to override a presidential veto if Congress disapproves of a U.S.-Iran agreement to revive the JCPOA.

Finally, any nuclear negotiations would take place in the context of continuing hostilities between the U.S. and Iran in the wider region, especially in Iraq. On February 15, an Iraqi Shia militia launched a rocket attack against a military facility in Erbil that houses U.S. troops and contractors, and the U.S. retaliated on February 25 by bombing facilities inside Syria associated with Iranian-backed Iraqi militia groups believed by the U.S. to be responsible for the Erbil attacks. On March 3, more rockets targeted U.S. forces in Iraq, this time at Al Asad Airbase in al-Anbar Governate. Whether these recent exchanges will lead to a temporary pause in hostilities or a new round of escalation remains to be seen. Adding to tensions, an Israeli-owned cargo ship was attacked in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, most likely by limpet mines. Israel has blamed Iran for the attack and may look to retaliate against Iranian shipping or other targets. Given this backdrop of potential violence, the nuclear negotiations to revive the JCPOA could easily be delayed or blown off course by fighting in the region.

Iran is scheduled to hold a presidential election on June 18. Does this timing matter for efforts to revive the nuclear deal?

Supporters of the current Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are saying privately that the timeline for restoring the JCPOA is short because a “hardliner” is expected to win the June presidential election. However, I’m not sure the election matters very much because the decision on whether or not to rejoin the JCPOA—just like the decision to accept the JCPOA in the first place—rests with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and not with the president.

Some Iran experts speculate that Khamenei would prefer to wait until after the presidential election in June to avoid allowing Rouhani (who is ineligible to run for reelection) and the “moderate camp” to take credit for obtaining sanctions relief. Other experts think that Khamenei prefers near-term sanctions relief to avoid public unrest and facilitate support for his preferred presidential candidate, whoever that turns out to be.

I do not know the answer, but the only way to find out is through negotiations to determine whether the U.S. and Iran are able to reach agreement on a pathway to restore the JCPOA, mostly likely based on reciprocal actions: sanctions relief for nuclear constraints. I believe the Biden administration intends to test that proposition in the coming months, before the scheduled election in Iran.

The Biden administration has repeatedly stated its intention to enter into negotiations to both extend the nuclear deal (e.g., address sunset clauses) and also address other issues of concern, such as Iran’s missile program and support of armed groups throughout the region. What are the principal challenges to reaching agreements on these issues, and is the Biden administration most likely to tackle them one at a time or push for a “grand bargain” with Iran?

Assuming that the JCPOA is restored, the Biden administration says they intend to begin “follow-on negotiations” with Iran to “strengthen and extend” constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and address other issues, like Iran’s missile program and regional activities. And the Biden team has suggested that regional parties might be included in some of these follow-on negotiations.

I think it’s unlikely that these follow-on negotiations will make much progress anytime soon.  Under the JCPOA, the physical limits on Iran’s enrichment program will begin to ease in 2025 and are completely removed in 2030. So far, Iran has rejected any extension of these “sunset clauses,” so it will take a very powerful combination of threats and inducements to convince Iran to accept new nuclear constraints. In any event, the deadline for the expiration of the JCPOA is still years away, so negotiations are likely to drag on for some time before it becomes clear whether a new nuclear deal is possible.

With respect to missiles, Iran deploys hundreds of mobile, medium-range, liquid-fueled ballistic missiles (mostly based on North Korean technology) as its primary long-range strike capability. Iran’s current focus in its missile program is to develop solid-fuel ballistic missiles, which provide significant military advantages over liquid-fueled systems. In theory, one could imagine an agreement to limit Iran’s missile development and deployment in terms of numbers of missiles, ranges, and testing, although verification would be challenging. In practice, however, Iran has already indicated that it will not accept limits on its missile program as long as its regional enemies and rivals acquire advanced military aircraft, including from the U.S.

Negotiations on Iran’s regional activities—its support for armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—are especially challenging, given the deep hostility and mistrust between Iran and other countries in the region, including Israel and the Sunni Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Since each regional conflict is unique, a “grand bargain” seems implausible. I expect the Biden administration will try to tackle each problem one at a time, beginning with Yemen. At some point, the Biden administration will probably try to orchestrate a Persian Gulf security dialogue among Iraq, Iran, and the GCC, which may reduce tensions, but it is unlikely to resolve underlying conflicts.

[i] For a concise description and assessment of the JCPOA at the time of its signing, see Gary Samore, et al.,“The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 3, 2015, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/iran-nuclear-deal-definitive-guide.


The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.