By Jonathan Tirone | Bloomberg
New fuel rods sit in wrapping ahead of use in a storeroom beside the main reactor hall at the Dukovany nuclear power plant operated by CEZ AS in Dukovany, Czech Republic, on Sunday, April 6, 2014. CEZ AS, the largest Czech power producer, sees potential for two new reactors at its Dukovany nuclear complex once the current four units are retired in 2035. Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)
Iran’s nuclear capabilities have been the subject of global hand-wringing for more than two decades. While Iran’s leaders long insisted the country was not building nuclear weapons, its enrichment of uranium and history of deception created deep mistrust. In 2015, after more than two years of talks and threats to bomb the country’s facilities, Iran and world powers reached a deal that limits the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that had cut off oil exports and hobbled its economy. After President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact and reinstated sanctions in 2018, Iran began violating the deal’s restrictions and, in early 2020, said it was no longer bound by any of its limits.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, though under threat, isn’t dead yet. The other parties to it — China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the European Union — have continued to talk to Iran about preserving the deal in some form. The Trump administration, in an effort to bury it for good, pressed the United Nations to restore its sanctions against the Islamic Republic but was rebuffed by other members of the UN Security Council. Of particular U.S. concern is the UN arms embargo against Iran, which lapses in October 2020 unless sanctions are snapped back. The deal’s future could turn on the outcome of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election, in which Trump is seeking a second four-year term. His opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said he would rejoin the deal if Iran resumes complying with it. Iran had expected the pact to stimulate an economic revival, but new and reinstated U.S. sanctions instead provoked an economic contraction.
Iranian statements and international contacts with Pakistani scientists prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to warn in 1992 that the Persian Gulf country could develop a nuclear weapon. While Iran reaffirmed its commitment to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it wanted the country’s “right” to enrich uranium recognized before it made concessions. A breakthrough came after Iran elected a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, president in 2013. The 2015 deal he made recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and Iran was allowed to keep 5,000 centrifuges to separate the uranium-235 isotope needed to induce a fission chain reaction. But Iran agreed that for 15 years it would not refine the metal to more than 3.7% enrichment — the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants — and would limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, or 3% of the amount it held in May 2015. The International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran eliminated its inventory of 20%-enriched uranium, which can be used to make medical isotopes and to power research reactors but could also be purified to weapons-grade material at short notice. Inspectors also confirmed that Iran destroyed a reactor capable of producing plutonium. U.S. officials under then-President Barack Obama estimated that the pact extended the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a bomb from a few months to a year.
Trump administration officials say the 2015 deal emboldened Iranian activities that destabilize the Middle East and didn’t adequately address Iran’s ballistic missile program. They had some company in criticizing the deal. Middle East powers including Israel and Saudi Arabia say it empowered Iran’s theocratic regime to the detriment of regional security. And some members of the U.S. Congress say Iran can’t be trusted to make any fissile material, whether for energy, medicine or bombs. Like other enriching countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Japan and South Africa, the technology gives Iran the ability to pursue nuclear weapons should it choose to break its commitments. Supporters of the deal say Iran would never agree to abandon enrichment entirely and that a decade’s worth of sanctions failed to stop its nuclear program. Keeping an enrichment capability was important to Iran, for reasons of national pride and because it was previously denied access to uranium on world markets. Defending the agreement, Obama has said that it prevented another war in the Middle East. Without a deal, supporters say, Iran would have been left free to pursue its nuclear ambitions unchecked.