After two years of negotiations led by the United States, Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union signed an agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear development in exchange for the phased removal of sanctions.
The landmark agreement was a historic moment for the Islamic Republic. In the capital and across the country, people celebrated on the streets. For the first time in over a decade, international sanctions that had isolated it from much of the world would be lifted. The country was on the verge of a massive economic boost as its oil, gas and natural minerals would again hit the world market.
The 159-page document with five annexes, officially named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and unofficially known just as the nuclear deal, was finalised in July 2015.
It is, essentially, a simple deal: Iran would accept strict rules and oversight of its nuclear activity in exchange for being allowed back into the international community.
For 12 years the West and Iran had been deadlocked over the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment programme. While Tehran said it was for peaceful uses – to power nuclear reactors for electricity generation – the West was worried that when coupled with the country’s sophisticated ballistic missile programme, Iran could work towards building a bomb.
How to build a bomb – or a nuclear reactor
Making a nuclear bomb isn’t easy or particularly quick. Aside from the ballistic technology needed to deliver any payload – which is itself very complex – getting the material together for a nuclear missile can take years and cost millions. The means to do this is enrichment of uranium, essentially separating isotopes with a similar chemical and physical property. This can be done in machines called centrifuges.
But enriching uranium is not always a sign of a bomb making attempt. Naturally, uranium has less than 1 per cent of isotope 235, the element needed for power generation or weapons grade material. Enrichment to less than 20 per cent uranium-235 is considered low level and can then be used in many nuclear reactors for power production. Building a bomb on the other hand requires several kilograms at upwards of 90 per cent uranium-235.
Heavy water, a modified form of natural water, can be used to help in the enrichment process.
Why Iran was a concern
Iran ratified the non-proliferation treaty in 1970, an international agreement not to attempt to build a nuclear bomb. As such, it was then subject to inspection by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But through the 2000s, the US expressed concern that there were secret nuclear sites not being inspected and said that atomic inspectors had been barred by Tehran from site visits – although both the IAA and Iran denied the second claim.
However, Iran did have sizable stockpiles of low-grade uranium. The concern was what officials dubbed ‘break out capability’, essentially warning that Iran was building all the component parts to build a bomb so that it could suddenly begin production and complete the process before anyone could intervene.
There were several attempts at a deal, but the JCPOA was the first breakthrough.
Key elements to the nuclear deal
Iran agreed to mothball two-thirds of its centrifuges and exported 98 per cent of its low-grade enriched uranium among other things.
In exchange, UN, US and EU sanctions would be dropped.
On July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution to back the deal. The deal would begin in October 2015, starting a three month implementation period before it entered full effect on January 16, 2016.
Oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA would be allowed to inspect Iranian sites to ensure compliance and would oversee the agreement. A joint commission of the deal’s signatories would meet at least quarterly to discuss the ongoing elements.
There were several stages to the deal. Iran would agree to years of spot inspections, tests and restrictions. While many of these would decrease over time, some were permanent.
For 15 years, Iran was limited to a stockpile of 300kg of uranium at 3.67 per cent uranium-235. Anything over this could be sold overseas.
International Sanctions removal
International sanctions would begin to be removed once Iran had taken the first steps after signing the deal. However, most had clauses that failure to comply with elements of the deal would see these restrictions “snap back” for at least 10 years. Iranian banks, companies and individuals would be allowed to do business with the West again and the West could do business with Iran.
Western commitments under the JCPOA
The JCPOA also had provisions that would allow Iran to withdraw from the deal if the other signatories did not meet their commitments. Mainly this was about the risk of one member re-imposing sanctions. In May 2018, US President Donald Trump said he was pulling out of the nuclear deal and would re-impose sanctions.
Since then, the US has piled the pressure on Tehran in a bid to cripple to economy with rafts of sanctions.
Mr Trump and his administration say that the JCPOA was a flawed deal, partly because it didn’t also address Iran’s other destabilising influence in the region nor the country’s ballistic missile program – that was itself subject to UN sanctions.