Best Facts, Research, and Analysis on Iran's Nuclear Program

The Belfer Center's team of experts presents an array of reference reports, op-eds, testimonies, media interviews, and official documents dedicated for helping policymakers, students, and enthusiasts understand the full scope and implications of Iran's nuclear trajectory.

Iran's Nuclear Program under the JCPOA


On July 14th, 2015, the P5+1 and Iran agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – an agreement that would supposedly stop Iran’s path to the bomb in return for sanctions relief and opportunities for global reintegration. The deal has survived scrutiny and is now set for new challenges under changing geopolitical contexts. What's actually in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Are its provisions likely to be effective?

  • Plutonium Production & Reprocessing Capabilities

    Iran’s primary option to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons is the Arak heavy-water research reactor, which, if completed and operated as planned, could produce enough weapons grade plutonium in its spent fuel for one or two nuclear weapons annually. Under the JCPOA, Iran will work with an international consortium (including all of the P5+1) to redesign and rebuild the Arak reactor to a new design agreed to by the P5+1. The new design will reduce the reactor’s power level from 40 megawatts-thermal (MWt) to 20 MWt, and replace the natural uranium fuel with low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel enriched to 3.67% U-235. The initial fuel load for the redesigned reactor will be manufactured outside of Iran, and the international consortium will provide technical assistance to help Iran build facilities to test and fabricate fuel thereafter. Iran will cease production of the original natural uranium fuel for Arak and destroy the original calandria or core for the Arak reactor by filling the openings with concrete.

    In addition to redesigning Arak, the comprehensive agreement calls for Iran to ship all of the spent fuel from Arak out of the country. Under the JCPOA, Iran will not build any additional heavy-water reactors for at least 15 years. Iran will sell on the international market all of its heavy water that is not needed for Arak and a supporting zero-power test reactor, and will keep doing so for 15 years. e JCPOA estimates that Iran will need roughly 130 tons of heavy water until the redesigned Arak reactor begins operations and roughly 90 tons thereafter. Iran will allow the IAEA to monitor its heavy-water stocks and heavy-water production plant to verify this commitment indefinitely.

    JCPOA Pu Path Restrictions
    JCPOA Pu Path Restrictions - Belfer Center

    Reprocessing is the technology for chemically separating plutonium contained in the spent fuel from uranium and highly radioactive waste products. Under the accord, Iran will not conduct research and development on reprocessing or build any facilities capable of reprocessing for at least 15 years. During that period, Iran will only be permitted to build small (less than six cubic meters) hot cells for producing medical isotopes. For the same period, Iran can only examine spent fuel non-destructively—that is, no chemical processing of the fuel, which could contribute to reprocessing knowledge in Iran. Instead, the P5+1 will “make available their facilities” to allow for destructive post-irradiation examination of fuel outside Iran.

    After 15 years, the restrictions and limits of the JCPOA with respect to heavy-water reactors, spent fuel, and reprocessing are expressed as Iran’s plans and intentions rather than rm commitments. Iran states that it “plans” to rely on light-water reactors rather than heavy-water reactors for its power and research reactors; “intends” to ship out spent fuel from all present and future power and research reactors; and “does not intend” to engage in any spent fuel reprocessing or construction of a reprocessing facility. (Light-water reactors are less suitable for producing weapons grade plutonium than heavy-water reactors.)

    Souce: Samore, Gary. “The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 3, 2015.

  • Uranium Enrichment Capabilities

    Iran’s current enrichment program consists of nearly 18,500 first generation IR-1 centrifuges (approximately 15,500 installed at Natanz and 3,000 installed at Fordow) and another 1,000 more-advanced IR-2 centrifuges at Natanz, for a total of about 19,500 centrifuges, with an additional nearly 400 more-advanced centrifuge machines undergoing various tests and experimentaion at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. Of the total, approximately 9,200 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and 700 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow are actually enriching uranium. Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium includes about 7.6 tons of low-enriched uranium (up to 3.67% U-235) in the form of UF6, and about 2.4 tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in the form of oxide (or being converted to oxide). None of Iran’s near 20% enriched uranium remains in the form of UF6, but it retains about 230 kilograms of near 20% enriched uranium oxide.

    The JCPOA includes a detailed set of physical limits on numbers and types of centrifuges, centrifuge research and development, centrifuge manufacturing, locations and levels of enrichment, and stocks of enriched uranium. e physical limits phase out over 10 to 15 years (see Uranium Path Restrictions). 

    Under the agreement, Iran is required to remove about two- thirds of its installed centrifuge machines (or about one-third of its operating centrifuges), leaving it with about 5,000 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and about 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow (see timeline below).

    The excess centrifuge machines and related enrichment infrastructure removed from Natanz and Fordow will be stored
    at Natanz under IAEA monitoring. For 10 years, enrichment capacity at Natanz is capped at about 5,000 IR-1 machines in their current cascade configuration, which will continue to produce LEU. At Fordow, one-third of the remaining 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges will be converted to produce stable isotopes (i.e., not uranium) for medical or industrial purposes and the remaining two-thirds will be kept on standby status. No uranium enrichment or nuclear material is permitted at Fordow for 15 years.

    The agreement also determines the range of centrifuge research and development permitted at Natanz over 10 years, specifying the type and number of advanced machines that can be tested and the type of tests that can be conducted. For example, Iran must dismantle the 164-machine test cascades of IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges during the initial implementation of the JCPOA, thus preventing Iran from continuing to experiment with production scale cascades of advanced centrifuges for 10 years. But, Iran can continue research on the IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges—its most advanced designs—and is permitted to scale up to 30-machine test cascades of IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges at year 8.5. None of the test activities during this 10-year period are allowed to accumulate enriched uranium. Iran also commits not to pursue any research and development on enrichment technologies other than gas centrifuge technology for 10 years.

    JCPOA U Path Restrictions
    JCPOA U Path Restrictions - Belfer Center

    Under the JCPOA, Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing is limited to meeting the enrichment and enrichment research and development requirements of the agreement. In particular, production of additional IR-1 centrifuges is suspended for 10 years unless the reserve stock of machines in storage (which are used to replace failed or damaged machines at Natanz and Fordow) falls below 500 centrifuges. At that point, Iran can resume IR-1 production to maintain a stock of 500 machines. Production of more-advanced machines will not exceed the requirements of the initial research and development plan. However, at the end of year 8, Iran is allowed to begin production of IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges without rotors at a rate of up to 200 centrifuges per year through year 10. After year 10, Iran can begin producing complete IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges at the rate of 200 per year of each type and can begin installing the necessary enrichment infrastructure for IR-8 centrifuges at Natanz. The JCPOA does not appear to impose any limits on production of IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges after year 10.

    Between year 11 and year 15 of the JCPOA, Iran is allowed to begin replacing the 5,000 IR-1 centrifuges with more advanced machines, according to an “enrichment and enrichment R&D plan” that Iran will submit to the IAEA during the initial implementation of the JCPOA. e contents of the enrichment plan are not public and are not included in the JCPOA, but the substance of the plan is known to U.S. officials and has been provided to Congress. Reportedly, the plan calls for Iran to replace its entire inventory of operating IR-1 centrifuges with a few thousand IR-2m or IR-4 centrifuges by the end of year 13 of the agreement. The IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges are expected to be 3 to 5 times more powerful than the IR-1. After year 13, Iran plans to deploy the more advanced IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges for enrichment at Natanz. At that point, according to the centrifuge production schedule, Iran could have upwards of 1,000 machines of each type available for deployment. During this period, enrichment levels will continue to be limited to LEU (up to 3.67% U-235), the stockpile of LEU will be capped at 300 kg, and enrichment will be limited to the Natanz facility.

    The JCPOA limits Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. For 15 years, Iran will maintain a total stockpile of no more than 300 kg of LEU, whether as UF6 or other chemical forms. Excess enriched uranium—nearly 12 tons of LEU in various chemical forms at present—will be down-blended to natural uranium or sold on the international market in exchange for natural uranium. The 300-kg limit includes various scrap and waste materials containing low-enriched uranium but does not include enriched uranium that has been fabricated into fuel elements for Iran’s reactors, including the near 20% enriched uranium produced by Iran for fabrication of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Iran will not build or operate a facility to convert fuel back to UF6 for 15 years.

    After 15 years, all physical restraints on enrichment are removed, including numbers and types of centrifuge machines, enrichment levels, locations for enrichment facilities, and stocks of enriched uranium.

    iran enrichment timeline
    IR-1 Centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, 2007 - Present - Belfer Center

    Souce: Samore, Gary. “The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 3, 2015.

  • Pre-JCPOA Capabilities

    Iran claims it is building a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak for the purpose of producing medical isotopes. Nonproliferation advocates fear, however, that the 40-megawatt reactor would offer Iran a second, plutonium path to the bomb. According to some estimates, should Arak become fully operational, it would produce as a byproduct about 9-12 kg of plutonium per year, which if reprocessed, would be enough for 1-2 bombs annually.

    iran program stats pre-jcpoa
    Iran's nuclear program pre-JCPOA - Source: Iran Project Analysis

    The nuclear power plant at Bushehr is Iran’s only nuclear reactor currently operating. Though construction began in 1975, the civilian reactor did not come online until September 2011. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization reports that it operates at a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, and the Islamic Republic maintains a contract with Russia that will provide sufficient fuel for the reactor for 10 years. While Iran envisions using uranium from controversial enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow to feed the reactor, the Bushehr site does not itself pose a proliferation risk. 

    Hidden underground near the holy city of Qom, the once-secret Fordow enrichment facility was first revealed by Western intelligence agencies in 2009. Because the site was constructed in secret and is nearly impenetrable to military attack, many in the U.S. government and elsewhere believe that it was constructed to produce high-enriched uranium (90% U-235) for an Iranian nuclear bomb. It has now been declared by Iran and therefore subject to IAEA inspections, but the closure or dismantling of Fordow remains a primary demand of Western governments. 

    The uranium conversion plant at Isfahan is Iran’s central facility for converting yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the gaseous form required to feed spinning centrifuges at an enrichment plant. Isfahan is also the site of Iran’s largest missile production facility. Also at Isfahan, Iran maintains a light water research reactor to produce radioisotopes; a light water reactor used for training purposes; a heavy-water reactor used for research; and a fuel fabrication laboratory that produces fuel pellets suitable for use at Bushehr. 

    The plant at Natanz is Iran’s largest enrichment facility and was once secret until its discovery by an Iranian opposition organization in 2002. Today, it houses the majority of Iran’s centrifuges, about half of which are producing low-enriched uranium. Along with Fordow, Natanz is a principal concern for nonproliferation advocates, who that Natanz’s large centrifuge capacity allows it to produce several bombs’ worth of enriched uranium per year. 

    Long a point of contention between the Iran and the IAEA, the suspected military site at Parchin, just southeast of Tehran, is thought to have been at the center of nuclear weapons research and testing until at least 2003. The IAEA seeks access to the site, as well as more comprehensive accounting of Iran’s past activities at Parchin, though recent studies have revealed that Iran may be seeking to bulldoze the site before inspectors are invited to visit. 

    Iran’s principal sources of natural uranium—the original state of uranium before it is converted to yellowcake, then gas to feed centrifuges at an enrichment plant—are mines at Saghand, Gachin, and Yazd. In October 2013, the IAEA signed an agreement with Iran that would allow inspectors to visit the site at Gachin in southern Iran.

    In a February 10 accord, Iran granted the IAEA "managed access" to the Saghand mine and Ardakan concentration center, a uranium mill that processes ore from Saghand. Iran also agreed to allow inspectors to conduct a "technical visit" at Lashkar Abad Laser Center. Lashkar Abad is a once-secret pilot enrichment plant used for atomic vapor laser isotope separation. Though Iran admitted the facility's purpose and agreed to stop laser enrichment experiments in 2003, the government announced in 2011 that Iran "possessed" laser enrichment technology. Access to Lashkar Abad will help the IAEA determine the validity of this claim.

  • Glossary of Terms

    *Unless otherwise noted, the following definitions are from Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson’s “Nuclear Iran: A Glossary of Terms,” Policy Focus 121, Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March 2015. 

    • Additional Protocol: Agreement with IAEA that “provides additional measures for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of agency safeguards. Specifically, it gives the IAEA an expanded declaration containing information on all aspects of a country’s nuclear fuel cycle activities and granting broader access to all relevant sites, including those where nuclear material is not customarily used.” Iran signed in 2003, but withdrew in 2006 after censure from the IAEA for non-compliance. 
    • Breakout: “The ability of the Iranians to suddenly abandon constraints, kick out inspectors, disable monitoring equipment, and use existing enrichment facilities to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more nuclear weapons – and to do these things before the international community can take effective action to stop them.” (Robert Einhorn, remarks, 10/24/13
    • Cascade: “Arrangement of groups of centrifuges to produce successively higher concentrations of U-235. . . . To produce 90 percent enriched uranium more than 65 stages are required.” In A.Q. Khan’s scheme, “a 164-centrifuge cascade enriches uranium from 0.7 percent to 3.5 percent. Then another 164-machine cascade enriches the material from 3.5 to 20 percent, a 114-machine cascade enriches from 20 to 60 percent, and a final 64-machine cascade enriches from 60 to 90 percent.” 
    • Centrifuge: “Machine used to enrich uranium by sepa­rating the isotope U-235 (which occurs naturally as only 0.7 percent of the metal) from U-238 (most of the other 99.3 percent). Separation is achieved by spinning at high speed.” 
    • Diversion of nuclear material: “A case of noncompliance that involves one or more of the following: undeclared removal of declared nuclear material from a safeguarded facility; use of a safeguarded facility for the introduction, production, or processing of undeclared nuclear material (e.g., undeclared production of high-enriched uranium in an enrichment plant); or undeclared production of plutonium in a reactor through irradiation and subsequent removal of undeclared uranium targets.” 
    • Enrichment: “The process of increasing the amount of the fissile isotope U-235 within nuclear material. Natural uranium contains only 0.7 percent U-235, but enrichment can increase it to 3–5 percent (the level used for nuclear reactors) or over 90 percent (used in atomic bombs). Enriching is a progressively easier process—for example, if the aim is to produce 90 percent enriched uranium, reaching the 3.5 percent level requires some 75 percent of the work. And by the time 20 percent enrichment is reached—a level Iran currently achieves—90 percent of the work has been completed.” 
    • Heavy-water reactor: “A reactor using heavy water (deuterium) as the moderator. . . .  Spent fuel rods from such facilities contain significant quantities of plutonium, a nuclear explosive. Iran decided in the mid-1990s to build its IR-40 heavy-water reactor, the ‘40’ denoting its power output in megawatts. . . . Such a reactor produces weapons-grade plutonium sufficient for at least one nuclear device annually.” 
    • High-enriched uranium (HEU): “Uranium contain­ing 20 percent or more of the fissile isotope U-235. Weapons-grade uranium is usually enriched to 90 per­cent or higher levels of U-235.” 
    • Inspections: “Most IAEA onsite inspections are carried out according to a defined schedule, though some are unannounced or short-notice. Inspections are limited to locations within a declared nuclear facility or other loca­tions containing nuclear material. During onsite visits, inspectors audit the facility’s accounting and operating records, verify the nuclear material inventory, take envi­ronmental samples, and apply containment and surveil­lance measures such as seals and cameras. The frequency of inspections depends on the type of facility and its inventory of nuclear material. A light-water reactor (e.g., Bushehr) is typically inspected quarterly, while an enrichment plant (e.g., Natanz) has monthly announced inspections as well as additional unannounced visits at least once a month. The IAEA’s annual inspection effort in Iran totals about 500 person-days.” 
    • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): Considered the world’s nuclear “watchdog,” the IAEA “independently verifies the correctness and completeness of the declarations made by States about their nuclear material and activities.” (IAEA website, 2013
    • IR-1 centrifuge: “This Iranian model is based on the early Dutch SNOR design acquired by Pakistani sci­entist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who developed it further and called it ‘P1.’ The design was subsequently given to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.” 
    • IR-2 centrifuge: “Iran’s original IR-2 was made of car­bon fiber, without bellows. A more advanced model, the IR-2m, uses two carbon fiber rotors and a maraging steel bellows. Both models are based on the Pakistani P2 cen­trifuge, a German design acquired by A.Q. Khan, which uses a maraging steel rotor.” 
    • Kiloton: “A measure of the explosive power of an atomic bomb, equivalent to one thousand tons of TNT. The bomb tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945 was 20 kilotons. The one dropped on Hiroshima was 12 to 15 kilotons; the one dropped on Nagasaki was 20 to 22 kilotons. The destructive power of the much more powerful hydrogen bomb is rated in megatons, equivalent to millions of tons of TNT.” 
    • Light-water reactor (LWR): “A power reactor that is both moderated and cooled by ordinary (light) water. LWR fuel assemblies usually consist of Zircaloy-clad fuel rods containing uranium oxide pellets of low enrich­ment (generally less than 5 percent). There are two types of LWR: boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors. The LWR at Bushehr is the second type.” (Contrast with heavy-water reactors (above), a greater proliferation risk because of their plutonium byproduct.) 
    • Low-enriched uranium (LEU): “Uranium contain­ing between 0.7 and 20 percent of the isotope U-235 found in the natural metal. At 20 percent the material becomes known as high-enriched uranium.” 
    • Megaton: “A measure of the explosive power of a hydrogen bomb, equivalent to one million tons of TNT. Atomic bombs are much less powerful and are therefore rated in kilotons.” 
    • Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): “A global treaty designed to halt the spread of nuclear weap­ons, promote the spread of peaceful nuclear technol­ogy, and further the goal of disarmament. The NPT, which went into force in 1970, divides its signatories into two categories: nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. The five official nuclear weap­ons states are the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China. The non-nuclear weapons states—which include Iran—agree not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technologies. The nuclear weapons states are obligated to assist in the development of nuclear energy while also working in good faith toward nuclear disarmament.” 
    • Nuclear weapons: “A complete assembly (i.e., implosion type, gun type, or thermonuclear type), in its intended ultimate configuration which, upon completion of the prescribed arming, fusing, and firing sequence, is capable of producing the intended nuclear reaction and release of energy.” (Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, US Department of Defense, 2005) 
    • Plutonium (Pu): “A radioactive element that occurs in only trace amounts in nature. When produced by irradiating uranium fuels, plutonium contains varying percentages of the isotopes Pu-238, 239, 240, 241, and 242. Plutonium containing any Pu-239 is considered a special fissionable material. The International Atomic Energy Agency has defined 8 kg of plutonium as a ‘sig­nificant quantity,’ that is, the amount sufficient for a nuclear bomb.” 
    • Significant quantity: “The approximate minimum quantity of nuclear material required for the manufac­ture of a nuclear explosive device. . . . The IAEA has defined 25 kg of U-235 for high-enriched uranium (U-235≥20 %), 75 kg U-235 for low-enriched uranium (U-235<20%), or 8 kg of Pu-239 or U-233 as a ‘significant quantity.’ Some outside experts argue that an aspiring nuclear weapons state could construct a simple fission weapon with as little as 3 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, or between 2 and 7 kg of HEU.” 
    • “Sneakout”: In contrast with “breakout” (see above), scenario in which Iran “would create a fog of confusion beneath which it would divert LEU or MEU to a secret site for further enrichment.” This “requires a secret site to which the material would be moved and where centrifuges would produce HEU that would be shaped into uranium metal and used for a bomb.” (Graham Allison, 8/1/13
    • Stuxnet: “A computer virus reportedly developed jointly by the U.S. and Israeli governments, designed to interfere with centrifuges.” (For more on Stuxnet, see David Sanger, 6/1/12.) 
    • Uranium: “A naturally occurring radioactive element with atomic number 92. Natural uranium contains the isotopes U-234, 235, and 238; the isotopes U-232, 233, and 236 are produced by radioactive decay.” 
    • Uranium dioxide: “Processed natural or enriched ura­nium used for fuel rods, particularly in light-water and heavy-water reactors.” 
    • Uranium hexafluoride (UF6): “The gaseous feedstock used in the uranium enrichment process that produces fuel for nuclear reactors and weapons.”
    • Yellowcake: “Semi-processed ore containing a variety of oxides of uranium but principally triuranium octoxide, U3O8. The yellowcake produced by most modern ura­nium mills is actually brown or black, not yellow; the name comes from the color and texture of the concen­trates produced by early mining operations.”

Featured Analysis

Key Policy Questions

  • How could Iran get the bomb?

    While analysts overwhelmingly focus on “breakout”—the time needed for Iran to produce enough HEU, using declared facilities, without inviting attack—Iran’s two other options are arguably more likely: “sneak out” and “buy.” By diverting and enriching uranium to 90 percent at a covert enrichment plant, the sneak out option could allow Iran to produce sufficient material for a bomb without being detected. Alternatively, Iran could buy enough material, or even a ready-made bomb, from a willing seller abroad. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously said, North Korea will “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” Kim Jong-il sold Syria a nuclear reactor that by now would have produced enough plutonium for Syria’s first bomb, had it not been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2007.

  • What could be the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran?

    Many expect Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would give way to what a UN panel described in 2004 as a “cascade of proliferation” across the Middle East. After that report, Graham Allison predicted that “If Iran goes nuclear, Egypt will follow, then Saudi Arabia (more likely buying than making).” King Abdullah told U.S. Special Envoy Dennis Ross as much in 2009 (“we will get nuclear weapons”), and many felt such concerns were validated by a recent BBC report that Saudi Arabia “believes it could obtain atomic weapons at will” from Pakistan. Paul Bracken, among others, argues nuclear weapons would provide a shield under which Iran would be able to expand international terrorism operations. Finally, in his book Nuclear Terrorism, Allison raised the possibility of Iran providing nuclear weapons to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

  • Does Iran want nuclear weapons?

    Yes and no. 

    On the one hand, Iran already mastered the technologies to indigenously enrich uranium in 2008 and has the capability with its own know-how and resources to build a bomb if it chooses to do so. While Iran justifies its extensive nuclear program on the basis of meeting its own electricity needs, the country already maintains a contract with Russia, good for 10 years, to provide sufficient fuel for its single operating nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The discovery of two previously covert enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow (the latter dug deep underground, sheltered from foreign surveillance or attack) by Western intelligence agencies has invited greater suspicion. Additionally, a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed “with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” The extent and current status of Iran’s “weaponization” activities, past and present, remains shrouded in mystery. 

    Finally, Iran is surrounded by mostly hostile nations and has a deeply adversarial relationship with Israel and the United States, giving it plenty of reasons to want to develop nuclear weapons. More recently, recent Western intervention in the Middle East has provided evidence for those who argue that nuclear weapons offer protection from attack. As former Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman put it, if you are like Iraq and do not have nuclear weapons, you get invaded; if you are like Libya and give up your nuclear program (as Colonel Qaddafi in 2003), you only get bombed. In March 2011, as the NATO intervention in Libya began, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei noted that Qaddafi “wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West. . . . Look where we are, and in what position they are now.” 

    On the other hand, Iranian leaders have made a variety of statements disavowing nuclear weapons. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has reportedly issued a fatwa against the use or development of atomic weapons, and President Hassan Rouhani told NBC News in September 2013: “We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.” There is no direct evidence that Iran has made a decision to acquire a nuclear weapon, and there is reason to believe that if Iran wanted a nuclear bomb, it would have produced one by now. 

    Bottom line: there is no evidence that Iran has made a decision to acquire a bomb, but it seems clear that it wants the option to do so. 

  • How has the U.S. attempted to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb?

    For the past decade, the principal strategy followed by the U.S. government under both Republican and Democratic administrations has been to declare demands: Iran must not do A; Iran will not be permitted to do B (after Iran has done A); Iran cannot do Z. . . . In addition, the U.S. has led an effort to impose economic pain on Iran through sanctions. Initially, these were largely symbolic. In the past two years, however, the U.S. and key allies have begun taking actions that are actually biting. If one believes what one reads in the papers, the program of sanctions has been complemented by a series of covert actions including cyberwar or cyber-sabotage that included Stuxnet, Duqu, and Flame, assassinations of key scientists in the Iranian nuclear program, and unnatural explosions at key Iranian missile and steel plants.* 

    *Borrowed from Graham Allison, “Will Iran Get a Bomb—or Be Bombed Itself—This Year?” (Atlantic, 8/1/13)

  • If diplomacy fails, how could the United States respond to the Iranian nuclear challenge?




    Stricter sanctions, sabotage, and other pressure

    Roger Cohen (11/14/11): “What is needed is a contain-and-constrain policy. Contain Iran through beefed-up Israeli and Gulf defenses, a process underway. Constrain it to circle in its current nuclear ambiguity through covert undermining (Stuxnet 2.0, etc.), tough measures to block its access to hard currency, and, as a last resort, a ‘quarantine’ similar to John Kennedy’s interdiction of shipping to Cuba during the missile crisis.”

    Robert Einhorn (10/14/13): “Generating international support for ratcheting up sanctions will be very difficult – especially if we are seen to be de-emphasizing a diplomatic solution and the Iranians are seen finally to be willing to accept significant constraints on their nuclear program.”

    Military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities

    Matthew Kroenig (1/24/12): “A US strike would cause immense damage to Iran’s nuclear program. It is unlikely that Iran has significant operational nuclear facilities that America doesn’t know about. The United States could destroy Iran’s known facilities.”

    Amos Yadlin (11/4/13): “I still believe that if President Obama has to choose between Iran becoming nuclear and a military attack —  he will choose a military attack…My argument when I speak to my American friends is, ‘Don’t go to war! Go for a one-night operation. You can do it.”

    Robert Einhorn (10/24/13): “The military option could trigger an Iranian decision to kick out inspectors, withdraw from the NPT, and move as quickly as possible to build nuclear weapons. It could give Iranian advocates of early nuclear weaponization something they’ve wanted for years – a green light to cross the nuclear threshold.” Also, “an attack would almost surely precipitate the demise of international sanctions efforts.”

    Kenneth Pollack (9/22/13): “Even after a devastating American military strike, I fear the Iranians would pick themselves up and rebuild — and would withdraw from the NPT, evict any remaining nuclear inspectors and deploy an actual arsenal to deter a future American strike.”

    Regime change

     Jamie Fly and Gary Schmitt (1/17/12): “If the United States seriously considers military action, it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.”

    Robert Einhorn (10/24/13): “Despite widespread discontent inside Iran, the Islamic Republic has proven to be very resilient. Cycles of relative moderation following periods of conservative orthodoxy have provided a kind of safety valve for the regime.”


    Paul Pillar (11/19/13): “Iran has evolved significantly even during the three decades of the Islamic Republic...most of it has been in directions that entail improvement from our point of view…More, rather than less, normal interaction with the Iranians is what will not just continue but accelerate these trends, leading to effects such as those Khouri describes.  This is the way to encourage political and social change in Iran.”

    John Bolton (9/29/13): “Mr. Rouhani's strategy is clear: Lower the rhetorical temperature about the nuclear issue; make temporary, cosmetic concessions, such as allowing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency at already-declared nuclear sites; and gain Western acceptance of its "reactor-grade" uranium enrichment. Once that goal is attained, Iran's path to nuclear weapons will be unobstructed and within Tehran's discretion.”


    Kenneth Pollack (10/22/13): “Containment is hardly a perfect policy, but I see the costs and risks as more easily mitigated than those of war…Properly understood, containment would put pressure on Iran in various ways, to keep it on the defensive and to encourage the end of the regime. It would hold in place painful sanctions. It would include covert assistance to the Iranian opposition, cyberwarfare in response to Iran’s support for terrorism, and continued diplomatic isolation.”

    Kenneth Waltz (July/August 2012): “By reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.  Israel's regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for the past four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced.”

    Colin Kahl, Raj Pattani, and Jacob Stokes (May 2013): “Containment on the cheap might suffice to counter the least likely dangers emanating from a nuclear-armed Iran – intentional Iranian nuclear use against the United States – but would probably fail to address the more likely dangers associated with a volatile, crisis-prone Middle East.”

  • Is Iran a rational actor?

    Analysis that would lead one to say YES

    • Iran’s concern about its security environment is understandable.
      • Fareed Zakaria (3/8/12): “An Iranian official once said to me, ‘But if we were to pursue a nuclear weapons program, would it be so irrational? Look at our neighborhood. Russia has nukes. India has nukes. Pakistan has nukes. China has nukes. And Israel has nukes. Then on one side of our border the United States has 100,000 troops in Iraq. . . . If you were in our position, wouldn’t that make you nervous and wouldn’t you want to buy some kind of insurance?’ That doesn’t sound like the talk of a mad, messianic regime official, but rather of one that’s looking at costs and benefits and calculating them.”
      • Alireza Nader (5/28/13): “Iran has a lot to be insecure about: It is a Shia and Persian-majority theocracy surrounded by hostile Sunni Arabs, which has recently watched the United States overrun unfriendly regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq with relative ease. . . . As dangerous as it is, Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons makes logical sense.”
    • Iran has proceeded slowly and cautiously with its nuclear program to avoid triggering an Israeli or American military strike.
      • Amos Yadlin and Yoel Guzansky (April 2012): “Iran conducts an ongoing strategic assessment on whether and at what pace to advance its nuclear program. . . . Iran is not advancing toward the bomb at as rapid a pace as it could. It appears to realize that such progress would bring with it negative strategic repercussions.” 
      • Meir Dagan, former Mossad chief (3/11/12): “The regime in Iran is a very rational regime. . . . No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions. . . . And I think the Iranians at this point in time are going very careful in the project; they are not running in it.” 

    Analysis that would lead one to say NO

    • Iran’s leadership is guided by fanaticism.
      • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister (9/15/12): “They put their zealotry above their survival. They have suicide bombers all over the place. I wouldn’t rely on their rationality. . . . Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism. It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today.”
    • If a perceived benefit accrues to individuals or factions inside Iran, this can undermine collective rationality.
      • Michael Singh (2/23/12): “Individuals in the regime face their own incentives—for example personal wealth generated in the black markets that sanctions give rise to—as well as disincentives—for example the possibility of ending up imprisoned or worse for too vocally bucking the regime's line.” 
      • Alan Kuperman (4/1/12): “One possibility is that the regime itself is rational but lacks full control, so that extremist factions act autonomously on occasion. Another is that domestic politics drive the regime to appease extremist factions from time to time. Or it’s possible that the regime’s own radical Islamist ideology sometimes overwhelms its rationality.” 
    • An insular regime in Tehran is unlikely to make fully rational decisions.
      • Michael Singh (2/23/12): “Decisions in Iran are made by one man—Ali Khamenei. By all accounts, he has not traveled outside Iran since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, is likely insulated by his aides from bad news or criticism, and depends on an increasingly narrow and homogenous power base which may not expose him to alternative opinions. One is unlikely to make a good decision if ill-informed or unaware of all the options.” 
  • Is a significant rapprochement between the United States and Iran possible in the years ahead?

    Analysis that would lead one to say YES

    • A series of goodwill gestures by Rouhani’s government have raised hopes for a détente.
      • John Judis (10/1/13): “Think of how Ping-Pong diplomacy laid the basis for Richard Nixon’s opening to China…There have been many significant gestures from Rouhani and Zarif, including a tweet from Rouhani’s staff wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hoshana.”
      • Nicholas Burns (9/28/13): Obama and Rouhani's phone call was “nothing less than a sea change in the world of diplomacy. When governments fight a long cold war with no official relations and few discussions, it robs diplomacy of its greatest promise — hope. As long as two bitter antagonists refuse to even meet, there is the absence of hope of even minimal progress between them and the ever present danger of misunderstanding, mistrust and conflict. All that changed this week.” 
    • Secret talks between the American and Iranian officials, revealed recently by the Associated Press, demonstrate the Supreme Leader’s willingness to engage with the United States.
      • Associated Press (11/25/13): “The private meetings coincided with a public easing of U.S.-Iranian discord. In early August, Obama sent Rouhani a letter congratulating him on his election. The Iranian leader's response was viewed positively by the White House, which quickly laid the groundwork for the additional secret talks. The U.S. officials said they were convinced the outreach had the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei.”
      • Amir Mohebbian (11/24/13): “It is clear that any international outreach could not be handled by someone like President Ahmadinejad. I think the leader helped bring Mr. Rouhani to power to make the public ready for a policy change.” 
    • If Iran sheds its international isolation, citizens may also demand that Iran shed its adversarial relationships with the U.S. and Israel.
      • Efraim Halevy (11/4/13): “I come away from this with a sense of possibility, by no means a certainty, that there might be an opening, in which one can turn around the thorniest problem of all: the deep-seated rejection of Israel by the current regime in Iran…If the nuclear file is closed, and sanctions removed, it will bring economic relief” and “a renewed view from Tehran of the opportunities the world is offering…Then the Iran regime will be able to turn to the public and say, ‘we should no longer be in the business of fear mongering. If we want to move forward with the US, it will be difficult while maintaining a state of belligerency against one of the US key friends and allies [Israel].’”  
    • Iran’s values are closer to those of the United States than that of some of America’s other allies in the region.
      • Akbar Ganji (9/24/13): “The establishment of amicable relations between Iran and the United States need not wait until they share the same values. The United States, after all, manages to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, countries that are even farther from democratic ideals than the Islamic Republic.” 

    Analysis that would lead one to say NO

    • Task of overcoming 34 years of hostility is daunting.
      • Richard Haass (9/29/13): “It would be difficult to exaggerate the fundamental mistrust. Iranians and Americans each have their own historical narratives: the former about the US-backed coup ousting the Mossadegh government in 1953, the latter the hostage ordeal in the wake of the 1979 revolution. More important, I have yet to encounter the US expert who believes that Iran's nuclear programme is, as President Hassan Rouhani maintains, for peaceful – that is to say, energy-related – purposes, given that country's enormous oil reserves.”
      • David Rothkopf (9/27/13): “There are 34 years of reasons to be skeptical about any negotiations that may emerge from Friday's historic phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. There are scores of broken promises and outright lies about Iran's nuclear program itself. There is Iran’s state sponsorship of terror and its efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East at the expense of peace, human dignity and America's allies.” 
    • Addressing Iran’s other actions in the region will be a deeply sensitive endeavor for America’s allies in the Middle East.
      • Secretary Kerry (11/24/13): “It is fair to say that Iran’s choices have created a very significant barrier, and huge security concerns for our friends in the region, for Israel, for Gulf states and others, and obviously they have made certain choices that are deeply, profoundly unsettling in terms of stability in the region. . . . It’s too early for us to talk about other things. It’s just not right.” 
    • Negotiations alone are unlikely to transform relationship of mutual distrust.
      • Akbar Ganji (9/24/13): “Khamenei has spoken of heroic flexibility several times since becoming Iran’s leader over twenty years ago, and in each instance he has emphasized that friendly dialogue is not the same thing as friendship…Khamenei does not believe that the relationship between Washington and Tehran needs to be overtly hostile, in other words, but he does seem to think that Iran and the West are bound to remain ideological adversaries.”
      • Hossein Shariatmadari (12/17/13): "The identity of both sides is involved in this conflict. It didn’t ‘just happen.’ It is structural. The problem will be solved when one side gives up its identity, only then."

Recommended Readings & Sources


The Negotiation Process & Interim Agreement

On Sunday, November 24, 2014 in Geneva, the "P5+1" (U.S., UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China) announced that it reached an interim agreement with Iran. The full text of the agreement is available here, and the White House’s fact sheet here

  • What did the interim agreement include?

    To alleviate some concerns of the P5+1, Iran agreed to several constraints on its nuclear program for a period of six months as negotiators work out a final, comprehensive agreement. In signing the interim deal, Iran agreed:

    • To halt enrichment of uranium beyond 5%;
    • To eliminate its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium;
    • Not to add to its stockpile of gaseous enriched uranium (at any enrichment level);
    • Not to install additional centrifuges or bring online new centrifuges that are not already operating (including more than 1,000 advanced centrifuges that Iran has installed but not activated);
    • Not to build additional enrichment facilities;
    • Not to commission or complete any of the critical components of the plutonium-producing, heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak;
    • To allow IAEA inspectors daily access to the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities and “managed” access to Iran’s centrifuge production facilities and uranium mines and mills.

    In return, the P5+1 agreed to what the Obama administration calls “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible” economic relief. This includes a promise:

    • Not to implement new sanctions against Iran;
    • To suspend sanctions on gold, precious metals, petrochemicals, and Iran’s auto industry;
    • To pause efforts to further curtail Iran’s oil revenues (Iran currently produces about 1 million barrels of oil per day);
    • To allow Iran to buy spare parts and solicit repairs for its airline industry;
    • To loosen restrictions on the trade of food and medicine.

    The Obama administration estimates these measures amount to roughly $7 billion in relief for Iran’s $514.1 billion economy.

    Interim Deal Takeaways

  • What is Iran’s objective?

    Iran’s objective, at least publically, appears to be two-fold: first, lift all sanctions against Iran and second, ensure “official recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights,” including a right to enrich. On the latter point, the interim agreement did not expressly endorse Iran’s nuclear “rights,” although chief Iranian negotiator Javad Zarif has acknowledged that he was satisfied with the result. “In the final step,” Zarif noted, “the enrichment process will be accepted and at the same time all the sanctions will be lifted.”

    On October 8, 2014, the Supreme Leader's office released a graphic, translated below, outlining the Ayatollah's "red lines" for nuclear negotiations. Compiled from Khamenei's public pronouncements, these red lines represent a position that is both well outside acknowledged Western demands (Khamenei demands 190,000 SWU of domestic enrichment capacity, far beyond stated Western limits) and vague enough to offer room for negotiation (Khamenei offers no timetable for reaching 190,000 SWU). It is a useful resource for understanding the constraints under which negotiations are taking place.

    Supreme Leader's red lines

    Translation by Payam Mohseni and Henry Rome

  • What is the U.S. objective?

    In pursuing an interim deal, the United States aimed to (a) implement verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that would lengthen Iran’s “breakout” time to a bomb; (b) broaden inspectors’ access to and knowledge of Iran’s nuclear facilities; and (c) lay the foundation for a long-term, comprehensive solution that significantly rolls back Iran’s nuclear program. In return, as CFR’s Les Gelb put it, the United States gave up only “trifling sanctions” that could be reinstated should Iran not comply with its commitments.

    As President Obama explains, however, the interim agreement is only a “first step” that “will create time and space over the next six months for more negotiations to fully address our comprehensive concerns about the Iranian program.” American policymakers and experts expect the comprehensive agreement to (a) circumscribe the extent and purpose of Iran’s enrichment capabilities and (b) provide greater assurances that Iran’s nuclear program will be peaceful in nature. One could expect that the United States will require Iran to formally sign the IAEA Additional Protocol, offer a more detailed accounting of past potentially weapons-related activities, and, as Secretary Kerry put it, dismantle parts of its nuclear infrastructure. 

  • What led to the negotiating table?

    The United States and Iran have been engaged in indirect negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program for nearly a decade, most recently through what is known as the “P5+1” structure—U.S., UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as Iran’s president (2005-2013), these multiparty discussions failed to bear fruit.* 

    Contacts between the United States and Iran in 2013, however, provided new momentum toward a deal. Publicly, Hassan Rouhani's surprise victory in Iran’s June 2013 presidential elections energized Iranians eager for sanctions relief and an end to Iran's international isolation. In September, observers hailed a brief phone call between President Obama and President Rouhani as a significant breakthrough in relations between the two countries. Rouhani signaled a willingness to engage in serious negotiations by nominating a sensible and talented negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a career diplomat who has spent nearly half his life in the United States. After three rounds of negotiations in Geneva, Zarif’s team and the P5+1 announced an interim deal in the early morning hours of November 24 Geneva time. 

    As an Associated Press story revealed the next day, however, a parallel track of secret, high-level talks between senior State Department and White House officials beginning in March 2013 helped propel the two sides toward the contours of a nuclear agreement. 

    *One exception: in 2009, the Iranian delegation, with Ahmadinejad’s blessing, agreed in Europe to an offer that would have swapped some of Iran’s low-enriched uranium for fuel for its research reactor in Tehran. But when Ahmadinejad took the offer home to Iran, the deal died, likely at the hands of the Supreme Leader himself.

  • Why was a final agreement so hard to reach?

    In past negotiations, failure has been more a function of confusion and division within the parties than between them. Making one agreement in international relations requires three deals: first a deal within party A; then a deal within party B; and then sufficient overlap between each party's minimum requirements that diplomacy can reach agreement. When Iran was motivated to offer terms that the U.S. should have found acceptable in 2003-2004, the U.S. was unwilling to accept them. When the U.S. was prepared to make a deal in 2009, Iran was too divided to accept it.* 

    The inclusion of five additional parties (Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) to make up the so-called “P5+1” adds another layer of complexity, as illustrated by France’s firm position in the Nov. 7-9 round of talks. 

    *Reprinted from Graham Allison, “Will Iran Get a Bomb—Or Be Bombed Itself—This Year?” (The Atlantic, 8/1/13)

Analyses on the Negotiations Process

Recommended Readings & Sources



  • History of sanctions against Iran before the JCPOA

    • The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis and completely banned the import of Iranian goods in 1987.
    • The U.S., EU, and UN have been imposing escalating rounds of sanctions against Iran since the mid-2000s to coerce the Iranian government to live up to its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, IAEA safeguards agreements, and UN Security Council Resolutions—and to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
    • Sanctions imposed since 2010 target Iran’s ability to sell crude oil on the world market, to import refined petroleum products, and make it more difficult for Iran’s Central Bank and other financial institutions to engage in transactions abroad.
  • Impact of Sanctions

    Sanctions have caused significant harm to Iran’s economy. In particular:

    • They contributed to a significant drop in Iranian oil exports, from 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011 to about 1 million barrels per day in 2013. As a result, Iran’s revenue from oil exports has declined 55% from its peak in 2011.
    • They played a role in the steep drop in the value of Iran’s currency against the dollar and in the steep increase in consumer prices.
    • However, since the election of President Rouhani in June, the Iranian rial has strengthened by 20% against the dollar and Tehran’s stock market is up 65%.

    Check out this analysis by the Iran Project's Payam Mohseni, “Make No Mistake, America: Sanctions Didn't Force Iran into Nuclear Talks.” Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 2013.

  • What sanctions relief did the P5+1 agree to provide in the Nov. 24 interim agreement?

    According to U.S. estimates, the P5+1 agreed to provide $6­–7 billion in total sanctions relief—$4.2 billion by giving Iran access to oil revenue frozen in foreign banks, plus $1.8–2.8 billion by temporarily pausing other sanctions measures.

    Specifically, over the first six months of the agreement, the P5+1 agreed to:

    • Pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales, enabling Iran’s current customers to purchase their current average amounts of crude oil;
    • Suspend sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports, auto industry, gold and precious metals, and on associated services;
    • License the supply and installation of spare parts for the Iranian civil aviation industry;
    • Impose no new nuclear-related UN Security Council, EU, or U.S. sanctions (provided the U.S. Congress does not override a presidential veto);
    • Give Iran access to oil revenues held in foreign bank accounts if those funds are used to pay the UN, to pay tuition fees for Iranian students studying abroad, or to facilitate humanitarian trade in food and medicine for the Iranian people.
  • Has Rouhani's election made an impact on the Iranian economy?

    Yes. While the most stringent sanctions remain in place, Rouhani's election and subsequent actions have generally provided a new sense of optimism in Iran. As economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani notes, Iran's new economic team in Rouhani's government is "much more competent" than its predecessors. This new team has already pursued an ambitious agenda, including addressing the country's ballooning deficit and extensive subsidies. The impact, perhaps best demonstrated in the graph below, has been significant--the value of Iran's stock exchange has nearly doubled since Rouhani's election.

    Iran Stock Exchange

    See also: BBC, “Iran in numbers: How cost of living has soared under sanctions,” 6/7/13.

  • What do the Iranian people think about sanctions?

    • Over 85% of Iranians say that sanctions have hurt their personal livelihoods, including 50% who say that sanctions have hurt them personally great deal. (Gallup, 11/6/13).
    • Nonetheless, 68% of Iranians still believe that Iran should develop nuclear power; 56% say for non-military purposes, while 34% say for military purposes. (Gallup, 10/14/13)
    • 46% of Iranians blame the U.S. for the sanctions, while 13% believe that their own government is primarily responsible. (Gallup, 11/6/13).
    • Half of Iranians have not had enough money to pay for adequate food or shelter within the past year; 34% say that their standard of living is deteriorating. (Gallup, 7/1/13)
  • What types of sanctions has the U.S. imposed against Iran?

    US sanctions by Category

    Legal authority

    Ban on US trade and investment

    Executive Order 12959 (1995)

    Sanctions on foreign firms that do business with Iran’s energy sector or that provide it with refined petroleum products

    Iran Sanctions Act (1996), CISASA (2010), and other laws and executive orders

    Ban on foreign assistance

    Prohibited under Foreign Assistance Act, §620A (1961)

    Ban on arms exports

    Ineligible under several laws

    Restriction on exports of “dual-use items”

    Export Administration Act, §6(j) (1979);

    Arms Export Control Act (1976)

    Sanctions against international lending

    International Financial Institutions Act, §1621 (1977)  

    Sanctions against foreign firms that sell WMD-related technology to Iran

    Several laws and regulations

    Ban on transactions with terrorism-supporting entities

    Executive Order 13224 (2001)

    Travel ban on certain named Iranians

    CISADA (2010)

    Restrictions on Iranian shipping

    Executive Order 13382 (2005)

    Banking sanctions

    CISADA, Executive Orders

    13224 and 13382, FY2012 Defense Authorization Act

    Timeline of U.S., EU, and UN sanctions since 2005




    June 29, 2005

    U.S. Executive Order 13382

    Granted president authority to freeze assets of WMD proliferators and their supporters. Sanctioned individuals connected to Iranian nuclear program.

    Sep. 30, 2006

    Renewal of Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) of 1996

    Extended ISA for five years (replaced by CISADA in 2010). Prohibited U.S. companies from investing more than $20 million/year in Iran’s energy sector.

    Dec. 28, 2006

    UNSCR 1737

    Prohibited supply of nuclear technology or related equipment to Iran. Froze assets of select individuals involved in nuclear program.

    Mar. 24, 2007

    UNSCR 1747

    Embargoed Iranian weapons exports. Barred future bank loans to Iran and froze assets of select IRGC members.

    Oct. 25, 2007

    U.S. Executive Order 13382 (expansion)

    Sanctioned Bank Mellat, Bank Melli, and IRGC. Dubbed IRGC “proliferator of WMD.”

    Mar. 3, 2008

    UNSCR 1803

    Banned sale of dual-use items to Iran and authorized inspections of Iran-bound shipments. Sanctioned 12 additional companies and 13 individuals.

    June 9, 2010

    UNSCR 1929

    Imposed arms embargo on Iran. Expanded sanctions on nuclear and banking sectors and individuals connected to nuclear program.

    June 17, 2010

    EU energy sanctions (1)

    Banned European investment in or assistance with Iranian oil or gas industry. Prohibited providing insurance and re-insurance to government entities.

    July 1, 2010

    U.S. Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA)

    Consolidated previous sanctions. Added sanctions on U.S. companies or individuals that provide gasoline, or associated equipment/services (including pipelines), to Iran’s energy sector.

    Nov. 10, 2010

    U.S. ban on “U-turn” transactions

    Banned US companies from conducting transactions with Iran through third-parties.

    Dec. 31, 2011

    Section 1245, US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)

    Sanctioned financial institutions conducting transactions with Central Bank or other previously blocked Iranian banks. Came into force 6/28/2012.

    Feb. 6, 2012

    US Executive Order 13599

    Seized property of Iranian government and Central Bank in the United States.

    Mar. 17, 2012

    SWIFT sanctions

    Global financial messaging system essential for bank transfers shut off access to Iranian banks, including Central Bank.

    April 23, 2012

    Executive Order

    EO freezed the assets of persons who facilitate Iran’s ability to commit human rights abuses by disrupting computers and networks.

    May 1, 2012

    Executive Order

    EO targets persons engaging in deceptive practices to obscure or withhold information about Iranian links to financial transactions.

    July 1, 2012

    EU energy sanctions (2)

    Implemented oil embargo and froze Central Bank assets within the EU. Barred companies from insuring Iranian oil shipments.

    July 12, 2012

    NITC  and “front” company sanctions

    U.S. sanctioned National Iranian Tanker Co., including 27 of its entities and 58 tankers, and 11 front companies in Europe, SE Asia, and UAE.

    July 30, 2012

    U.S. Executive Order; additional sanctions under CISADA

    EO banned foreign entities, using any payment mechanism, from transactions facilitating purchase of Iranian oil, petroleum products or petrochemicals. CISADA sanctions targeted one Chinese and one Iraqi bank for conducting transactions with previously-sanctioned Iranian banks.

    October 9, 2012

    U.S. Executive Order

    EO banned non-U.S. entities owned or controlled by U.S. persons from engaging in economic activity with Iran to the same extent that U.S. persons are so prohibited from doing so under US law and regulation.

    July 1, 2013

    U.S. Executive Order

    EO discourages non-U.S. persons from doing business in Iran, particularly with Iran’s governing elite and critical industrial sectors, by enabling the government to freeze that person’s US-based assets.

Featured Blogs & Publications

Key Policy Questions

  • Should the United States pass more stringent sanctions against Iran?

    Analysis that would lead one to say YES

    • Congress could pass sanctions, but wait to implement them, in order to add pressure on Iran to continue negotiating a final agreement.

      • Dennis Ross (11/11/13): “There should be no illusions about what happens if diplomacy fails to significantly roll back the Iranian nuclear program. We don't do Rouhani any favors if the appearance takes hold that there will be no more sanctions—even if there are no more agreements. From that standpoint, why not accept an approach in which the Congress adopts the next wave of sanctions but agree that they will not be implemented until the end of the six month period of the first step agreement or a clear break down of diplomacy?”

    Analysis that would lead one to say NO

    • Diplomatic leverage produced through the sanctions regime may have bottomed out.
      • Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader (10/14/13): “Despite the current pain, Iran is not facing imminent economic collapse. This may be a dark period in Tehran, but Khamenei likely believes that Iran weathered worse times during the Iran-Iraq war.”
      • Djavad Salehi-Isfahani (10/9/13): “Unlike political systems, economies do not collapse, they shrink…If sanctions tighten, Iran’s economy will continue to slide for a year or two but will eventually reverse course. Per capita income will probably fall from about 20% below Turkey today to 30% below, but still more than 50% above that of Egypt. This doesn’t foreshadow a collapse as much as it does a slow adjustment to more difficult circumstances.”
    • Additional sanctions would bring unnecessary risks that could jeopardize talks.
      • Robert Einhorn (11/14/13): “We don’t know how great the risks are that new sanctions will undermine negotiations. But there is clearly a risk. Members of Congress need to look down the road and consider what choices will have to be faced if their actions inadvertently undercut the best opportunity we’ve had in years for resolving the Iran nuclear issue peacefully.”
    • If United States appears uncompromising, international support for the sanctions regime could evaporate.
      • Robert Einhorn (11/14/13): “What if new sanctions make Iran look like the reasonable party and us the intransigent one and this results in the erosion of international support for sanctions?”
    • If looming sanctions are hung over their heads, hardliners in Iran will move to scuttle a deal.
      • Robert Einhorn (11/14/13): Some members of Congress “suggest that Congress should enact a law that provides for tough new sanctions but delays their imposition for several months to see if diplomacy succeeds…While this approach is neat in theory, Tehran is unlikely to grasp the nuance. Iranian opponents of a deal will argue that this would amount to negotiating with a gun to their heads, and they could succeed in reining in Iran's negotiators and sabotaging any likelihood of a deal.”
  • Will temporary sanctions relief in the interim agreement lead to the collapse of the sanctions regime assembled by the West since 2011?

    Analysis that would lead one to say YES

    • Small cracks in the sanctions edifice will weaken resolve of firms to abide by sanctions, and they will instead find ways to profit by doing business with Iran.
      • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister (11/17/13): If “all of a sudden you take off the pressure, everybody will understand that you are heading south. You're really going to be in danger of crumbling the sanctions regime.”
      • Sima Shine (11/22/13): "There is one very important element that you cannot measure, which is the one of the psychological atmosphere. It will open an opportunity, and the business community is eager, eager to jump into Iran. It will be kind of an understanding that we are in the direction of relieving sanctions. Everybody will be looking to both sides to see that the others are not jumping before them."
    • Peace and arms-control agreements are often not enforced when broken, so it stands to reason that sanctions will not be increased if Iran goes back on its word.
      • Douglas Feith (11/18/13): “After World War I, the Versailles and Locarno Treaties subjected Germany to arms-control measures, including demilitarization of the Rhineland. When Germany's Nazi regime boldly remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, neither Britain, France nor any other treaty party took enforcement action.”

    Analysis that would lead one to say NO

    • Financial sanctions will remain in place, discouraging firms from investing in Iran.
      • Robert Einhorn (11/22/13): "Yes, there are businesses that would like to get back into the Iran market. But the financial sanctions will remain in place against Iranian banks, so getting financing for commercial operations with Iran will not be easy."
    • United States will continue to vigorously enforce sanctions.
      • President Obama (11/23/13): "The broader architecture of sanctions will remain in place and we will continue to enforce them vigorously.  And if Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure."
    • Firms will not skirt or break the law to do business with Iran because of the highly charged political and regulatory environment, and they will not rush into Iran because of the risk that sanctions will be reimposed in only 6 months.
      • Samuel Cutler (11/21/13): “Any firm that rushed back into the Iranian market beyond the scope of existing sanctions would then be left with significant regulatory exposure, having to explain itself in a political atmosphere poisoned by the failure of the P5+1 talks. Newer, tougher sanctions would surely follow, along with calls to redouble efforts to identify and punish violators.”

Recommended Readings & Sources


Maps, Tables, & Figures


Belfer Experts' Media Commentary


Relevant Official Documents for Reference

House Foreign Affairs CommitteeIran Nuclear Negotiations: From Extension to Final Agreement?Wendy Sherman, David Cohen July 29, 2014
Senate Foreign Relations CommitteeIran: Status of the P5+1Wendy Sherman, David Cohen, Olli Heinonen, Michael SinghJuly 29, 2014
House Foreign Affairs CommitteeIran's Destabilizing Role in the Middle EastScott Modell, Ray Takeyh, Natan SachsJuly 16, 2014
House Foreign Affairs CommitteeOne Year Under Rouhani: Iran's Abysmal Human Rights RecordRobert George, Cler Baheri, Hossein Alizadeh, Hossein EtemadiJune 19, 2014
Senate Foreign Relations CommitteeRegional Implications of a Nuclear Deal With IranDennis Ross, Scott Modell, Frederick KaganJune 12, 2014
House Foreign Affairs CommitteeVerifying Iran's Nuclear ComplianceStephen Rademaker, John Lauder, Olli Heinonen, Joseph DeTraniJune 10, 2014
House Foreign Affairs CommitteeIran's Support for Terrorism WorldwidePete Hoekstra, Matthew Levitt, Matthew McInnisMarch 4, 2014
Senate Foreign Relations CommitteeNegotiations on Iran's Nuclear ProgramWendy Sherman, David Cohen, David Albright, Mark DubowitzFebruary 4, 2014
House Foreign Affairs CommitteeImplementation of the Iran Nuclear DealMark Wallace, Gregory Jones, Olli Heinonen, David AlbrightJanuary 28, 2014
Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban AffairsAssessing the P5+1 Interim Nuclear Deal with Iran: Administration PerspectivesWendy Sherman, David CohenDecember 12, 2013
House Foreign Affairs CommitteeThe Iran Nuclear Deal: Does It Further U.S. National Security?John KerryDecember 10, 2013
House Foreign Affairs CommitteeExamining Nuclear Negotiations: Iran After Rouhani's First 100 DaysMark Dubowitz, Danielle Pletka, Colin KahlNovember 13, 2013
Senate Foreign Relations CommitteeReversing Iran's Nuclear ProgramWendy Sherman, James Jeffrey, David Albright, Ray TakeyhOctober 3, 2013

US Sanctions Against Iran

UN Security Council Resolution 1696Resolution expressing the Security Council's concern about the direction of Iran's nuclear program.July 31, 2006
UN Security Council Resolution 1737Resolution sanctioning trade and individuals related to Iran's uranium enrichment program.December 23, 2006
UN Security Council Resolution 1747Resolution sanctioning arms sales to Iran and tightening other sanctions.March 24, 2007
UN Security Council Resolution 1803Resolution adding new organizations and individuals to the list of sanctioned entities.March 3, 2008
UN Security Council Resolution 1835Resolution reaffirming the previous resolutions.September 27, 2008
UN Security Council Resolution 1929Resolution expanding sanctions to include Iranian ballistic missile activities, shipping, banks, and other areas.June 9, 2010