Issue Brief: Iran

 March 8, 2017


The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015 ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. The agreement includes limits on Iran’s nuclear programme, for example identifying specific nuclear sites in Iran for particular scrutiny and restrictions, including the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow and the heavy-water reactor, with its supporting facilities, at Arak. The JCPOA also includes provisions for verification, implementation, procurement, sanctions relief, and peaceful nuclear cooperation.

By January 2016, Iran had taken steps to comply with the agreement by drastically reducing the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges installed at both Fordow and Natanz and sending tonnes of low enriched uranium to Russia. Since the JCPOA was signed, the IAEA has conducted several inspection activities to monitor and verify missions that Iran has fulfilled its obligations under the Agreement.

Numerous issues remain that must be addressed over the next decade, including Iran’s ability under the JCPOA to scale up its nuclear enrichment program in the future, Iran’s aggressive pursuit of ballistic missiles, Iran’s regional aggression, and human rights considerations. The international community should prioritise utilising the time provided by the JCPOA to engage Iran to achieve a longer-term resolution to the nuclear issue, which might also address some of the other broader issues.


In addition to the JCPOA, various provisions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union are in place. Many of these instruments maintain restrictions that have been in place for decades. United Nations resolution 2231, which was adopted by the Security Council to endorse the JCPOA, calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.

The EU lifted certain nuclear-related restrictive measures following the JCPOA, as well as its restrictions on trade in several goods, the financial sector, the transport sector and travel restrictions and asset freezes imposed on certain listed persons and entities. However, restrictive measures that the EU has had in place related to Iran’s human rights violations remain in place, such as asset freezes and visa bans for individuals responsible for grave human rights violations and bans on exports to Iran of equipment which might be used for internal repression and equipment for monitoring telecommunications.

Notwithstanding the JCPOA and the lifting of UN sanctions, the U.S. maintains most of its restrictive measures on Iran in place.  While the U.S. did lift its sanctions against participation by foreign persons in transactions involving certain sectors of the Iranian economy, U.S. persons are still barred from doing business with Iran. The U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulation effectively prohibits all American arms trade with Iran and the U.S. Export Control Administration Regulations requires license applications, which are routinely denied, for all U.S. origin commodities and technology that could reach Iran’s conventional or WMD development sectors.


The JCPOA does inevitably contain some limitations and potential weaknesses that Iran may seek to exploit. From the mid-2020s, according to the JCPOA timeline, Iran may again expand its centrifuge programme, including the development of more advanced centrifuge designs and the construction of a commercial-scale enrichment capability. These factors could speed up Iran’s ability to enrich as well as its ability to ‘break out’ of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And whilst Iran has agreed to the IAEA exercising its wide-ranging powers to inspect Iranian facilities, until 2031 Iran will have 24 days in which to comply with any request by the IAEA for access, giving it time to move or destroy offending equipment. The JCPOA does not fully address the past concerns of nuclear weapons work in Iran and gives the IAEA only managed access to sites in Iran not expressly declared as nuclear. That said, Iran’s nuclear programme remains one of the key priorities for the UN, foreign governments and its intelligence agencies. The IAEA now has the ability to deploy its wide-ranging inspection powers at declared Iranian facilities and it will.


One of the major criticisms levelled against the deal is that although it covers Iran’s capabilities for producing nuclear warheads, it does not cover the means to deliver these weapons. In testimony before Congress, the Obama administration justified this approach by stating that if Iran is blocked from obtaining a nuclear weapon, then a delivery mechanism is less important.[1] However, when the limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment capability expire in the mid-late 2020’s, theoretically enabling Iran to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, possessing well-developed ballistic missiles capable of delivering such weapons would be very important.[2]

Furthermore, UN resolution 2231 is not clear about whether Iran can conduct ballistic missile tests. The resolution’s annex ‘calls upon’ Iran not to conduct ballistic missiles tests, for example, but such language is not as strong as the ‘decides’ language usually included in UN resolutions. It is therefore difficult to ascertain whether Iran is fully compliant, and the UN has not yet appointed investigatory staff who can investigate possible violations.

Despite this, UN resolution 2331 does so far seem to have had the effect of reducing Iran’s BM-related activities, which is evidenced by significant decrease in BM tests. Between February 2017 and January 2018, Iran launched only one medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).[3] Between July 2015 and February 2017, Iran launched as many as nine MRBMs.[4]

Additionally, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen reported, in January 2018, that Iran “had failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of missile technology to the Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen.[5] Notably, their report found that the Borkan-2H short-range ballistic missile fired at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2017 “was a derived lighter version, designed specifically by the manufacturers of the Qiam-1” missile – designed and built by Iran.


In response to such activities, as well as in view of the broader outlook of President Trump, the US has sought to put new pressure on Iran over its ballistic missiles programme. Henceforth, it has called for a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA, to be worked out with European partners covering ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the Trump administration has tied its participation in the JCPOA to addressing a number of the deal’s weaknesses. It wants:

  • immediate access for IAEA inspectors to all sites in Iran including military sites;
  • Iran to remain above a one-year breakout time going forward;
  • limits on Iran’s nuclear program without any expiration date; and,
  • US legislation that would link for the first time Iran’s nuclear programme with its long range ballistic missile program.[6]

Although it appears to be in the US interest to keep the deal in place, and while Congress seems to support this stance, the administration has maintained that in the absence of an agreement lacking the above components, it will not waive sanctions in May.

On 26 October 2017, the House of Representatives adopted the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act, which calls on the President to report to Congress on the Iranian and international supply chain for the program. It further calls on the President to impose sanctions on the Iranian government or foreign entities that support the program,[7] which he has done.


Iran is currently in broad compliance with the JCPOA, as testified by the IAEA on no fewer than eight occasions. That said, it has recently threatened to withdraw from the agreement if there is no economic benefit, and if big banks fail to engage.[8] Furthermore, Iran has informed the IAEA of a “decision that has been taken to construct naval nuclear propulsion in future”.

The Trump administration’s harsh opposition to deal has weakened the hand of President Rouhani – a centrist and a moderate now serving his second term – on the domestic political scene. It has provided fuel to Iran’s hardliners to levy against Rouhani, as they originally warned that the US could not be trusted as a negotiating partner. In this political atmosphere, it seems highly unlikely that Rouhani will be able to obtain concessions at home to negotiate the missile programme.


Project Alpha’s work on Iran consists of research, capacity-building and expertise contributing to global non-proliferation objectives. Project Alpha monitors Iranian illicit procurement in several ways. Examples of Alpha’s work on Iran include:

  • An in-depth reporton Iran’s ballistic missile industry;
  • Case studieson examples of Iran’s illicit procurement;
  • Articlesregarding the procurement channe set up by the JCPOA;
  • field guideon Iran’s centrifuges

In addition, Project Alpha supports the implementation of the JCPOA with events, training staff from international organizations. Finally, the project provides capacity-building to states through the EU Partner-to-Partner (EU P2P) programme on dual-use export control. These activities play an important role in contributing to building capacity worldwide and bolstering the success of the JCPOA.


[1] Michael Elleman and Mark Fitzpatrick, Assessing whether Iran’s ballistic missiles are designed to be nuclear capable, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2018, available at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Behnam Ben Taleblu. Iranian Ballistic Missile Tests Since the Nuclear Deal – 2.0., Research Memo, 25 January 2018, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, available at

[4] Behnam Ben Taleblu. Iranian Ballistic Missile Tests Since the Nuclear Deal, Memorandum, 9 February, 2017, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, available at

[5] United Nations Security Council, Panel of Experts on Yemen, Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen, S/2018/68, 26 January 2018.

[6] The White House, Background Press Call on Iran Sanctions, 12 January 2018, available at

[7] U.S. House passes ballistic missile sanctions on Iran, Reuters, 26 October 2017, available at

[8] Iran’s Foreign Policy Priorities, speech by Abbas Araghchi, Deputy for Political Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iran, 22 February 2018, Chatham House, London, available at

Improving the implementation of non-proliferation controls