Issue Brief: Iran

June 6, 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. In addition, there has been little evidence that Iran has used the Procurement Channel set up by the JCPOA. This of course could indicate that Iran is indeed curbing its activities in accordance with the JCPOA, but it could also mean that it is using covert channels to obtain the goods and technologies needed to further its nuclear programme. However, the Iranian leadership is aware of the risks and is unlikely to authorise covert procurement while the JCPOA remains on track.

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 grame 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 dineid , 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.

In addition, UN resolution 2231 is not clear about whether Iran can test its ballistic missile programme. The resolution’s annex ‘calls upon’ Iran not to conduct tests of ballistic missiles, 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.

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


Until recently, the JCPOA was under threat due to the risk that Iran would return to hard-line politics espoused by President Rouhani’s electoral opponent, the conservative Raisi. But Rouhani’s position has been greatly strengthened by his overwhelming re-election. He supports the JCPOA and has little appetite to renege on the deal. Of course, the key to the JCPOA’s success is Iranian compliance. Rouhani realises this and will seek every opportunity to demonstrate it, whilst at the same time linking compliance to the positive benefits of his reforms.

The Trump administration has slowly rowed back on earlier hostility to the  JCPOA. During his campaign, Trump said that it was “the worst deal ever negotiated”. Very recently the administration complied with JCPOA requirements by lifting certain sanctions, but it has signalled –partly to appease the Iran-sceptical Congress – that it will keep the agreement under review and insist on strict enforcement of Iranian compliance. Despite hawkish language from certain states, particularly Israel, Iran is currently in broad compliance with the JCPOA, and it is in the U.S. interest to keep the deal in place. Congress itself seems to support this stance. Longer term, the US may seek to renegotiate the JCPOA to secure greater restrictions, for example on uranium enrichment, but that will likely be met by resistance, and by Iran seeking additional concessions.


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 way. Examples of Alpha’s work on Iran include:

  • An in-depth report on Iran’s ballistic missile industry
  • Case studies on examples of Iran’s illicit procurement;
  • Articles regarding the procurement channe set up by the JCPOA;
  • A field guide on 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.

Improving the implementation of non-proliferation controls