Iran’s Nuclear Program

By | Updated Feb 4, 2016 4:00 PM UTC

Iran’s nuclear capabilities have been the subject of global hand-wringing for more than two decades. While Iran’s leaders insist the country is not building nuclear weapons, its enrichment of uranium and history of deception created deep mistrust. After more than two years of negotiations and threats to bomb the country’s facilities, Iran and world powers agreed in July 2015 to settle the dispute. The deal sets limits on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that crimped oil exports and hobbled its economy. International monitors verified that Iran had followed through on its pledge in January, and the country’s oil producers and banks began to return to world markets.

The Situation

Under the deal, Iran maintains the ability to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. It will retain about about 5,000 centrifuges capable of separating the uranium-235 isotope from uranium ore. For 15 years, it agreed to refine the metal to no more than 3.7 percent enrichment, the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants, and pledged to limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, 3 percent of its stores in May 2015. The International Atomic Energy Agency had already verified that Iran eliminated its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which can be used to make medical isotopes and to power research reactors but could also be purified to weapons-grade at short notice. Keeping an enrichment capability was important to Iran, presumably for reasons of national pride. Like other enriching countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Japan and South Africa, the technology gives Iran the ability to pursue nuclear weapons should it choose to break its commitments. The U.S. estimates that the agreement extends the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a bomb from a few months to a year.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency

The Background

The agreement marked a breakthrough between the U.S. and Iran 36 years after the Islamic Revolution took America’s diplomats hostage and threw their interests out of the country.  Before falling from power, the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had planned to build 20 nuclear power reactors with international help. Supply agreements were later revoked. Iranian statements and international contacts with Pakistani scientists prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to warn in 1992 that the Persian Gulf country could develop a nuclear weapon. While Iran reaffirmed its commitment to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it wanted the country’s  “right” to enrich uranium recognized before it made concessions on its program. Few countries were prepared to do that during the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who threatened Israel with destruction. The breakthrough came after President Hassan Rouhan was  elected in 2013 on a pledge to end Iran’s economic isolation.

The Argument

Middle East powers including Israel and Saudi Arabia have criticized the agreement, saying it empowers Iran’s theocratic regime to the detriment of regional security. Critics in the U.S. Congress say Iran can’t be trusted to make any fissile material, whether for energy, medicine or bombs. They argue that Iran could have been forced to give up its enrichment abilities entirely by the threat of tougher sanctions. Skeptics aren’t satisfied by IAEA verification. They point out that Iran only acknowledged its two main uranium enrichment plants after they were exposed by people outside the country. Supporters of the deal say Iran would never agree to abandon enrichment entirely and that a decade’s worth of sanctions failed to stop it from building enrichment capacity. U.S. President Barack Obama said that the pact prevented another war in the Middle East and that it’s tough enough to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons No deal, supporters say, would have left Iran free to pursue its nuclear ambitions unchecked by world powers and without the onerous inspection regime that will now oversee its work.

The Reference Shelf

  • Text of the July 2015 agreement and a New York Times graphic on the outcome.
  • Bloomberg News published a layman’s guide to the Iran talks, a timeline about the country’s history of deception and a map of major nuclear facilities.
  • Council on Foreign Relations Web page on the Iran Nuclear talks.
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace April 2013 report estimating the costs and risks of Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Federation of American Scientists overview of Iranian nuclear facilities and video showing how uranium enrichment works.

First published Oct. 14, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at
Lisa Beyer at