The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 159-page agreement with five annexes reached in 2015 by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), was among the most advanced and restrictive non proliferation agreements ever reached. The JCPOA outlined key requirements and actions for Iran to abide by, including limiting enrichment of uranium and development of centrifuges, shutting down the Arak reactor, allowing for constant monitoring of activities and facilities, and more.
The agreement, negotiated by the Obama-Biden administration, was highly successful. Prior to former president Donald Trump’s violation and abandonment of the JCPOA, Iran had complied with all steps they were required to take to block all pathways to developing a nuclear weapon. Moreover, before Trump’s unilateral violation of the deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), tasked with monitoring and inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities to ensure compliance with the agreement, had repeatedly certified that Iran was compliant.
By Implementation Day of the agreement in January of 2016, Iran:
- Eliminated 98% of its uranium stockpile and halted all uranium enrichment activities at the underground Fordow site.
- Removed and filled the core from its Arak reactor with cement, blocking the production of weapons-grade plutonium.
- Allowed the IAEA to implement the safeguards necessary to monitor Iran’s nuclear program and implemented transparency measures, such as the Additional Protocol, to permit greater access to inspectors.
- Gave the IAEA the information it needed to assess the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear past.
For the three years following Implementation Day up to the United States withdrawal from the agreement, the JCPOA proved to be working. The array of restrictions on uranium enrichment ensured that the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon would be approximately 12 months for a decade or more.
The JCPOA also effectively eliminated Iran’s ability to produce and separate plutonium for at least 15 years. In addition, it mandated unprecedented international monitoring and transparency measures to ensure that any possible future effort by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, even a clandestine program, would be detected promptly – leaving nothing to trust.
As Donald Trump advocated for withdrawal from the deal at the start of his term, top U.S. security officials within his administration argued that the Iran deal was working, and that an exit would be catastrophic.
In 2017, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who at the time served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “The briefings have indicated that Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations,” and that “The JCPOA has delayed Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.” In his testimony, Dunford emphasized that exiting the deal would make future negotiations much more difficult. At another Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that it was in America’s national security interest to remain in the agreement. In the same year, US Strategic Command Chief General John Hyten stated publicly, “The facts are that Iran is operating under the agreements that we signed up for under the JCPOA.”
And it’s not just top American officials who know that the deal was working. Amos Yadlin, Former Chief of IDF Military Intelligence, has said, “If we want to be honest what postponed Iranian progress towards achieving nuclear weapons was the nuclear agreement — and not military action….[Iran is] closer now than they have ever been before [to acquiring nuclear weapons].” Tamir Pardo, Former Director of Mossad, echoed these sentiments, stating, “What happened in 2018 was a tragedy. It was an unforgivable strategy, the fact that Israel pushed the United States to withdraw from the agreement ten years early. It was a strategic mistake.”
Since the withdrawal and the re-implementation of sanctions, Iran has:
- Begun developing new centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment
- Resumed heavy water production at its Arak facility
- Enriched uranium to significantly higher and more dangerous levels
A significant accomplishment of the JCPOA was an increase in Iran’s breakout time (the time required to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon) to one year. This ensured that the international community would have an adequate and extensive opportunity to respond diplomatically before Iran could acquire material for a nuclear weapon. Today, because of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and Iran’s actions in response, the breakout time is estimated to be closer to just one month.
The evidence is clear – Iran was complying with the terms of the JCPOA at the time when Trump decided to unilaterally violate and withdraw from the agreement. In the time since, Iran has moved much closer to a nuclear weapon, leaving the US, Israel and the world far less secure. Using diplomacy, the Biden Administration should work with our allies to ensure Iran, the US and all parties return to compliance with the key provisions of the agreement. Diplomacy worked before and it can work again.