President Donald Trump announced his decision to remove the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on May 8, reimposing what he referred to as “the highest level” of economic sanctions on the country.
The agreement, which was made in 2015 under the Obama administration, limited nuclear weapons development in Iran but did not completely ban the enrichment of uranium.
During his speech revealing his decision earlier this week, President Trump cited this as one of the reasons that the U.S. would not remain in the deal.
“In fact, the deal allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and — over time — reach the brink of a nuclear breakout,” he said from the White House Diplomatic Room.
Was Trump speaking the truth? Would Iran be capable of developing nuclear weapons to the extent of ‘nuclear breakout’ under the deal?
President Trump was likely referencing the fact that restrictions under the Iran deal become less strict over a period of 10, 15, 20, and 25 years; however, the restrictions would not allow Iran to produce more than 300 kg (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium for 15 years.
The Institute for Science and International Security reported in 2009 that Iran would have to turn its stockpile of low-enriched uranium into highly-enriched uranium in order for it to be weapons-grade. 300 kg is also not considered enough low-enriched uranium to create a nuclear bomb.
The deal also required that Iran give up 14,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, and banned plutonium reactors for 15 years. Plutonium is the only fuel besides enriched uranium that can be used to create a nuclear bomb.
A confidential document reported on by the Associated Press in 2016 revealed that in January 2027 Iran would be allowed to “install centrifuges up to five times as efficient” as the ones it is now able to use, allowing the country to enrich uranium at more than twice the rate it currently can.
This means that Iran would then be able to use better centrifuges and enrich uranium more quickly, but the cap on how much uranium they would legally be allowed to produce would still be in place.
Because of that cap, Iran would still be unable to produce the amount of enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear bomb.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) also limits Iran’s ability to acquire or build nuclear weapons, as it states that non-nuclear-weapons states “agree never to acquire nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear-weapon states, identified as the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, agreed under the NPT to “share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”
Iran is classified as a non-nuclear-weapons state under the treaty and, therefore, has agreed to never build a nuclear weapon. It also agreed to this as part of the Iran deal itself, stating: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
Fact or Fiction
While President Trump was not incorrect in saying that Iran would be able to continue enriching uranium under the deal, it is untrue that the nation could “reach the brink of a nuclear breakout” under the agreement.
The deal’s restrictions on enriched uranium would prevent Iran from having the necessary amount of uranium needed for a bomb until 2030.
After the 15-year restriction on the amount of enriched uranium Iran could produce was passed, the country could, of course, use the more highly efficient centrifuges it was allowed to develop under the deal to produce much larger quantities of the enriched fuel.
However, its status under the NPT would likely draw international retaliation if it chose to do so.
There are also no restrictions in place that would prevent other nations from creating a new deal after the JCPOA.