Jeffrey LewisKerr on the JCPOA

My friend Paul Kerr — the original second blogger at Arms Control Wonk — has taken time from his day job to write an essay that focuses on the enduring value of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s prohibition on “activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” a prohibition that permanently define’s the terms of Iran’s compliance with the NPT.

It should go without saying that the opinions expressed here do not reflect the opinion of his employer.

The Enduring Value of Annex I (T) Restrictions Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action


The Sort of Serious, Sober Title that Will Reassure Those Who Might Wish to Cite This Blog Post in a Serious, Sober Peer-Reviewed Journal With Editors That Would Otherwise Blanch at “How the Weinerplan Cut Off Iran’s Bomb Program”


Paul Kerr

In January 2016, Iran completed implementing its nuclear commitments pursuant to the Joint Compressive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which Tehran had concluded the previous July with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States.  The recent anniversary of this occasion, which coincides with uncertainly regarding the JCPOA’s future, provides an opportunity to contemplate the agreement’s effects on Iranian efforts to produce a nuclear weapon. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s compliance with the agreement’s provisions concerning the country’s nuclear program. JCPOA proponents note that, under these restrictions, Tehran will, for at least a decade, need a minimum of one year to produce enough weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, some observers have expressed concern that the eventual normalization of Iran’s gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program, as well as the country’s ongoing ballistic missile program, will leave Tehran with the ability to produce a deliverable nuclear weapon relatively quickly.  

The expiration dates of the JCPOA’s restrictions which place physical limits on Iran’s enrichment program are apparently one source of concern. [The JCPOA also contains restrictions of indefinite duration on Iran’s heavy-water reactor program.] These limits include caps on Iran’s installed centrifuges, number of enrichment facilities, enriched uranium stockpile, and the amount of uranium-235 that this stockpile may contain (weapons-grade HEU contains about 90% uranium-235; the JCPOA allows a maximum enrichment of 3.67%.)  All of these provisions, however, expire in 15 years, after which Iran will be free to pursue a civil nuclear program, albeit subject to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s restrictions and the inspection provisions contained in Iran’s IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement. The JCPOA has additional inspection and monitoring requirements of indefinite duration  that supplement Iran’s safeguards agreement and are designed to increase the IAEA’s ability to detect an Iranian attempt to develop nuclear weapons. But these provisions may well be insufficient to allay the fears of those who argue that Iran may use its declared facilities to produce HEU for a nuclear weapon.

Does the JCPOA merely postpone Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons? Probably not, the best evidence suggests.  First of all, even if Iran were to expand its enrichment program in the coming decades, the ability to produce fissile material is not sufficient for producing a nuclear warhead. Iran, however, has likely not completed the additional research necessary for developing nuclear weapons; important JCPOA provisions will prevent the country from filling those gaps. Specifically, the agreement prohibits Iran from engaging in several dual-use “activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” These provisions, which last indefinitely and supplement Iran’s safeguards obligations, include restrictions on computer modeling, certain explosive detonation systems, explosive diagnostic systems, and neutron sources.  These restrictions are important because, according to senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters in November 2011, Iran’s nuclear weapons program never “mastered all the necessary technologies” for building such weapons.

A weapons program?

Again, the evidence suggests probably not. Even if Iran were to improve significantly its HEU production capability significantly, the country will not be able to produce nuclear weapons unless Tehran implements a successful program to fill these gaps. Indeed, if Iran were planning to build nuclear weapons upon the JCPOA’s expiration, one would expect the government to possess the requisite organizational structure for building such weapons. But this is not the case; the enrichment facilities governed by the JCPOA are controlled by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), which is organizationally distinct from both Iran’s past nuclear weapons program and ongoing ballistic missile program. 

According to a November 2011 IAEA report, Iran, beginning in the late 1980s, developed “organizational structures and administrative arrangements for an undeclared nuclear programme” that were coordinated by entities connected with Iran’s Ministry of Defense (an entity called the Amad Plan took over these activities several years later). However, according to a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and subsequent statements from the U.S. intelligence community, Tehran ended the program in 2003 and available evidence suggests it has not revived it.  An April 2016 Department of State report which assesses states’ compliance with nonproliferation agreements is illustrative of U.S. thinking on this issue. Previous versions of this report argued that Iran had violated its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligation to refrain from attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. But the 2016 edition stated that the United States has “resolved” these concerns.

According to the November 2011 briefing by U. S. officials, Iran’s nuclear weapons program had been “very well organized” with “sufficient manpower and resources.”  After 2003, Iranian entities did carry out experiments that were “sort of related to nuclear weapons development,” but these activities were “relatively uncoordinated and sporadic,” an official added. A 2015 IAEA report supported this assessment, explaining that post-2003 Iranian nuclear weapons-related activities “were not part of a coordinated effort.” After the program’s halt, an individual who had “managed activities useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device” as part of the Amad Plan established an entity in 2011 called the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND). According to a 2012 Israeli intelligence document, Iran established the SPND “for the purposes of preserving the technological ability and the joint organizational framework of Iranian scientists in the area of R&D in nuclear weapons.” The SPND’s activities were to “allow renewal of the activity necessary to produce weapons immediately,” should Tehran decide to take this step.  

The AEOI did have some connections with entities involved in Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  A company called Kimia Maadan “was a cover company for chemical engineering operations under the AMAD Plan while also being used to help with procurement for the [AEOI],” according to a November 2011 IAEA report. Moreover, the AEOI-run centrifuge program had connections to entities controlled by Iran’s Ministry of Defence Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which controlled the Amad Plan. However, the AEOI’s current activities appear to be peaceful. First, the 2007 NIE appeared to exclude the AEOI-run enrichment program, explaining that “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment” was not part of the country’s weapons program. In addition, the AEOI does not appear in a description of that program’s management structure contained in the November 2011 IAEA report. Last, September 2009 U.S. intelligence community talking points indicate that Iran’s controversial underground Fordow enrichment site was not part of a nuclear weapons program – an assessment partly based on the fact that the AEOI developed the facility.

Iran’s ballistic missile program understandably is of interest because it could produce delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads. But this program is apparently separate from the AEOI; British Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Tobias Ellwood told Parliament in June 2015 that his government was “not aware of any current links between Iran’s ballistic missile programme and nuclear programme.” MODAFL actually manages the missile program and a subsidiary called the Aerospace Industries Organization oversees missile production, according to a 2012 Department of the Treasury fact sheet. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps also plays a role; for instance, its air force operates Iran’s ballistic missiles.    


Any individual’s confidence in the JCPOA is, to a certain extent, a function of their tolerance for risk.  After all, Iran could, conceivably in the future, reconstitute its weapons program and draw on its missile program and JCPOA-permitted enrichment work. Moreover, for some observers, Tehran’s past violations of its IAEA safeguards agreement understandably suggest an Iranian reluctance to abide by the JCPOA’s restrictions. But the available evidence indicates that Iran is probably not lying in wait to produce nuclear weapons upon expiration of the relevant JCPOA provisions.