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8 July 2015: No alternative to a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear file

While the talks were originally scheduled to conclude by 7 July 2015, they are set to continue, with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif struggling to bridge their remaining differences. Their respective legal and technical experts have also so far failed to provide the necessary details for the technical annexes to a comprehensive agreement. Such an agreement would set out the limits of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, restrictions on the characteristics of its research reactor, an enhanced monitoring and verification regime supplementing nuclear safeguards implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and clarification of possible military dimensions (PMD) to Iran’s nuclear programme. However, the long-standing mistrust between Iran and the USA is delaying progress on the final aspects of the deal.

Sticking points include the timing and extent of the rescission of Western sanctions as Iran implements the technical aspects of scaling back its nuclear programme, as well as the re imposition of sanctions by the West and the resumption of full-scale nuclear fuel cycle activities by Iran, should either side fail to honour its respective commitments and obligations. Another obstacle relates to the PMD aspect of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The negotiations, which started in June 2013, have already been extended four times: in November 2013, July 2014, March 2015 and at the end of June 2015. A fifth deadline of 7 July has now been extended to 10 July while efforts continue to make a final breakthrough. Nonetheless, the negotiating parties have made unprecedented progress in terms of Iran’s nuclear restraint and IAEA verification. The talks also mark a turning point in US–Iran diplomacy. These achievements are the product of a commitment to diplomatic processes and would never have been achieved through military action. The first of these milestones was the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed in 2013.

Joint Plan of Action

Iran agreed a JPA with the E3/EU+3 (a group composed of representatives from the EU plus France, Germany and the UK, along with China, Russia and the USA) on 24 November 2013.(note 1) Pursuant to the JPA, Iran agreed to implement a series of ‘voluntary measures’ under supervision by the IAEA. On 1 July 2015 the IAEA confirmed that Iran had carried out a number of obligations under the JPA.(note 2) The report states that, among other things, Iran has:

  • Continued to provide daily access to the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow under safeguards;(note 3)
  • Not enriched uranium above 5 per cent uranium-235 (U 235) at any of its declared facilities (Natanz and Fordow);
  • Diluted—down to an enrichment level of no more than 5 per cent U 235—108.4 kilograms of UF6 enriched up to 20 per cent U 235;
  • Not reconverted uranium oxides back into UF6;
  • Not accumulated enriched uranium while continuing enrichment research and development (R&D) practices at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) under safeguards;
  • Provided information and managed access to the uranium mine and mill at Gchine, to the Saghand Uranium Mine and the Ardakan Uranium Production Plant; and
  • Provided regular managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities.


Thus, it is clear that the technical measures agreed through diplomatic understandings between Iran and the E3/EU+3 are working and have already reduced the proliferation potential of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme even while negotiations continue on a JCPOA. This success is the result of the diplomatic path chosen by US President Barack Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and implemented by their respective foreign ministers Kerry and Zarif, despite the occasionally irrational criticism voiced by some of their opponents.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

On 2 April 2015 the key parameters of the JCPOA regarding Iran’s nuclear programme were decided in Lausanne, Switzerland, between Iran and the E3/EU+3.(note 4) These elements form the basis upon which the final text of the JCPOA is presently being negotiated in Vienna. In summary, the JCPOA provides for the extensive measures to be implemented by Iran that remove the proliferation dangers of Iran’s nuclear programme and specify the phasing out of sanctions against Iran.(note 5)


  • Iran has agreed to reduce by approximately two-thirds its 19 000 installed centrifuges to 6 104 installed IR 1 centrifuges, with only 5 060 of these enriching uranium for 10 years, and to not enrich uranium over 3.67 per cent U 235 for at least 15 years.
  • Iran has agreed to reduce its current stockpile of about 10 000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300 kg of 3.67 per cent LEU for 15 years.
  • Iran has agreed to convert its Fordow uranium enrichment facility to a nuclear, physics, technology, research centre, and to not conduct R&D associated with uranium enrichment at Fordow for 15 years nor have any fissile material at Fordow for 15 years.(note 6)


Inspections and transparency

  • The IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, including to Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz and its former enrichment facility at Fordow, and including the use of the most up-to-date, modern monitoring technologies.
  • Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol to its NPT Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, thus providing the IAEA much greater access and information regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, including both declared and undeclared facilities.
  • Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the PMD of its nuclear programme.


Reactors and reprocessing

  • Iran has agreed to redesign and rebuild a heavy water research reactor in Arak, based on a design that is agreed to by the E3/EU+3, that will not produce weapons-grade plutonium, and which will support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production.



  • Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments.
  • US and EU nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfil its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.
  • The architecture of US nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be retained for much of the duration of the deal and allow for snap-back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.
  • All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).
  • A dispute resolution process will be specified, which enables any JCPOA participant, to seek to resolve disagreements about the performance of JCPOA commitments.

The way forward

Negotiations continue in Vienna to resolve the remaining differences over the phasing out of sanctions and the parallel measures to be implemented by Iran on scaling back its uranium enrichment programme and accepting an enhanced IAEA monitoring and verification regime. Resolving the PMD issue appears to be one of the major stumbling blocks.

Has sufficient effort been deployed to integrate the military approach into a Seemingly under the direction of the Western parties to the negotiations, the IAEA has been requested ‘with cooperation from Iran . . . [to] issue a report by the end of the year on the assessment of the clarification of the issues related to the possible military dimensions’.(note 7) It is unlikely that the IAEA will meet this deadline as it will probably need about six months after agreement on a JCPOA to issue an assessment report on PMD—the normal practice for the IAEA is to provide safeguards conclusions not assessments. However, such an assessment could provide the means for overcoming the PMD issue, particularly as the USA has shown signs that it is looking to the future and not the past. For example, in June 2015 Kerry stated that: ‘the possible military dimensions, frankly, gets distorted a little bit in some of the discussion, in that we’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way’.(note 8)

It would likely take the IAEA up to two years or more to come up with safeguards conclusions for Iran pursuant to Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol given the time-consuming and complex safeguards activities and determinations required. An IAEA “assessment” report on PMD, on the other hand, could be accepted by the IAEA’s Board of Governors and the E3/EU+3. Such an assessment could form the basis for moving to routine implementation of safeguards in Iran along with JCPOA monitoring and verification, without requiring a formal admission by Iran on PMD. This could pave the way for the implementation of the JCPOA and the rescission of sanctions, leading to a normalization of relations and marking a significant success for diplomacy.


Note 1: For a brief history of the Joint Plan of Action see Rauf, T. and Kile, S., ‘Nuclear arms control and non-proliferation’, SIPRI Yearbook 2015: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015).
Note 2: International Atomic Energy Agency, Board of Governors, ‘Status of Iran’s nuclear programme in relation to the Joint Plan of Action’, Report by the Director Genera, GOV/INF/2015/12, 1 July 2015.
Note 3: For a list of nuclear facilities in Iran, see Rauf, T. and Kelley, R., ‘Nuclear verification in Iran’, Arms Control Today, September 2014.
Note 4: US Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson, ‘Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program’, Media note, 2 April 2015, <>.
Note 5: US Department of State (see note 4)
Note 6: Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT), opened for signature 1 July 1968, entered into force 5 March 1970, INFCIRC/140, 22 April 1970, <>.
Note 7: Amano, Y., Director General of the IAEA, Remarks to the media in Vienna on Iran talks, 4 July 2015, <>.
Note 8: Kerry, J., US Secretary of State, Remarks to the media via teleconference, Vienna, 16 June 2015, <>


Tariq Rauf is the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme.