Iran’s Suspension of Key 2015 Deal Provisions Does Not Mean It Will Go Nuclear; U.S. Should Pursue a Diplomatic Solution

Statement by Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Jan 6, 2020

Washington (January 6, 2020)—Iran announced Sunday that it will suspend its commitment to key provisions of the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in response to the U.S. assassination of a top Iranian general.

Below is a statement by physicist Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.

“Iran’s decision to no longer abide by the technical limits on its uranium enrichment program required by the 2015 Iran deal is regrettable, but not unexpected.

“President Trump foolishly set the collapse of the multilateral agreement in motion in 2018 when he unilaterally pulled the United States out of the agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, despite repeated confirmation by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran was complying with its terms. Sunday’s announcement, presumably in response to the U.S. assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, is the culmination of a series of steps over the past year in which Iran has been slowly and steadily weakening its compliance with various terms of the agreement.

“Iran remains a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits it from developing nuclear weapons. However, Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities could enable it to produce highly enriched uranium—uranium enriched to greater than 20 percent of the isotope uranium-235, which can be used to make a nuclear weapon. While the Non-Proliferation Treaty does not prohibit Iran from producing highly enriched uranium for peaceful purposes or for naval nuclear propulsion, the 2015 agreement restricted Iran from enriching uranium to greater than 3.67 percent uranium-235.

“The 2015 deal’s numerical limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program were intended to increase the ‘breakout’ time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon if it were to make the decision to do so.

“The 2015 agreement could not have physically prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but it would have provided additional time for the international community to respond before Iran could build a weapon. The extent to which the breakout time will decrease will depend on what Iran does next. Iran has said it will continue to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which presumably will enable the agency to closely monitor any increase in the number and type of installed centrifuges as well as the quantities of enriched uranium at various levels that Iran produces and stockpiles.

“It is also important to note that Iran has made clear its decision is reversible if the United States ended its nuclear-related economic sanctions, which the 2015 deal required. Instead of ratcheting up pressure, which would give Iranian hard-liners the upper hand and could prod Iran to develop nuclear weapons, President Trump should take immediate steps to diffuse tensions, including recommitting to the terms of the nuclear deal. Only diplomacy—not military action—will make a peaceful resolution possible.”