President Donald Trump has never liked the Iran nuclear deal and has decided to withdraw the United States from further participation.
Such a consequential decision, and arguments supporting it, are worth an examination.
What he said: “In seven years, that deal will have expired, and Iran is free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons. That’s not acceptable. Seven years is tomorrow.”
—Trump discussing the Iran nuclear deal in a White House news conference, April 30, 2018
Question: Is Iran “free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons” after seven years?
The facts: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was adopted in October 2015 and formally implemented on Jan. 16, 2016, by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — and Germany and Iran. Iran agreed to constraints meant to ensure that its nuclear program will be used only for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. In exchange, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations agreed to lift a broad range of sanctions on Iran. U.S. allies say the Iran deal has helped maintain stability.
• Critics of the deal say that the broad lifting of sanctions has enabled Iran to increase its influence in a volatile region and that the accord does not restrict Iran from developing ballistic missiles. Trump is one of those critics.
But it’s not clear what he meant by saying the deal would expire in seven years. The White House did not respond to questions on the statement. The president may have been referring to “Termination Day” in October 2025, when provisions of a U.N. resolution endorsing the deal expire, or he may have been referring to the fact that some provisions of the JCPOA itself expire 10 years into the deal, also in 2025. “Nevertheless, President Trump’s statement indicates either abject confusion over the parameters of the JCPOA or a willful misinterpretation of that deal,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Either way, it is dangerous, as Iran will never be ‘free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons.’ ”
• As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has pledged not to develop nuclear weapons — ever. In agreeing to the JCPOA, Iran recommitted itself to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Bell said. “The NPT is of indefinite duration and serves as the underpinning for the entire global nonproliferation regime,” she said.
• According to a timeline from the Brookings Institution, Iran would be free to develop, test and use more advanced types of uranium-enriching centrifuges and upgrade a nuclear facility in Natanz after “Termination Day” in October 2025. But Iran would continue to be limited to peaceful programs; developing nuclear weapons would remain banned.
• It’s worth noting that as part of the JCPOA, Iran said it was bound by restrictions on Tehran’s gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment program: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” According to the Congressional Research Service report, “Officials from both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have certified that Iran is abiding by its JCPOA commitments.”
Conclusion: It’s fair to be skeptical of the Iran deal. But Trump’s assertion that the JCPOA is set to expire in seven years and that Iran would be free to build nuclear weapons afterward is simply not accurate.
Whether the president was referring to “Termination Day” in 2025, or to the portions of the JCPOA that sunset in 2025, Iran has pledged to never develop nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and other parts of the JCPOA — all of which Iran has committed to — run well past 2025, and key provisions apply indefinitely.