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The Iranian Nuclear Threat: Why it Matters


Nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian regime will have severe repercussions for American security and the security of our allies.

  • A nuclear-armed Iran would embolden Iran's aggressive foreign policy, resulting in greater confrontations with the international community. Iran already has a conventional weapons capability to hit U.S. and allied troops stationed in the Middle East and parts of Europe. If Tehran were allowed to develop nuclear weapons, this threat would increase dramatically.
  • Iran is one of the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism through its financial and operational support for groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and others. Iran could potentially share its nuclear technology and know-how with extremist groups hostile to the United States and the West.
  • While Iranian missiles can't yet reach America, Iran having a nuclear weapons capability can potentially directly threaten the United States and its inhabitants. The U.S. Department of Defense reported in April 2012: "With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.” Many analysts are also concerned about the possibility of a nuclear weapon arriving in a cargo container at a major US port. Furthermore, a federally mandated commission to study electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks noted the vast damage that could be wrought by a single missile with a nuclear warhead, launched from a ship off the US coast, and detonated a couple of hundred miles in the air, high above America.
  • A nuclear-armed Iran poses a threat to America's closest allies in the Middle East. Israel is most at risk as Iran's leaders have repeatedly declared that Israel should "be wiped from the map." America's moderate Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and others are already alarmed at Iran's aggressive regional policy and would feel increasingly threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran.
  • The Middle East remains an essential source of energy for the United States and the world. Iran's military posture has led to increases in arms purchases by its neighbors. A nuclear-armed Iran would likely spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would further destabilize this volatile and vital region.


Iran's nuclear program is clearly intended to develop a nuclear weapons capability. For eighteen years, it was kept secret, even though international assistance would have been available to a civilian program. In 2002, Iran's covert program was exposed. Since then, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly said that it cannot consider Iran's nuclear program as entirely civilian. On November 8, 2011 it released a report stating there is "credible" evidence that "Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device." Each report since then has underscored Iran’s continuing refusal to address the IAEA’s evidence and its refusal to allow IAEA inspectors into the Parchin complex, where evidence shows “strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development.”

In 2009, Western intelligence agencies discovered, and Iran admitted to, another secret facility that is designed for approximately 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium. President Obama commented that the "configuration" of the Fordow facility is "not consistent with a peaceful nuclear program." Three thousand centrifuges are sufficient for producing quantities of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, but not for fuel for nuclear power plants.


On November 8, 2011, the IAEA released a comprehensive and damning report on Iran's nuclear program. The report is based on intelligence received from more than 10 different countries, interviews with foreign scientists who helped Iran develop their program, and the IAEA's own investigations and analyses.

In unambiguous terms, the report stated that Iran is engaged in "activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device." These activities include:

  • Research on uranium cores and detonators for nuclear weapons
  • Acquiring nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine supply network
  • Developing an indigenous nuclear weapons design and testing of the components
  • Computer modeling of nuclear explosions and logistics for nuclear testing
  • Engineering studies to adapt missiles for nuclear warheads

The IAEA's May 2013 report noted that Iran had a 182kg stockpile of 20% enriched uranium and 6,357kg of 5% enriched uranium, enough to produce weapons-grade uranium for seven nuclear bombs using the same enrichment technology. Iran continues to install centrifuges at the deep underground, heavily defended Fordow installation, increasing its capability to quickly enrich to weapons-grade.


For a number of years, the major world powers - The United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom (the "P5+1") - followed a two-track policy:  encouraging Iran to engage in diplomatic negotiations, while imposing increasingly comprehensive sanctions against Iran’s energy and financial sectors. Both the United States and Israel promoted the imposition of sanctions as well as the search for a diplomatic resolution, while warning that there will be a time limit for these policies, and that “all options” – including military action - remain on the table. 

On April 2, 2015, the P5+1 (the US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany – with EU facilitation) announced a framework agreement, setting the parameters for a final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. The parameters, which emerged after an intense eight-day period of negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, and followed two years of talks between the world powers and Iran, create a basis for negotiations over a final agreement to be concluded by June 30, 2015. 

What does the framework call for?

The framework outlines measures the Iranians and the international community will take regarding Iran’s nuclear program in the event of a final agreement. While the steps laid out within the framework have been presented as the key elements of any such agreement, the specifics are still subject to negotiation. It’s important to note that both the U.S. and Iran published fact sheets outlining the framework deal, and there are discrepancies between the two. The following is based on what was published in the U.S. version:

Some measures Iran has agreed to:
  • Reduce the number of installed centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,104, with only 5,060 of those enriching uranium for 10 years (all of which will be located at the Natanz facility)
  • Limit all uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent for 15 years
  • Reduce its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kg to 300 kg
  • Cease enrichment of uranium at the Fordow facility for 15 years
  • Convert the Fordow facility into a nuclear, physics, technology research center. Approximately 1,000 centrifuges will be used for this purpose.
  • Redesign and rebuild the Arak heavy water reactor so it can no longer produce weapons grade plutonium
  • Ship all spent fuel from the Arak reactor out of the country
  • Allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regular access to all nuclear facilities and suspected sites, as well as to the nuclear supply chain
  • Allow inspectors access to uranium mines and surveillance of uranium mills for 25 years
  • Implement the Additional Protocol of the IAEA to allow the Agency greater access and information regarding the nuclear program, including the program’s possible military dimensions 
Some measures the P5+1 have agreed to:
  • Suspend U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions against Iran once the IAEA has verified Iran has abided by all key nuclear-related steps. Should Iran fail to fulfill its commitments, sanctions will “snap back” into place
  • The lifting of all past U.N. Security Council resolutions on the Iranian nuclear issue simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key nuclear concerns
  • A new U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the framework, urging full implementation and retaining some provisions relating to weapons

The majority of the framework’s clauses would last for 10 to 15 years, with a small number lasting up to 25 years. The US estimates that if these steps are implemented, Iran’s nuclear breakout timeline would be at least one year.

Many questions have been raised regarding a number of important issues which aren’t explicitly addressed within the framework. Some of these include:

  • What happens to the 9,700 kg of low-enriched uranium Iran has agreed to dispose of? Where does it go?
  • What happens after the 10 year period when certain aspects of the agreement expire while others will remain in place for 5 more years?
  • What happens to the centrifuges currently installed at Fordow?
  • What exactly will the international inspection mechanisms look like? How much access and information will the IAEA be granted?
  • There are discrepancies between the U.S. and Iranian versions of the timing of and triggers for sanctions relief. The U.S. asserts it will be contingent on Iran taking steps to roll back its nuclear program, while Iran claims sanctions will be lifted as soon as the agreement goes into effect.
  • How will disputes over claims of Iranian violations of the agreement be resolved, and how long will it take?  Failure to act quickly could shorten Iran’s nuclear breakout period from the projected one year timeline. What measures will be in place to ensure Iran can’t use the dispute resolution process to run down the clock on the 12 month breakout period?  

Iran’s decision to enter into negotiations with the P5+1 was a direct result of the pressure international sanctions created on Iran’s economy. Without the tough sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations, US, European countries and other world powers, it is unlikely Iran’s leaders would have agreed to restrictions on their nuclear program. 

Sanctions: The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted four resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear proliferation activities.

The U.S. has had sanctions in place for many years against companies that invest in Iran's energy sector. Recently, more stringent U.S. sanctions have been included in the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2012 and 2013, which placed sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and foreign institutions doing business with the Central Bank of Iran. Those sanctions targeted major buyers of Iranian oil, forcing them to significantly reduce the amounts of oil they buy from Iran and to start paying for oil with goods instead of cash. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010, which sanctions companies that provide refined petroleum or energy-sector technology to Iran. The U.S. Treasury has also "blacklisted" Iranian companies involved in proliferation or terrorism to make banking transactions more difficult for them globally.

Since July 2012, the European Union has banned all imports of Iranian oil. Previous sanctions from October 2010 had prevented EU-based companies from investing in Iran's energy sector or providing energy-sector technology to Iran. Major European leaders have also expressed support for additional European Union sanctions on Iran should Iran continue to demonstrate recalcitrance in meetings to discuss its nuclear program.

Though no claims of responsibility have been made, there have been reports of highly sophisticated, covert cyber-attacks against Iran's nuclear program and defense networks.


Since the revolution which overthrew the monarchy in 1979, Iran has been run by a Shia Islamist regime which has violently suppressed internal dissent. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's powerful Supreme Leader, is the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic, and it is he who makes the major policy decisions.

There have been periods when it appeared that the Iranian leadership was opting for greater moderation and reform. This occurred with the election of Mohamed Khatami, considered the "reformist candidate" to the presidency in 1997. While the Khatami government (through 2005) was marked by some moderation in Iran's public stance towards the West, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei tightly controlled most of the state apparatus. Iran's nuclear weapons program also intensified during this period. In June 2013, Hassan Rouhani, a cleric with views considered by some to be more moderate than those of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected to serve as the country’s next president.  In the election campaign, Rouhani pledged to improve Iran’s economy and pursue an improved relationship with the international community. 

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was President from 2005-2013, was notorious for his extremist language, including calling for Israel to be “wiped from the earth,” and his promotion of Holocaust denial.

Violent Repression

The Iran regime violently represses public manifestations of political opposition. In February 2011, regime security forces quashed demonstrations organized by opposition forces to express solidarity with political uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Following the dubious outcome of presidential elections in June 2009, the regime's security forces and allied militia harshly clamped down on pro-opposition protests in Tehran and elsewhere across the country. A number of people protesting the election results were killed -- some killed at rallies by gunfire, and some in prisons following their arrest.

Terrorism and Extremism

Iran's regime is a source of extremism and destabilization in the region and around the globe. Iran is generally considered to be the leading state sponsor of terrorism, providing financial support and training for organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and others, and is believed to be behind many Shiite insurgents in Iraq. Iran is responsible for the bombings of the Israeli Embassy (1992) and the Jewish community center (1994) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed over 200 people and wounded hundreds more. Its leaders have repeatedly called for Israel's demise and have propagated base anti-Semitism, including the denial of the Holocaust. The Iranian government is also backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his government’s brutal campaign against rebel forces and Syrian citizens. Iran supplies the Assad regime with financial and military support, and its proxy Hezbollah recently began fighting alongside the Syrian government.

Human Rights Violations

The Iranian regime denies basic freedoms to Iran's citizens, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. The rights of women, workers, homosexuals, juveniles, religious and ethnic minorities, and political opposition are brutally suppressed. The United States and Sweden have proposed that the UN Human Rights Council appoint a Special Rapporteur to investigate and report on human rights violations in Iran.

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