Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

In endgame of Vienna nuclear talks, Tehran holds the cards


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : JCPOA

Mains level : Paper 2- JCPOA negotiations


Iran’s foreign minister during his recent visit to Syria, noted that Iran and the major powers, who have been negotiating a mutual return to the Iran nuclear deal — or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — over the last eleven months, were closer to an agreement “than ever before”.

Issues in the negotiation over Iran’s return to JCPOA

  • The ongoing eighth round of talks between Iran and P4+1, has been going on since December 27, 202.
  • These issues remaining are understood to be Tehran’s demand for guarantees against another withdrawal in the future, the verifiable lifting of all US sanctions, and the IAEA investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities.
  • Guarantees against another withdrawal: On the issue of guarantees against another withdrawal, Iran is no longer demanding legal guarantees from Washington.
  • Lifting all sanctions: Tehran has refused to retreat from its uncompromising stance on the lifting of all US sanctions, while the Biden administration has so far been prepared to lift only those “inconsistent” with the deal.
  • Another key sticking point, though not directly related to the nuclear deal, is Iran’s demand that President Biden reverse his predecessor’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.


  •  Western interlocutors are alarmed by Iran’s shrinking breakout time — the time needed for gathering enough weapons-grade uranium to make a single nuclear warhead.
  • Also, they are concerned that the longer Iran stays outside the agreement, the more nuclear expertise and fissile material it will accumulate, thus making the original deal obsolete.
  • Thus, time is of the essence for reaching an agreement that will turn the clock back on Iran’s nuclear activities.


Iran uses its nuclear activities as a bargaining counter to seek an agreement that will best serve its interests. So, the early conclusion of the deal is important to turn the clock back on Iran’s nuclear activities.

UPSC 2022 countdown has begun! Get your personal guidance plan now! (Click here)

Back2Basics: What is JCPOA

  • The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a agreement reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on July 14, 2015.
  • The nuclear deal was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, adopted on July 20, 2015.
  • Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-related provisions of the JCPOA is verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) according to certain requirements set forth in the agreement.
  • Despite Iran’s verified compliance with the deal, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, and subsequently re-imposed all U.S. sanctions on Iran lifted by the accord.
  • Then-U.S. President Donald Trump cited the deal’s sunset provisions and its failure to account for Iran’s ballistic missile program, among other things, as impetus for withdrawal from the accord.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

What is the Iran Nuclear Deal?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : JCPOA

Mains level : US sanctions on Iran

As Iran has refused to hold direct talks with the U.S., European officials will shuttle between the Iranian and American delegations, exchanging talking points and seeking common ground over the nuclear deal.

Do you know how the enmity between Iran and the US came into reality?  We hope you have watched the Argo (2012) movie for sure!


  • After a gap of five months, Iran, Russia, China and the European countries resumed negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
  • The 2015 JCPOA agreement sought to cut Iran off a possible path to a nuclear bomb in return for lifting of economic sanctions.

What is JCPOA?

  • The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the JCPOA is a landmark accord reached between Iran and several world powers, including the United States, in July 2015.
  • Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.

Expected outcomes of the deal

  • Curb on nuclear program: Proponents of the deal said that it would help prevent a revival of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
  • Increasing regional engagement: It would thereby reduce the prospects for conflict between Iran and its regional rivals, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Background of the JCPOA

  • Iran had previously agreed to forgo the development of nuclear weapons as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been in force since 1970.
  • However, after the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, Iranian leaders secretly pursued this technology.
  • In 2007, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Iran halted its work on nuclear weapons in 2003 but continued to acquire nuclear technology and expertise.
  • Prior to the JCPOA, the P5+1 had been negotiating with Iran for years, offering its government various incentives to halt uranium enrichment.

Issues with the deal

(1) US withdrawal

  • The deal has been in jeopardy since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from it in 2018.
  • In retaliation for the US, Iran resumed some of its nuclear activities.

(2) Iran’s insistence over sanctions removal

  • In 2021, President Joe Biden said the US will return to the deal if Iran comes back into compliance, though Iran’s leaders have insisted that Washington lift sanctions first.
  • Iran now has indicated that he will take a harder line than his predecessor in nuclear negotiations.

Who are the participants?

  • The JCPOA, which went into effect in January 2016, imposes restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program.
  • At the heart of negotiations with Iran were the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany—collectively known as the P5+1.
  • The European Union also took part. Israel explicitly opposed the agreement, calling it too lenient.
  • Some Middle Eastern powers, such as Saudi Arabia, said they should have been consulted or included in the talks because they would be most affected by a nuclear-armed Iran.

What did Iran agree to?

  • Nuclear restrictions: Iran agreed not to produce either the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium that could be used in a nuclear weapon.
  • Monitoring and verification:  Iran agreed to eventually implement a protocol that would allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

What did the other signatories agree to?

  • Sanctions relief: The EU, United Nations, and United States all committed to lifting their nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. However, many other U.S. sanctions on Iran, some dating back to the 1979 hostage crisis, remained in effect.
  • Weapons embargo: The parties agreed to lift an existing UN ban on Iran’s transfer of conventional weapons and ballistic missiles after five years if the IAEA certifies that Iran is only engaged in civilian nuclear activity.

How has the deal affected Iran’s economy?

  • Prior to the JCPOA, Iran’s economy suffered years of recession, currency depreciation, and inflation, largely because of sanctions on its energy sector.
  • With the sanctions lifted, inflation slowed, exchange rates stabilized, and exports—especially of oil, agricultural goods, and luxury items­—skyrocketed as Iran regained trading partners, particularly in the EU.
  • After the JCPOA took effect, Iran began exporting more than 2.1 million barrels per day (approaching pre-2012 levels, when the oil sanctions were originally put in place).


UPSC 2022 countdown has begun! Get your personal guidance plan now! (Click here)

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Iran, U.S. warships engage in a tense encounter


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Strait of Hormuz

Mains level : Paper 2- Iran-US nuclear deal

What happened

  • An American warship fired warning shots when vessels of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard came too close to a patrol in the Persian Gulf.
  • Footage released on April 27 by the Navy showed a ship commanded by the Guard cut in front of the USCGC Monomoy.
  • The incidents at sea almost always involve the Revolutionary Guard, which reports only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Context of the nuclear deal

  • Some analysts believe the incidents are meant in part to squeeze President Hassan Rouhani’s administration after the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • The incident comes as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over Tehran and Washington returning to the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • It also follows a series of incidents across the Mideast attributed to a shadow war between Iran and Israel, which includes attacks on regional shipping and sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Iran deal could be rescued by the IAEA


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : JCPOA

Mains level : Paper 2- Role IAEA can play in rescuing JCPOA

The article explains how IAEA could play an important role in finding a solution to the stalemate between the U.S. and Iran on JCPOA.

Issue of Iran’s return to JCPOA

  • There is uncertainty between the U.S. and Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as to whether Iranian compliance comes first or the lifting of sanctions by the U.S.
  • In this context, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is back on the stage to rescue the JCPOA.
  • The U.S. tried to pressurise Iran by proposing a resolution in the IAEA Board of Governors meeting criticising Iranian non-compliance with the JCPOA and its alleged IAEA safeguards violations.
  • This comes amidst rumours that Iran might withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran may follow Indian model on creating a deterrent

  • Foreign Policy recently noted that Iranian society increasingly see the weapon not just as an ultimate deterrent but as a panacea for Iran’s chronic security problems and challenges to its sovereignty by foreign powers.
  • If the stalemate continues on JCPOA, because of the U.S. pressure, public opinion may shift towards the Indian model of creating a deterrent and then seeking a special dispensation to avoid severe sanctions.
  • But the risks involved in such a policy will be grave, including the possibility of military action by Israel.

Relation between IAEA and NPT

  • The IAEA is neither the Secretariat of the NPT nor is it empowered to request States to adhere to it.
  • . It does, however, have formal responsibility in the context of implementing Article III of the Treaty.
  • At the broadest level, the IAEA provides two service functions under the NPT.
  • 1) It facilitates and provides a channel for endeavours aimed at further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
  • 2) It administer international nuclear safeguards, in accordance with Article III of the Treaty, to verify fulfilment of the non-proliferation commitment assumed by non-nuclear-weapon States party to the Treaty.
  • The NPT assigns to the IAEA the responsibility for verifying, at the global level, through its safeguards system, that non-nuclear weapon States fulfil their obligations not to use their peaceful nuclear activities to develop any nuclear explosive devices of any kind.

How IAEA could play role in JCPOA

  • Accordingly, the Iranian file could go back to the IAEA to start fresh negotiations to restrain Iran to remain within the permissible level of enrichment of uranium.
  • This may mean going back to the pre-six nation initiative, when the IAEA could not certify that Iran was not engaged in weapon activities.
  • With the experience of the JCPOA, any new arrangement has to ensure the following:
  • 1) Iran must have sanctions relief.
  • 2) The stockpile of enriched uranium should not exceed the limits established.
  • 3) There should be guarantees that Iran will not violate the safeguards agreement.
  • The test is whether these can be accomplished within the framework of the IAEA.

Way forward

  • Since the IAEA is a technical body, its deliberations may be kept at the technical level.
  • At the same time, since it is open for the IAEA to report to the Security Council for necessary action, the IAEA will have the necessary clout to insist on the implementation of the NPT and its additional protocol.
  • A new avenue may open for Iran to continue its peaceful nuclear activities as permitted in the NPT.

Consider the question “Examine the role played by IAEA under NPT. How this role can help IAEA in breaking the ice between Iran and the U.S. on JCPOA?” 


Thus, IAEA can play an important role in ending the statement JCPOA finds itself in and ensure compliance from Iran on JCPOA and lifting sanctions by the U.S.

Back2Basics: Article III of NPT

  • This article provides for the application of safeguards to ensure that nuclear material in non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) isn’t diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
  •  NNWS must place all nuclear materials in all peaceful nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards.
  • Each nuclear weapon state (NWS) will not provide nuclear materials or equipment to a NNWS without an IAEA safeguards agreement.
  • The safeguards should comply with Article IV of the NPT, and should not hamper peaceful uses of nuclear technology or economic/technical development in general.
  • Safeguards agreements can be concluded on an individual or group basis.
  • After the entry into force of the NPT, state parties had 180 days to commence negotiation of a safeguards agreement. Currently, state parties must begin negotiations by the date they deposit their instruments of ratification or accession.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : IAEA

Mains level : Irritants in the deal and threats posed by Iran's nuclear programme

The move by the US administration under Biden to revive the Iran nuclear deal has once again turned the spotlight on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which played a key role in enforcing the original nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew the US in 2018.

Try this question from CSP 2020:

Q.In India, why are some nuclear reactors kept under “IAEA Safeguards” while others are not?

(a) Some use Uranium and others use thorium.

(b) Some use imported uranium and others use domestic supplies.

(c) Some are operated by foreign enterprises and others are operated by domestic enterprises.

(d) Some are State- owned and others are privately-owned.

What is IAEA?

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons.
  • As the preeminent nuclear watchdog under the UN, the IAEA is entrusted with the task of upholding the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.
  • It was established as an autonomous organisation on July 29, 1957, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
  • Though established independently of the UN through its own international treaty, the agency reports to both the UN General Assembly and the UNSC.

What are its safeguards?

  • Safeguards are activities by which the IAEA can verify that a State is living up to its international commitments not to use nuclear programmes for nuclear-weapons purposes.
  • Safeguards are based on assessments of the correctness and completeness of a State’s declared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities.
  • Verification measures include on-site inspections, visits, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation.

Basically, two sets of measures are carried out in accordance with the type of safeguards agreements in force with a State.

  1. One set relates to verifying State reports of declared nuclear material and activities.
  2. Another set enables the IAEA not only to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material but also to provide assurances as to the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State.

Why in news again?

  • The IAEA and Iranian diplomats struck a “temporary” deal to continue inspection of Iran’s nuclear plants for three more months, which keeps at least the diplomatic path to revive the deal open.
  • However, there have always been questions about the Agency’s ability to work independently, without being drawn into big power rivalries.

IAEA success: Civil nuclear solution

  • The IAEA is active in championing civil nuclear solution to a number of areas like health, which is one of the main areas of peaceful application of nuclear know-how.
  • That apart, in recent years, the IAEA is also active in dealing with climate change, pandemic containment and in the prevention of Zoonotic diseases.
  • The IAEA was the first to announce that the North Korean nuclear programme was not peaceful.
  • North Korea finally expelled IAEA observers and as a result, there are no on-the-ground international inspectors in North Korea.
  • The world is reliant on ground sensors and satellite imageries to observe North Korea’s nuclear actions.

Issues with IAEA

  • What the IAEA missed in terms of real authority over sovereign states, it compensated for that by cultivating some tall leadership whose actions kept the issue of non-proliferation on the multilateral table.
  • It proved to be ineffective to prevent power politics from influencing nuclear negotiations.
  • This was particularly visible when Pakistan pursued a nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s and despite overwhelming evidence in possession of the American authorities.
  • They did not pursue the case effectively through the IAEA because of the cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan on the Afghan front.
  • IAEA does not have any power to override the sovereign rights of any member nation of the UN.
  • The uneven authority produced results when in the case of Iran when the Agency’s efforts were backed by big powers.
  • One major criticism of the IAEA is that it never challenges the nuclear dominance of the five permanent members of the UNSC, who themselves hold some of the biggest nuclear arsenals of the world.

IAEA and India

  • The IAEA-certified the nuclear power plant at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan in 2012, which drew criticism as the power plant had two incidents of leakage of nuclear material earlier that year.
  • The second incident affected at least four workers who worked in the nuclear power plant and had caused concern among the scientific community.

Iran challenge

  • The coming weeks will, however, test the 63-year old organisation as Iran remains suspicious of the exact intentions of the Biden administration.
  • The current episode, which involves regional political concerns like Saudi-Iran and Iran-Israel rivalries as well as the American interests in the region, will certainly test the IAEA.
  • It will also test the ability of the IAEA to deal with powerful states from its position of “uneven authority”.
  • The main negotiation on this front is dependent on Tehran’s demand for lifting American sanctions. Iran has said its compliance will depend on the lifting of sanctions.

Future prospects

  • The issues involved between Iran and the U.S. indicate that they are not part of the mandate of the IAEA.
  • Iran also requires assurance that once activated, the deal will not be abandoned in future by an American President in the way that Trump had done in 2018.
  • Tying all the loose ends of this difficult negotiation will be the biggest challenge for all parties.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

The U.S. policy options and its implications for the world order


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : JCPOA

Mains level : Paper 2- The U.S. approach toward JCPOA

The article spells out the U.S.’s foreign policy approach in the changing global order. Though the article doesn’t mention India, the U.S.’s policies and it’s bearing on India need no mention. From that perspective, we should follow their approach.

Decision on the JCPOA

  • During the U.S. presidential election campaign, Joe Biden had criticised the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
  • He had then promised that subject to Iran’s compliance with its obligations, the U.S. would re-enter the agreement.
  • In office, Mr. Biden has shown little urgency on the JCPOA matter.
  • Israel has given the opposite message and said that the nuclear agreement was “bad and must not be allowed”.
  • Israel and the U.S.’s Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also insisted that they be involved with the discussions with Iran on the revival of the agreement.

U.S.’s Policy approach

  •  The U.S. policy is likely to show more continuity than change where the U.S.’s core interests are concerned, specifically in its ties with Russia, China and Iran.
  •  Mr. Biden is likely to reverse his predecessor Donald Trump’s personal accommodative approach towards Russia and adopt the U.S.’s traditional confrontational posture.
  • Mr. Biden’s Iran policy is likely to match Mr. Trump’s hardline approach on substantive matters.
  • This approach also panders to Iran’s regional rivals who wish to see the Islamic republic weakened and isolated.
  • There will thus be no dramatic change in the U.S.’s approach to Iran on the nuclear question.

Regional concerns and role of global powers

  • Despite the sanctions, Iran’s regional influence remains significant.
  • The Iranian ability to mobilise militants across the region is viewed by Israel and some the Gulf Arab states as threatening their security.
  • Gulf states are also concerned about Iran’s influence with their Shia populations.
  • The capabilities of Iran’s precision missiles and drones are also a matter of regional anxiety.
  •  Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be in a face-off with Iran and its allies, Iraq, Syria and its Shia militia.
  • Alternatively, we could see a genuine regional effort to ease tensions and promote regional confidence, spearheaded by Qatar, working with Russia and, possibly, China.
  • Perhaps, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, already facing heat from the Biden administration, will see the value of this approach.
  • Russia now an influential player in the region, China, too, with its Belt and Road Initiative, has high stakes in regional stability.
  • The Sino-Iran 25 years agreement, envisages their substantial and long-term cooperation in political, security, military, economic, energy and logistical connectivity areas.

Consider the question “How far Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been successful in achieving its goals? How peace in the Middle East influence India’s interests?” 


The new U.S. administration will thus witness a new world order, shaped by a coalition of Russia, China and Iran, in which the U.S. is no longer the most significant role-player.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Iran rules out changes to Nuclear Deal


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Iran Nuclear Deal

Mains level : Irritants in the deal and threats posed by Iran's nuclear programme

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ruled out changes to Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers and dismissed calls to broaden the terms of the deal and include regional countries.

Do you know how the enmity between Iran and the US came into reality?  We hope you have watched the Argo (2012) movie for sure!

What is the news?

  • The election of Joe Biden, who supports a US return to the agreement, has spurred some expectations of renewed diplomacy.
  • But Rouhani’s refusal puts this possibility at the end.

The United States since 1979 has applied various economic, trades, scientific and military sanctions against Iran. U.S. economic sanctions are administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Iranian Nuclear Agreement

  • The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a landmark accord reached between Iran and several world powers, including the US, in July 2015.
  • Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.

What were the goals of JCPOA?

  • The P5+1 wanted to unwind Iran’s nuclear program to the point that if Tehran decided to pursue a nuclear weapon, it would take at least one year, giving world powers time to respond.
  • Heading into the JCPOA negotiations, U.S. intelligence officials estimated that, in the absence of an agreement, Iran could produce enough nuclear material for a weapon in a few months.

Who are the participants?

  • The JCPOA, which went into effect in January 2016, imposes restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program.
  • At the heart of negotiations with Iran were the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) and Germany—collectively known as the P5+1.
  • The European Union also took part.
  • Prior to the JCPOA, the P5+1 had been negotiating with Iran for years, offering its government various incentives to halt uranium enrichment.

Disruptions after trump

  • The deal has been in jeopardy since President Donald J. Trump withdrew the US from it in 2018.
  • In response to the U.S. departure, as well as to deadly attacks on prominent Iranians in 2020, including one by the United States, Iran has resumed some of its nuclear activities.

Why isn’t the deal yet enforced?

  • In April 2020, the United States announced its intention to keep back sanctions.
  • The other P5 members objected to the move, saying the US could not unilaterally implement the mechanism because it left the nuclear deal in 2018.
  • Meanwhile, the wide range of U.S. sanctions unrelated to the nuclear program has added to the damage.

 Iran’s current nuclear activity

  • Iran since Trump’s decisions started exceeding agreed-upon limits to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
  • It began enriching uranium to higher concentrations (though still far short of the purity required for weapons).
  • It also began developing new centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment; resuming heavy water production at its Arak facility.

Did you know?


Mined uranium has less than 1 percent of the uranium-235 isotope used in fission reactions, and centrifuges increase that isotope’s concentration. Uranium enriched to 5 percent is used in nuclear power plants, and at 20 percent it can be used in research reactors or for medical purposes. High-enriched uranium, at some 90 percent, is used in nuclear weapons.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Iran steps up Uranium Enrichment


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Uranium Enrichment

Mains level : Iran's hostile nuclear ambitions and its global threat

Iran has begun enriching uranium up to 20% at an underground facility and seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the crucial Strait of Hormuz, further escalating tensions in West Asia between Tehran and the West.

Scratch your school basics to answer this PYQ:

Q.The known forces of nature can be divided into four classes, viz, gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force.

With reference to them, which one of the following statements is not correct? (CSP 2012)

(a) Gravity is the strongest of the four

(b) Electromagnetism act only on particles with an electric charge

(c) Weak nuclear force causes radioactivity

(d) Strong nuclear force holds protons and neutrons inside the nuclear of an atom.

What is Uranium Enrichment?

  • Uranium enrichment is a process that is necessary to create an effective nuclear fuel out of mined uranium by increasing the percentage of uranium-235 which undergoes fission with thermal neutrons.
  • Nuclear fuel is mined from naturally occurring uranium ore deposits and then isolated through chemical reactions and separation processes.
  • These chemical processes used to separate the uranium from the ore are not to be confused with the physical and chemical processes used to enrich the uranium.
  • Naturally occurring uranium does not have a high enough concentration of Uranium-235 at only about 0.72% with the remainder being Uranium-238.
  • Due to the fact that uranium-238 is fissionable and not fissile, the concentration of uranium-235 must be increased before it can be effectively used as a nuclear fuel.

Why is the West concerned?

  • Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% purity a decade ago nearly triggered an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities, tensions that only abated with the 2015 atomic deal.
  • A resumption of 20% enrichment could see that brinksmanship return as that level of purity is only a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Iran’s calculated risk


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Iran's nuclear deal

Mains level : Paper 2- Iran nuclear deal and challenges

The article analyses Iran’s response to the recent killing of its top nuclear scientist. Instead of responding to the provocation, Iran has decided to wait and watch the new U.S. administrations response.

Background of nuclear deal with Iran

  • In 2015, the P5+1 nations-China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., plus Germany- reached an agreement with Iran to curb the country’s nuclear programme.
  • It was expected that the agreement would lead to a new beginning in West Asia, however, this did not happen.
  • Washington saw Iran’s nuclear programme, which was at an advanced stage in 2015, as a national security problem and tackled it via diplomacy.
  • However, for Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nuclear programme was not the problem but was part of the larger geopolitical challenges Iran posed.
  • The problem was Iran itself: Tehran’s influence across West Asia, its backing for non-state militias, and its ambition to emerge as a dominant pillar in the region.
  • The Donald Trump administration took an entirely different line towards Iran.
  • It pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, despite United Nations certification that Iran was compliant with its terms, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.


  • Iran wants to set back Iran’s nuclear programme by taking out a prominent scientist and scuttle the possible revival of the nuclear deal.
  • If Iran does not retaliate, it shows that Iran’s deterrence is getting weaker, which could trigger more such attacks from its rivals.
  • If it retaliates, it could escalate the conflict, giving the outgoing Trump administration and Isarael reasons to launch heavier strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, closing off the diplomatic path.

Iran’s response and challenges in it

  • Instead of walking into the trap of provocation, Iran’s Parliament passed a Bill that obliges the government to enrich uranium to a higher level, from less than 5% now to 20%.
  • This is a technical step away from the weapons-grade level of 90%.
  • And stop access for UN inspectors to the country’s top nuclear facilities in two months if sanctions relief is not given.
  • Within two months, Mr. Biden will be in the White House.


Iran is taking a calculated risk by enhancing its nuclear programme, which can be reversed if talks are revived. But it is leaving the Israel problem unaddressed, for now. This leaves the region vulnerable to a prolonged crisis.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Chabahar Rail Project


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Ports along the strait of hormuz, Chabahar Port

Mains level : India-Iran relations soured in recent times

An Iranian diplomat in an interview has said that Tehran now hopes that New Delhi will help facilitate equipment for the Chabahar-Zahedan railway line under a line of credit promised to it in 2018.

Try this question

Q. Discuss the strategic and economic significance of Chabahar Port and Rail Project for India.

Recent controversy

  • The Iranian government in July had decided to proceed with the construction of this project on its own, citing delays from the Indian side in funding and starting the project.

The Chabahar Rail Project

  • It is a 628 km Chabahar-Zahedan line, which will be extended to Zaranj across the border in Afghanistan.
  • The entire project would be completed by March 2022.
  • It was meant to be part of India’s commitment to the trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan to build an alternate trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Why did Iran omit India from the project?

  • Despite several site visits by engineers, and preparations by Iranian railways, India never began the work, ostensibly due to worries that these could attract U.S. sanctions.
  • The U.S. had provided a sanctions waiver for the Chabahar port and the rail line to Zahedan, but it has been difficult to find equipment suppliers and partners due to worries they could be targeted by the U.S.
  • India has already “zeroed out” its oil imports from Iran due to U.S. sanctions.

India’s reluctance with Iran

  • Looking at the whole aspects of relations, when it comes to politics, there has been a great common understanding and shared interests.
  • But when it comes to economic and trade relations, it has been subject to some limits and restrictions, which are hampered by the various sanctions imposed.
  • The US had put pressure directly or indirectly on the relations, although that has not been the will of both sides.

The contentious partnership with China

  • Iran and China are close to finalising a 25-year Strategic Partnership which will include Chinese involvement in Chabahar’s duty-free zone, an oil refinery nearby, and possibly a larger role in Chabahar port as well.
  • The cooperation will extend from investments in infrastructure, manufacturing and upgrading energy and transport facilities, to refurbishing ports, refineries and other installations.
  • It is also rumoured that the Chabahar port will be leased to China surpassing India.
  • Iran had proposed a tie-up between the port at Gwadar and Chabahar last year and has offered interests to China in the Bandar-e-Jask port 350km away from Chabahar, as well as in the Chabahar duty-free zone.

Back2Basics: India-Iran Partnership over Chabahar Port

  • In 2016, India signed a deal with Iran entailing $8 billion investment in Chabahar port and industries in Chabahar Special Economic Zone.
  • The port is being developed as a transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
  • India has already built a 240-km road connecting Afghanistan with Iran.
  • All this were expected to bring cargo to Bandar Abbas port and Chabahar port, and free Kabul from its dependence on Pakistan to reach the outer world.
  • Completion of this project would give India access to Afghanistan and beyond to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Europe via 7,200-km-long multi-modal North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Sanctions and pandemic: On America’s Iran policy


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- The US sanction are adding to the woes of Iran in dealing with the covid-19 pandemic.


The US has refused to ease the sanction on Iran even as it is struggling hard to control the spread of the virus.

Sanctions adding to the difficulties of Iran

  • Disregard to the humanitarian situation: America’s refusal to ease sanctions on Iran even when the West Asian country is struggling hard to contain the novel coronavirus spread with limited resources shows its total disregard for the humanitarian situation in the Islamic Republic.
  • Iran, the hardest hit by the pandemic in West Asia, has already seen 3,739 deaths and 62,589 infections.
  • Iran’s failure: To be sure, Iran failed on multiple fronts in the battle. The government was initially reluctant to enforce drastic restrictions on businesses, religious establishments and people.
  • As infections began spreading at an exponential pace, it was more than what Iran’s health-care system could handle.
  • Failures accentuated by sanctions: And during the crisis, the cash-strapped, isolated regime struggled to meet people’s needs. But what accentuated these failures are the American sanctions.
  • Last year, the sanctions, reimposed by President Trump after he unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, shrank the country’s economy by 8.7%.
  • Oil price factor: The fall in oil prices and the pandemic have multiplied Iran’s woes.
  • The sanctions have also debilitated its ability to import even humanitarian goods.
  • Rejection by the US to ease sanctions: The U.S. rejected calls for easing sanctions, saying exports of these goods to Iran are already exempted. But it is not that easy.
  • Banks fearful of US action: Most global banks, fearing U.S. retaliation and legal consequences, stay away from doing business with Iran, which makes it difficult for the Islamic Republic to find a functional payment mechanism.
  • With the economy in dire straits, it also lacks the resources to make purchases.

Why should the US ease sanctions?

  • The U.S., which has the most number of COVID-19 infections, should be in a better position to understand Iran’s woes than any other country.
  • Despite the U.S. being the world’s largest economy, and home to a gigantic health-care industry, authorities there appear clueless on quick containment.
  • Learning from its own tragedy, Washington should have suspended or at least eased the sanctions on Iran, allowing the country to import food, medicines and other humanitarian goods without restrictions.
  • Such a decision would also have provided an opportunity to both countries — on the brink of a military conflict early this year — to resume diplomatic engagement.
  • It is still not too late for Mr Trump to take a humanitarian decision and turn it into a diplomatic opening.

What Iran should do?

  • The Iranian leadership should realise that this is not the time for America-bashing.
  • Focus on getting help: This is an hour of crisis, globally. Tehran’s focus should be on getting maximum help from abroad and beefing up its fight at home to save lives.
  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent comment that Iran “has the capability to overcome any kind of crisis and challenges” is far removed from reality.


Iranians need help and the U.S. should reconsider its policy of punishing them, at least in this time of a pandemic. This could open the diplomatic channel for the further talk between both the countries.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

A crisis-hit Iran at the crossroads


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Growing difficulties for Iran amid sanctions and cooperation with China and Pakistan, and implications for India.


The coronavirus pandemic creates fresh possibilities for cooperation between the West Asian nation and its neighbours.

Challenges faced by Iran

  • Hardest hit by COVID-19 among the West Asian countries: Iran, the hardest-hit among the West Asian countries in the global pandemic, is on the front line of the battle against the coronavirus that causes the causes coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
  • Healthcare reeling under combined load: With nearly 900 deaths and over 14,000 cases of infection, its health-care system is reeling under the combined effect of the pandemic and American sanctions.
  • Possibility of social unrest resurfacing: The masses thronging the streets some weeks ago may have receded out of fear of both the coronavirus and the wrath of the regime, but there is a possibility of social unrest resurfacing if the government’s response to the spread of the virus is ineffective and shortages are exacerbated.
  • Emergency funding from IMF: Iran has already approached the International Monetary Fund for $5-billion in emergency funding to combat the pandemic.
  • Easing of some sanctions by the US: The U.S. Treasury had announced in end-February that it was lifting some sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to facilitate humanitarian trade such as the import of testing kits for COVID-19. Clearly, Iran thinks this is inadequate.

Iran’s nuclear policy

  • Iran to resumed nuclear activities: Following the U.S.’s decision to jettison the deal, Iran had announced that it would resume its nuclear activities but had agreed to respect the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and enhanced monitoring as part of its obligations under the additional protocol.
  • What were the conditions of JCPOA? The JCPOA limited Iran to enrich uranium only up to a 3.67% concentration and its stockpile to 300 kg of UF6 (corresponding to 202.8 kg of U-235), and further capped its centrifuges to no more than 5,060, besides a complete cessation of enrichment at the underground Fordow facility.
    • It also limited Iran’s heavy water stockpile to 130 tonnes.
  • Restriction on enrichment lifted by Iran: Since July 2019, Iran has lifted all restrictions on its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water.
    • It has been enriching uranium to 4.5%, beyond the limit of 3.67%.
    • Moreover, it has removed all caps on centrifuges and recommenced enrichment at the Fordow facility.
    • An increased stockpile of Uranium: As of February 19, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile totalled 1,020.9 kg, compared to 372.3 kg noted in the IAEA’s report of November 3.
    • IAEA’s second report: In a second report issued on March 3, the IAEA has identified three sites in Iran where the country possibly stored undeclared nuclear material or was conducting nuclear-related activities.
    • The IAEA has sought access to the suspect sites and has also sent questionnaires to Iran but has received no response.
  • Possibility of being on the collision course with the UNSC: The United Kingdom, France and Germany had invoked the JCPOA Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM) as early as in January this year.
  • The threat to abandon the NPT: With the next Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) set to take place in New York from April 27 to May 22, 2020, Iran’s threat to abandon the NPT if the European Union takes the matter to the UN Security Council (UNSC) may yet only be bluster, but the failure of the DRM process would certainly put Iran on a collision course with the UNSC.
  • Support from China at UNSC: A sympathetic China, which holds the rotational presidency of the UNSC for March, should diminish that prospect, albeit only temporarily.
  • Possibility of reversing the sanctions: As things stand, the terms of UNSC Resolution 2231, which had removed UN sanctions against Iran in the wake of the JCPOA, are reversible and the sanctions can be easily restored.
    • That eventuality would prove disastrous, compounding Iran’s current woes.
  • Possibility of Iran continuing its nuclear program: While recognising that cocking a snook at the NPT in the run-up to the NPT RevCon and the U.S. presidential elections will invite retribution, Iran may use the global preoccupation with the pandemic to seek a whittling down of sanctions and to continue its nuclear programme.
    • More breathing time amid due to pandemic: In the event that the NPT RevCon is postponed due to the prevailing uncertainty, Iran may yet secure some more breathing time.

Iran’s ties with China and implications for India

  • China- only major country to defy the US sanctions: Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to implement its “maximum pressure policy”. China remains the only major country that continues to defy U.S. sanctions and buy oil from Iran, apart from a small quantum that goes to Syria.
    • The sale of oil to China, however, does little to replenish Iran’s coffers. China is eschewing payments in order to avoid triggering more sanctions against Chinese entities.
  • Trilateral naval exercise: When seen in the context of the trilateral naval exercise between China, Iran and Russia in the Strait of Hormuz in the end of December 2019 codenamed “Marine Security Belt”, these developments suggest a further consolidation of Sino-Iran ties in a region of great importance to India.
    • Inclusion of Pakistan in the exercise: Over time, this could expand into a “Quad” involving China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan in the Indian Ocean and the northern Arabian Sea, with broader implications for India as well as the “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific.


  • Iran’s foreign policy to remain unchanged: The first round of Iran’s parliamentary elections in February showed that the hardliners are firmly ensconced. The fundamental underpinnings of Iran’s foreign policy are likely to remain unchanged.
  • Possibility of cooperation among neighbours: Yet, the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the region creates fresh possibilities for cooperation between Iran and its neighbours, if regional tensions are relegated to the back-burner.
  • Laudable example by India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to develop a coordinated response to the pandemic in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation framework, indeed, sets a laudable example.
  • Much depends on Iran’s willingness: Much though will depend on Iran’s willingness to rein in its regional ambitions and desist from interference in the domestic affairs of others.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

[op-ed snap] Iran’s tightrope


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Events in the Middle East, especially involving Iran and its implications for India.


In the aftermath of recent events, Iran needs a new compact to deal with the domestic crisis and also a framework to deal with the US.

The threat of “regime change” in Iran

  • The US policy-The temptation for a policy of “regime change” in Iran has never disappeared from the US policy towards Iran.
    • The policy is based on the hope that mounting external pressure and deepening internal dissent will combine to produce a “regime collapse” in Tehran.
    • US President has often insisted that he is not seeking to overthrow the clerical regime in Tehran led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
    • The Us demands were an end to the nuclear and missile programmes, stop supporting terror in the region and end the interference in the internal affairs of its Arab neighbours.
  • Iran’s success in fending off these threats: Iran has been successful so far in fending off these external and internal challenges.
    • Iran has put down repeated mass uprisings and neutered attempts from within the elite to reform the system.

De-escalation of the tension after the war-like situation

  • Fear of escalation: The widespread assessment after the killing of Soleimani was that Iran would inevitably escalate the confrontation.
    • Tehran set up a token retaliation for domestic political consumption and quickly called for de-escalation.
  • The message of peace from the US: Trump also told the Iranian leaders that America “is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it”.

The shooting of a passenger jet and the aftermath 

  • The shooting of the jet:
    • The Ukrainian passenger jet was shot-down near Tehran killing all 176 passengers and crew on-board.
    • It included 82 Iranian nationals and many Canadian citizens of Iranian origin
  • After initial denial, Tehran was forced to accept responsibility for shooting down the plane.
  • The aftermath of the shooting of the plane
    • Protests: Soon after the confession, protests broke out against the government.
    • Demand for accountability: Iranians are angry at the attempt of the government to cover up initially and are demanding full accountability.

The general discontent of the people against the government

  • The latest round of protests must be seen as a continuation of those that have raged since the end of 2017.
  • Reasons for the discontent: Economic grievances, frustration with widespread corruption, demands for liberalising the restrictions on women and political opposition to the regime are the reasons.
  • Discontent against external adventures: There was also strong criticism of the government’s costly external adventures in the Middle East amidst the deteriorating economic conditions.
    • There is little love for the Revolutionary Guards, the principal face of state oppression.
  • External pressure: As the regime cracks down on the protests against the airliner shooting, the external pressures against Iran are only likely to mount.

Available option and their dangers

  • As sanctions squeeze the Iranian economy, the costs of regional overreach become apparent, and internal protests become persistent, Khamenei has few good options.
  • The option of the new political compact: Offering a new political compact to the people of Iran or a new framework to deal with the Arab neighbours and the US would seem reasonable goals.
    • But they involve considerable risk for the regime.
  • The option of pragmatism: All revolutionary regimes come to a point when they need to replace ideological fervour with pragmatism.
    • But the change from ideological fervour to pragmatism is also the time of the greatest vulnerability for the regime.


India as a friend of Iran will surely begin to debate if privately, the implications of the deepening regime crisis in Iran.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : INSTEX

Mains level : Global financial mechanisms

Six new European countries have joined the INSTEX barter mechanism, which is designed to circumvent U.S. sanctions against trade with Iran by avoiding use of the dollar.

Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)

  • The INSTEX is a European special-purpose vehicle (SPV) established in January 2019.
  • It is a barter mechanism to facilitate non-USD transactions and non-SWIFT to avoid breaking U.S. sanctions.
  • It functions as a clearing house allowing Iran to continue to sell oil and import other products or services in exchange.
  • The system has not yet enabled any transactions.


  • Six Countries – Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have recently joined INSTEX.
  • France, Germany and the UK are its founding members.

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

[op-ed snap] Seize the opening


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : JCPOA

Mains level : Iran nuclear deal - Implications for India


The spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear agency announced that the country had the ability to enrich uranium up to 20% and it had launched advanced centrifuge machines.


    • This further violates its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 
    • It is also an escalation of the brinkmanship since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018. 


    • The 2015 JCPOA came into being after arduous negotiations.
    • It placed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme and removed the harsh economic sanctions on the country. 
    • Since the US’s withdrawal from the deal, the Trump administration has ramped up the sanctions, and its anti-Iran rhetoric. Iran has flouted the limits placed on its nuclear programme. 
    • The US assumed that the sanctions would increase disaffection in Iran to such a degree that the government would be overthrown. 
    • The moderate, democratically-elected Rouhani government has suffered due to the sanctions. The nuclear deal was pushed despite the recalcitrant sections of the Islamic state as opposed to any accord with the US.

Indian role

    • India has managed to walk the diplomatic tightrope between the US and Iran.
    • India has a very close relationship with the US and also has close historical and trade ties with Iran.
    • India could join Paris and other world powers in nudging both countries towards talks. 



JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal between Tehran and the US, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and the European Union

Iran’s Nuclear Program & Western Sanctions

Explained: Strait of Hormuz — the world’s most important oil artery


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Strait of Hormuz

Mains level : US-Iran turmoil and its impact on India

Why in news?

  • The Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route linking Middle East oil producers to markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond, has been at the heart of regional tensions for decades.
  • Recently two Saudi oil tankers were among vessels targeted in a “sabotage attack” off the coast of the UAE, condemning it as an attempt to undermine the security of global crude supplies.
  • Iran’s foreign ministry called the incidents “worrisome and dreadful” and asked for an investigation.

Strait of Hormuz

  • The Strait of Hormuz is a strait between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
  • It provides the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean and is one of the world’s most strategically important choke points.
  • The waterway separates Iran and Oman, linking the Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
  • The Strait is 21 miles (33 km) wide at its narrowest point, but the shipping lane is just two miles (three km) wide in either direction.

Why does it matter?

  • The US Energy Information Administration estimated that 18.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of seaborne oil passed through the waterway in 2016.
  • That was about 30 per cent of crude and other oil liquids traded by sea in 2016.
  • With global oil consumption standing at about 100 million bpd, that means almost a fifth passes through the Strait.
  • Most crude exported from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq — all members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries are shipped through the waterway.
  • It is also the route used for nearly all the liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced by the world’s biggest LNG exporter, Qatar.

Why always in turmoil?

  • During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the two sides sought to disrupt each other’s oil exports in what was known as the Tanker War.
  • The US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is tasked with protecting the commercial ships in the area.
  • The fleet ensures that the critical waterway remains open, provocative Iranian military maneuvers are likely in the immediate offing as is a nuclear restart.
  • Iran agreed to rein in its nuclear programme in return for an easing of sanctions under a 2015 deal with the United States and five other global powers.
  • Washington pulled out of the pact in 2018. Western powers fear Iran wants to make nuclear weapons. Tehran denies this.
  • The UAE and Saudi Arabia have sought to find other routes to bypass the Strait, including building more oil pipelines.

Have there been incidents in the strait before?

  • In January 2012, Iran threatened to block the Strait in retaliation for US and European sanctions that targeted its oil revenues in an attempt to stop Tehran’s nuclear programme.
  • In May 2015, Iranian ships fired shots at a Singapore-flagged tanker which it said damaged an Iranian oil platform, causing the vessel to flee. It also seized a container ship in the Strait.
  • In July 2018, Iranian President hinted Iran could disrupt oil flows through the Strait in response to US calls to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero.
  • A Revolutionary Guards commander also said Iran would block all exports through the Strait if Iranian exports were stopped.
  • The US in turn declared the guards a terrorist organization.
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments