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February 22, 2022 11:22 am

From 1979 to 2021: A Timeline of Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

avatar by Charles Bybelezer


Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi meets with Qatar’s Foreign Minister (not pictured) in Tehran, Iran, January 27, 2022. Photo: Iranian Presidency Office/Handout via REUTERS

The US is currently engaged in nuclear talks with Tehran, as part of the Biden administration’s plan to breathe life back into the Iran nuclear deal from which the US withdrew in 2018. While Israel and America’s Gulf allies have voiced objections to the deal — also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — the White House sees a deal with Tehran as the best chance to curb Iran’s rising nuclear capabilities.

An HonestReporting timeline of the progress of nuclear negotiations with Iran since 1979 is below, and should shed some light on the challenges that lie ahead.

February 1979: Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran result in a severing of diplomatic relations with the US.

January 1984: The US State Department adds Iran to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, imposing sweeping sanctions on Tehran.


August: Iranian President Mohammad Khatami acknowledges the existence of nuclear facilities in Iran after an exiled opposition group, The National Council of Resistance of Iran, reveals Tehran’s nuclear plans during a press conference.


February: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors refers Iran to the UN Security Council (UNSC) after Tehran starts producing uranium hexafluoride gas, a chemical essential to enriching uranium. The resolution deemed it “necessary” that Iran suspend its enrichment-related activities, reconsider the construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor, ratify the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement, and “fully cooperate with the agency’s investigation.”

June: The P5+1 — the five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) plus Germany — propose a framework agreement for Iran to halt its enrichment program.


February: Tehran announces that it has successfully carried out its first satellite launch, raising international concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile potential.

April: President Barack Obama’s administration announces that it would participate fully in the P5+1 talks with Iran, a departure from previous US policy that required Iran must first meet UN demands.


June – July: The UN Security Council, the US Congress, and the EU significantly expand sanctions against Iran. The measures tighten proliferation-related sanctions, ban the Islamic Republic from carrying out nuclear-capable ballistic missile tests, impose an arms embargo, sanction companies that sell refined petroleum to the country, restrict visas, and freeze assets.


October: EU representative Catherine Ashton sends a letter to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili calling for “meaningful discussions on concrete confidence-building steps.” Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant had begun operations five months earlier, successfully achieving a sustained chain reaction, while Iran announced its intention to triple the rate of enriched uranium production.


January: The EU passes a decision that ultimately bans member countries from importing Iranian oil.

April – July: Iran and the P5+1 meet in Istanbul and agree on a framework for continuing negotiations. Meetings follow in Baghdad and Moscow to discuss the content of both parties’ proposals.

September: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech to the UN General Assembly declares that Israel will launch attacks on Iran if Tehran creates more than 250 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium, enough to produce one bomb when further enriched.


June – August: Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, is elected president of Iran. He calls for a resumption of comprehensive negotiations with the P5+1 after declaring that Iran will move ahead with its nuclear program but will do so with more transparency.

October – November: Iran and the P5+1 thrice meet in Geneva. The parties call the first talks “substantive and forward-looking.” US Secretary of State John Kerry travels to the second meeting in Geneva expecting that a resolution is near. He remarks that the parties had “narrowed the differences,” even though no agreement was reached. The foreign ministers from the P5+1 all gather in Geneva for the third meeting and produce an agreement called the Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The JPA establishes a Joint Commission to monitor the agreement and work with the IAEA, sets up steps for an initial six-month phase of cooperation, and produces a framework for negotiating a comprehensive solution. In exchange for modest sanctions relief, Iran pledges to neutralize its stockpile of near-20 percent enriched uranium, halt enrichment above five percent, stop installing centrifuges, and commits to halting construction on the Arak heavy-water reactor.

March – November: Several secret meetings take place in Oman between the US and Iran, at the same time as negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva are being held. The Omani channel had been explored by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 and then expanded by Secretary of State John Kerry, in order to find new ways to probe Iranian willingness for a deal.


January: The JPA enters into force after additional technical talks in Geneva are approved by the signatory capitals. The IAEA announces that Iran is compliant with the terms of the agreement, and the US and EU announce that they have taken steps to roll back sanctions on Iran, unveiling a schedule for the unfreezing of Iranian funds held in other countries.

February – July: The P5+1 and Iran hold several high-level meetings intended to arrive at a framework for a final agreement. The IAEA continues to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities and to report Iran’s compliance. The delegates are unable to frame a final agreement by the deadline of July 20, which is then extended to November 24 —  a full year after the Joint Plan of Action is established.

November: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State Kerry, and P5+1 lead negotiator Catherine Ashton meet in Oman to continue talks. The diplomats then meet in Vienna ahead of the November 24 deadline with their counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Iran and the P5+1 agree to extend negotiations again until March 2015. Both sides announce that significant progress has been made on difficult topics, and that all parties will abide by the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action.


March: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to a joint session of the US Congress, claiming that the Iran agreement “would all but guarantee that Iran gets [nuclear] weapons, lots of them.”

July: Iran and the P5+1 conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Obama administration sends the comprehensive agreement to Congress to begin a 60-day review period mandated by the US Iran Nuclear Deal Review Act. The UNSC unanimously endorses the deal and the lifting of UN sanctions on Iran, following the completion of key steps from the deal.

October: After Iran’s Guardian Council ratifies the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 formally adopt the nuclear deal. The US and the EU resolve to lift nuclear sanctions.

December: Even after assessing that Iran had previously worked on a “range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” the IAEA’s 35 member states reach a unanimous decision to end a 12-year-long probe into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA reserves its authority to continue allowing inspectors to visit Iranian nuclear sites.


January: The JCPOA comes fully into effect after IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano issues a report confirming that Iran had completed the necessary preparatory steps.

November: Donald J. Trump is elected president of the United States. One of his campaign pledges was to renegotiate the JCPOA, which he branded the “worst deal” ever made.

December: Congress passes a 10-year extension on the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), although further US sanctions on Iran are due to be waived as part of Washington’s commitment to the JCPOA. Secretary of State John Kerry reissues sanctions waivers on the same day as the ISA extension comes into effect, as a display of support for the agreement.


May: US President Donald Trump’s administration certifies Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, continues to waive nuclear-related sanctions, but levies new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program.

October: Trump declares that his administration will not recertify the suspension of sanctions in response to Iran’s progress under the deal. While the decertification does not invalidate the deal, it opens a 60-day window during which Congress can re-evaluate the terms. Trump expresses concern with the agreement’s sunset clause — which establishes that certain restrictions on Iran expire after 10 to 15 years — and warns that he will terminate the agreement if the concerns are not addressed. UK Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issue a joint statement expressing their support for the agreement.

December: UN Secretary-General António Guterres issues a report that confirms Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. The report also raises concern over suspected Iranian arms transfers, ballistic missile activities, and the travel of individuals who are subject to sanctions.


January: Trump again waives nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, “but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal,” he asserts. The US Treasury sanctions 14 individuals for human rights abuses and supporting weapons proliferation.

April: Netanyahu claims that Israel had obtained “Iran’s Secret Nuclear Files” that showed that Iran had lied about not pursuing nuclear weapons.

May: The US withdraws from the JCPOA after the administration is unable to come to an agreement with European allies. The US reimposes sanctions on Iran. The UK, France, Germany, and the EU issue statements supporting the agreement. The European Commission tries to save the JCPOA by announcing measures that, among other things, would forbid EU personnel from complying with US extraterritorial sanctions. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issues demands to the EU in order to maintain the treaty and threatens to resume pre-agreement nuclear activities if these demands are not met.

June: Khamenei orders the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to prepare for increased uranium enrichment if the JCPOA were to fail. The AEOI communicates that it is still abiding by the JCPOA’s terms, but that it is ready to ramp up the sites and number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

July: Foreign ministers from the remaining parties meet in Vienna with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif for the first time since President Trump’s withdrawal. No consensus is reached on how to move forward or how to mitigate the effect of US sanctions.

August: The US reimposes sweeping sanctions on Iran, and bans transactions with Iran using US dollars. The European Union passes a “blocking statute” to forbid EU personnel from abiding by sanctions against Iran in an effort to protect European firms dealing with Iranian businesses from American legal action.

September: The remaining parties to the JCPOA propose forming a Special Purpose Vehicle to allow transactions with Iran by not using US dollars. Netanyahu alleges in a speech to the UN that Iran had hidden nuclear material near Tehran. Iran denies the allegations.


February: US Vice President Mike Pence demands that America’s European allies leave the JCPOA. Germany’s Angela Merkel rejects the demand. The IAEA again reaffirms Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.

May: Iranian President Rouhani announces that Tehran will stop complying with parts of the JCPOA if its banking sector is not insulated from US sanctions within 60 days. Representatives of the remaining signatories reiterate their support for the agreement and urge Iran to keep complying with the JCPOA “as it has done until now and to refrain from any escalatory steps.” Trump asserts his willingness to negotiate a new deal and that his goal is to remove all nuclear weapons, not regime change.

July: Iran begins to breach the 2015 agreement. The Islamic Republic stores more low-enriched uranium than it is allowed, enriches uranium past the preordained 3.67 percent limit, and begins testing an excessive number of advanced centrifuges. President Hassan Rouhani says that he is willing to return to the negotiating table with Trump if the administration agrees to end sanctions and return to the 2015 agreement.

August: French President Emmanuel Macron says that France is willing to reduce sanctions and develop a compensation mechanism if Iran resumed compliance with the JCPOA.

September: Iran continues to announce breaches of the JCPOA.

November: Iran reportedly briefly holds an IAEA inspector and her travel documents while she is inspecting a nuclear site. The EU and the European signatories express concern at Iran’s moves and its continued breaches of the JCPOA.

December: President Rouhani announces that Iran is testing new advanced centrifuges, further violating the terms of the JCPOA. European countries continue to criticize Iran’s violations, but insist that the JCPOA is still valid. Britain, France, and Germany consider triggering a clause in the 2015 deal to ramp up pressure on Iran but balk at imposing more sanctions for fear that it might nullify the agreement entirely.


January: Qassem Soleimani is assassinated in a US drone strike while leaving Baghdad International Airport following a visit to Syria. As the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, Soleimani was responsible for weapons, intelligence, and providing support for Iranian terror proxies Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Iran responds to the assassination by firing ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases where US forces were present, injuring a number of soldiers.

January: Iran announces that it will no longer abide by the 2015 restrictions on the enrichment of uranium and on the limit to its operational centrifuges. It also stated that its violations were reversible if sanctions were to be lifted and that it would remain open to IAEA inspection. France, Germany, and the UK trigger the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism, threatening to reimpose UN sanctions and to allow an arms embargo to continue if no solution is found. Iran responds by announcing that it is enriching more uranium than the deal.

July: An explosion damages Iran’s primary nuclear site at Natanz and a factory that produced advanced centrifuges.

November: The IAEA announces that Iran had enriched 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted by the 2015 nuclear deal. Experts warn that Iran’s stockpile could produce two nuclear bombs if it were to be enriched to 90 percent. Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is assassinated in what Tehran believes to be a plot by Israel.

December: Iran’s Guardian Council passes legislation mandating that its nuclear development organ enrich the stockpile to 20 percent and abandon further JCPOA restrictions if more sanctions are not lifted.


February: Iran suspends its compliance with the voluntary “Additional Protocol,” which allowed the IAEA snap inspections.

March: The IAEA says that Iran has been unable to justify the presence of uranium particles at an undeclared site that had previously been flagged by Israeli and American officials as a possible secret nuclear warehouse.

April: An explosion at Natanz damages the site’s centrifuges and reportedly causes damage that could take nine months to repair. Iranian officials attribute the explosion to Israeli sabotage and announce that Tehran would be enriching uranium past 60 percent. The US rejoins talks with Iran and the JCPOA’s other signatories in Vienna, where Iran’s president assures the group that the regime was not seeking a nuclear weapon.

July: Iran starts to produce enriched uranium metal that could be used in the core of nuclear weapons. The US and European countries criticize the move as an unfortunate step backward.

August: The IAEA reports that Iran has produced 200 g of uranium metal that is enriched to 20 percent.

September to the Present: Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh announces that talks in Vienna to restore the JCPOA will resume within the “next few weeks,” where they continue to this day.

Charles Bybelezer is the managing director of HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared — and whose staff worked together on this report.

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