Skip to main content

An agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme (JCPOA) is scheduled to end in October 2025

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 18 June 2024.

  • There appears to be little appetite among JCPOA signatories (Iran, China, Russia, UK, France, Germany and the US) to extend the deal beyond then
  • With diplomatic channels narrowing, a brief armed conflict in which Israel targets Iranian nuclear sites seems a plausible scenario in the coming years

The end of the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme (the JCPOA) is approaching. The current geopolitical environment, specifically renewed Iran-Israel and Iran-US tensions, seems unconducive to the JCPOA signatories establishing a framework that would prolong the deal beyond its end date of October 2025. Russia and China also seem largely uncommitted on the topic. In the absence of a deal, and to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons, Israel would probably resort to military action against Iran’s nuclear sites in the following years. So regional interstate conflict risks are likely to worsen.

JCPOA has been faltering for several years

Iran appears to be still a few years away from developing a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA was signed in 2015 between Iran and UNSC permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK, US), Germany and the EU. It was a key tool for the international community to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme. It allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify the civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear activities. And so gain greater insight into how close it might be to being able to acquire military-grade nuclear capabilities.

The non-renewal of the JCPOA (it expires in October 2025) does not mean that Iran will have a nuclear weapon straight away. That is even though it is close to having nuclear weapon-grade uranium level (90%), as shown on the graphic. Following the withdrawal of the US from the deal in 2018 and based on information provided by the IAEA, Iran has now increased enriched uranium production to 60%. But should the deal end, the IAEA would no longer have up-to-date information about Iran’s enriched uranium.

On current indications, it is unclear whether Iran is capable of making the two further steps that would lead to a nuclear weapon. These are: shaping uranium metal and weaponsing a nuclear warhead. Based on recent statements by US officials, Iran has not resumed its weaponization programme; and there are conflicting media reports on whether Iran is capable of producing uranium metal. Israeli officials said last year that Israel will have no choice but to act if ‘Iran moves to enrich beyond 60%’.

JCPOA unlikely to be renewed

It is unlikely that JCPOA signatories will renew the deal when it expires in 2025. This is for two reasons. First, the parties to the deal as well as the IAEA remain at odds on several issues, including verification mechanisms. The IAEA recently approved a resolution calling on Iran to urgently grant it access to nuclear sites. Other signatories have repeatedly accused Iran of non-compliance with the JCPOA provisions. On 5 June, France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement urging Iran to clarify ‘outstanding issues relating to undeclared nuclear material’ and ensure IAEA inspection.

Second, the current geopolitical context, including the war in Gaza, and heightened US-Iran and Iran-Israel tensions, is not favourable for the JCPOA signatories to reach a new agreement. The deal has been in limbo for several years now, particularly since 2018 when the US pulled out. And there seems to be a lack of political will among major players to renew it. China and Russia have done little to restore the deal. Broader diplomatic tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine have also contributed. Russia in particular no longer seems willing to put pressure on Iran on the nuclear file, especially since it invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Viable alternatives to the JCPOA also do not seem to exist at the moment. A 2022 think tank report noted that in the event of non-renewal of the JCPOA an incremental approach to restore at least some parts of the deal would be possible. This means that each signatory of the agreement – Iran, US, EU, China, Germany, UK, Russia and France – would take individual measures to progressively return to some sort of compliance with the JCPOA. But we have yet to see a major player suggesting this option.

Iran likely to become more belligerent

With the non-renewal of the JCPOA approaching (October 2025), Iran will probably step up its hostile military and rhetorical posture in the region. This would be with the aim of extracting concessions from JCPOA signatories, in particular from the US, such as the lifting of sanctions. Iran would, for example, threaten to take direct military action against Israel or the US. This is a well-established tactic by Iran. During the 2021-2022 talks to negotiate the US return to the JCPOA, Iran seemingly mounted and provided support to armed groups in the region for covert military operations on commercial and military ships in the Gulf.

Hardliners in Iran would probably use the prospect of the JCPOA ending to bolster domestic support for the regime. This would involve them emphasising the unreliability of the West to strengthen their narrative around the Gaza war and perceived Western interference in the region. Since October 2023, the Iranian authorities have criticised the West for its support to Israel and incited pro-Palestine demonstrations across the country. In 2022, the regime accused foreign countries of fomenting widespread anti-hijab protests.

Heightened Israel-Iran conflict risks in a no-deal scenario

In the event of a non-renewal of the JCPOA (beyond October 2025), we assess that interstate conflict risks in the region will probably worsen. This is mainly because there will no longer be an effective and internationally-agreed upon mechanism to monitor the Iranian nuclear programme. This would probably intensify Israel and Saudi Arabia’s perception of the threat posed by Iran. The Israeli authorities have repeatedly said that they want to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons. And the Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, last year said that if ‘Iran gets one [nuclear weapon], we have to get one’.

We have identified below a few indicators – in no particular order – that would suggest that an Israeli direct military action against Iranian nuclear facilities becomes likely in the long term (within five years):

  • Iran or Saudi Arabia cut their diplomatic ties
  • Israel and Saudi Arabia normalise diplomatic relations
  • Iran and Israel mount weekly direct military actions against each other
  • The Israeli government sends an ultimatum to Iran to halt its nuclear programme by threatening military action against it

An open and brief military conflict between Iran and Israel appears to be the most plausible scenario in the event of non-renewal of the JCPOA. But that would carry with it the potential for a wider war. Israel or Iran targeting each others’ nuclear facilities is the specific trigger that we assess would ignite an unplanned escalation in the region. Official rhetoric by both, as well as recent strikes, suggest that those are key targets for both parties.

Image: A picture shows a newspaper stall with a view of Etemad newspaper’s front page bearing a title reading in Farsi “The night of the end of the JCPOA “, and cover photos of Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian his deputy and chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, in the capital Tehran on 16 August 2022. Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images.