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Last Updated: January, 2019

Iran has been a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1970, and has an advanced nuclear program that was the subject of international negotiations and sanctions from 2002 until implementation of a comprehensive nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) began in 2016. The United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018, leaving its future in doubt.

Iran is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and is actively working to acquire, develop, and deploy a broad range of ballistic missiles and space launch capabilities. The scope and status of Iran's chemical and biological activities are unknown, but the most recent Western intelligence estimates have downgraded the likelihood that Iran maintains significant offensive chemical and biological weapons programs.


Mohamed Reza Shah initiated Iran's nuclear program during the 1950s with assistance from the U.S. Atoms for Peace Program. Establishing the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) in 1974, the Shah had ambitious plans to construct 20 nuclear power reactors, a uranium enrichment facility, and a reprocessing plant for spent fuel. [1] However, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini deemed the nuclear program "un-Islamic" and ordered it terminated. In 1984, Khomeini reversed course on the issue of nuclear power and sought international partners to continue building the Bushehr reactors. [2] Currently, Iran has complete nuclear fuel cycle capabilities including uranium mining, milling, conversion, and enrichment facilities. [3] Iran's extensive enrichment program, which could be used to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, has been particularly controversial. At its 2015 peak, the program comprised nearly 20,000 gas centrifuges at 3 major facilities. [4]

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors found Iran in non-compliance with its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement in 2005, and the UN Security Council passed seven resolutions demanding that Iran halt its enrichment and reprocessing activities. Beginning in 2002, Iran, the IAEA, and various groupings of world powers—first with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the EU-3), and later accompanied by China, Russia, and the United States (the P5+1)—made numerous attempts to negotiate a settlement to the dispute. [5] Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran yielded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, a comprehensive 25-year nuclear agreement limiting Iran's nuclear capacity in exchange for sanctions relief. On 16 January 2016, all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted in response to its progress meeting key metrics of the deal. [6]

U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to "dismantle the … deal with Iran," however, the Administration initially upheld the deal. [7] On 8 May 2018, President Trump officially withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and announced the imminent re-imposition of all nuclear-related sanctions. He alleged that the deal was “defective at its core,” citing Iranian support for terrorism and pursuit of ballistic missiles (despite the fact these are not material to the terms of the  JCPOA), as well as a presentation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleging that Iran had concealed details of its early-2000’s nuclear weapons efforts from the international community. [8] Notably, President Trump did not claim that Iran had violated any specific terms of the agreement. Iran has expressed a willingness to remain in the JCPOA despite the U.S. withdrawal, and all other P5+1 states reiterated their commitment to full implementation of the deal. [9]


There is very little publicly available information to determine whether Iran has bought biological weapons. Iran acceded to the Geneva Protocol in 1929 and ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1973. However, the U.S. government has accused Iran in the past of pursuing a biological weapons program. More recent U.S. intelligence estimates do not suggest that such a program currently exists. In its most recent unclassified report to Congress on the subject the U.S. Director of National Intelligence assessed that Iran "probably has the capability to produce some biological warfare (BW) agents for offensive purposes, if it made the decision to do so. […] Iran continues to expand its biotechnology infrastructure and seek dual-use technologies that could be used for BW." [10] This qualified assessment likely indicates that U.S intelligence does not have conclusive evidence of a current Iranian BW program. Historically, Iran has denied the acquisition or production of biological weapons.


Iran suffered severe losses from Iraq's use of chemical weapons between 1982 and 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War. Consequently, Iran has significant experience with the effects of chemical warfare (CW). Iran ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in November 1997 and has been an active participant in the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Iran has publicly acknowledged the existence of a chemical weapons program developed during the latter stages of the 1980 to 1988 war with Iraq. After ratifying the CWC in 1997, Iran opened its facilities to international inspection and claimed that all its offensive CW activities had been terminated and the facilities destroyed prior to the treaty's entry into force.

Nevertheless, throughout the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the United States claimed that Iran maintained an active program for the development and production of chemical weapons. This program was alleged to include stockpiles of blood, blister, choking, and possibly nerve agents, although U.S. intelligence agencies did not publicly provide evidence for these allegations. [11] Since 2003, the U.S. intelligence community has substantially downgraded its public assessments of Iranian chemical warfare capabilities. In its most recent unclassified report to Congress on the subject, the Director of National Intelligence asserted that Iran "maintains the capability to produce chemical warfare (CW) agents and conducts research that may have offensive applications." [12] Iran denies producing or possessing chemical weapons in violation of its treaty obligations.


Following the Iran-Iraq war, Iran committed itself to the development of one of the most sophisticated ballistic missile programs in the Middle East. Iran has pursued a dual-track strategy, developing both liquid and solid-fueled systems. [13] While Iran's program was initially dependent on foreign technical assistance, particularly from North Korea, Iran now likely has the indigenous capacity to develop, test, and build ballistic missiles. [14]

Iran's first ballistic missiles were Soviet Scud-B and Scud-C models acquired from North Korea (renamed Shahab-1 and Shahab-2). [15] In 2003, Tehran deployed a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), the Shahab-3, which is a derivative of North Korea's Nodong missile. [16] Since 2004, Iran has test-fired numerous variants of the Shahab-3, which were designed to increase its range, payload, and accuracy, including the Ghadr-1 and the Emad. [17] In 2008, Iran successfully tested the Sejjil, a two-stage, solid fueled MRBM. [18]

Visit the CNS Iran Missile and SLV Launch Database for a comprehensive visualization of all known Iranian missile launches since the Iran-Iraq War.

In addition to its missile program, Iran possesses a space launch capability. Iran has successfully launched several satellites aboard its space launch vehicle (SLV) the Safir, with reports of an attempted launch from the new Simorgh SLV. Many have expressed concern over the dual- use capabilities of these systems and their potential application for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). [19]

Iran is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime or the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. In 2015, to support implementation of the JCPOA, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2231, which called on Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons." [20] The U.S., U.K., France, and Germany have claimed that Iran's subsequent ballistic missile tests were "inconsistent with" and "in defiance of" UNSCR 2231, with the U.S. imposing sanctions on Iran in response to its ballistic missile tests, most recently in 2017. [21]

[1] Judith Perera, "Iran's Nuclear Industry," Middle East and North Africa, January 2006.
[2] "Iran's Nuclear Program: 1950s and 60s: Atoms for Peace," Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS),
[3] "Iran's Nuclear Fuel Cycle," Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS),
[4] David Sanger and William Broad, "U.S. and Allies Warn Iran Over Nuclear 'Deception'," The New York Times, 25 September 2009,; "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, the International Atomic Energy Agency, 7 November 2011,
[5] IAEA Press Release, "IAEA, Iran Sign Joint Statement on Framework for Cooperation," 11 November 2013,
[6] "Secretary of State's Confirmation of IAEA Verification," U.S. Department of State, Accessed 1 March 2017,
[7] Gardiner Harris, "Tillerson Toughens Tone on Iran after U.S. Confirms Nuclear Deal Compliance," The New York Times, 19 April 2017,; Baker, Peter, "Trump Recertifies Iran Nuclear Deal, but Only Reluctantly," The New York Times, 17 July 2017,
[8] “Remarks by President Trump on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” The White House, 8 May 2018,
[9] Parisa Hafezi, “Rouhani Says Iran will Remain in Nuclear Deal without U.S.,” Reuters, 8 May 2018,; Jeremy B. White, “UK, France, and Germany Issue Joint Statement Attacking Trump’s Withdrawal from Iran Nuclear Deal,” UK Independent, 8 May 2018,; “Russia says no grounds to scrap Iran nuclear deal,” Xinhua, May 8, 2018, 
[10] Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January - 30 June 2002, Central Intelligence Agency,
[11] Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January - 31 December 2011, Director of National Intelligence,
[12] Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January - 30 June 2002, Central Intelligence Agency,
[13] Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Iran," in Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats (Washington, DC, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 295.
[14] Paul Kerr, Steven Hildreth, Mary Beth Nitikin, “Iran-North Korea-Syria Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Cooperation,” Congressional Research Service, 26 February 2016,
[15] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 14-17, 22.
[16] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 17-22.
[17] CSIS Missile Defense Project, "Shahab-3,"
[18] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 54-63; Ted Postol, "Technical Addendum to the Joint Threat Assessment on Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential – The Sejjil Ballistic Missile," EastWest Institute, 31 May 2009,; "Sejil (Ashoura)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 12 February 2012,
[19] Bill Gertz, "Iran Conducts Space Launch," The Washington Free Beacon, 20 April 2016,
[20] Security Council, Adopting Resolution 2231 (2015), Endorses Joint Comprehensive Agreement on Iran's Nuclear Programme - Meetings Coverage and Press Releases,”
[21] Louis Charbonneau, "Exclusive: Iran missile tests were 'in defiance of' U.N. resolution – U.S., allies," Reuters, 30 March 2016,; Michelle Kelemen, "U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Iran in Response to Missile Test," NPR, 3 February 2017,

Get the Facts on Iran
  • Negotiated a final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for its nuclear program w/ the P5+1 on July 14, 2015
  • Possesses complete uranium fuel cycle capabilities
  • Possesses short- and medium-range ballistic missiles

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2019.