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Factbox: The ebb and flow of sanctions on Iranian oil

Feb 7 – In 2015, Iran reached a historic deal with six world powers to trade curbs on its nuclear programme for sanctions relief, including on oil. But in 2018, the United States under Donald Trump’s presidency quit the deal, and sanctions snapped back.

Diplomatic efforts have gained some momentum to revive the deal in some form, raising the prospect of more Iranian barrels entering the market. But this outcome is by no means certain.

Below is a summary of the sequence of events that led to sanctions being lifted on Iranian oil the last time, and the re-imposition of sanctions only a few years later.

APRIL 2015

Tehran and world powers reach a framework agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear programme for at least a decade, a step toward a comprehensive accord that could end 12 years of brinkmanship, threats and confrontation.

Sanctions on Iran remain in place pending agreement on a final and comprehensive deal, which is not a guaranteed outcome.

JULY 2015

The main nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is reached between Iran and the six powers, including technical details on what nuclear activity Tehran will have to stop and which sanctions will be lifted once this is verified.


The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog confirms that Iran has curbed its nuclear programme as agreed with world powers.

The United States and European nations lift oil and financial sanctions on Iran. Tens of billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets, mostly revenues from oil sales, are also unfrozen.


Iranian oil exports rise to 2 million bpd in 2016 and reach a peak of 2.8 million bpd in 2018.

Iran oil exports
Iran oil exports

MAY 2018

The United States under Donald Trump’s presidency unilaterally withdraws from the 2015 deal and re-imposes sanctions, aiming to cut Iran’s oil sales to zero.

The United States provides 90- and 180-day periods for countries and firms to “wind down” operations previously authorised under the JCPOA.


Iran refrains from coming back to the negotiating table to discuss a new nuclear pact as sought by Trump, and vows to sell “as much oil as it can” despite the sanctions.

Iran does not disclose its oil exports data, but assessments based on tanker tracking show exports fall as low as 200,000 bpd.


Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election.

Iran instructs its oil ministry to prepare installations for production and sale of crude oil at full capacity within three months.


China increases its imports of Iranian oil to almost 800,000 bpd in January and almost 1 million bpd in March, although imports drop again in April.

APRIL 2021

Iran and the United States begin indirect talks meant to bring both countries back into full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran wants all U.S. sanctions lifted at once, and has said it will not accept anything less. It has ruled out a gradual, step-by-step easing of the sanctions.

JUNE 2021

Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judge who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses, secures victory in Iran’s presidential election after a contest marked by voter apathy over economic hardships and political restrictions.


Talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resume in Vienna, with the United States and Israel ramping up rhetorical pressure on Tehran about possible economic or military consequences if diplomacy fails.


Indirect talks between Iran and the United States on salvaging the 2015 Iran nuclear deal deemed in ‘final stretch’ by a U.S. State Department official.


Biden’s administration restores sanctions waivers to Iran to allow international nuclear cooperation projects.

The indirect talks are aimed at having the United States return to the agreement and Iran resume compliance. The agreement was reached under former President Barack Obama, and Biden has pledged to try to bring the United States back to it.

Editing by Jan Harvey, Gavin Maguire and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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