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Nuclear Last updated: July, 2014

Iran's interest in nuclear technology dates to the 1950's, when the Shah of Iran began receiving assistance through the U.S. Atoms for Peace program. Although Iran signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1968 and ratified it in 1970, the Shah may have had nuclear weapons ambitions. However, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq war limited the nuclear program's expansion. In the 1990's Iran began pursuing an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capability by developing a uranium mining infrastructure and experimenting with uranium conversion and enrichment.

In 2002 and 2003, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an opposition group based in Paris, revealed the existence of undeclared nuclear facilities at Arak and Natanz. Iran then admitted to small-scale enrichment experiments and plans to construct an enrichment facility, a heavy water production plant, a heavy water-moderated research reactor, and a fuel fabrication facility. Iran suspended its enrichment and conversion activities in 2003, but resumed uranium conversion in 2005, and started enrichment in 2006, increasing the enrichment level to almost 20% in 2010.

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 has passed seven resolutions demanding that Iran halt its enrichment and reprocessing activities. Tehran insists that its nuclear activities are purely peaceful and possession of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities is its inalienable right.

Since 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 (P5+1)―have made numerous attempts to negotiate a settlement to the dispute. The latest round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva in October and November 2013 made the most progress to date, culminating in a 6-month Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and the Framework for Cooperation (FFC) between the IAEA and Iran. Negotiations remain ongoing through the JPOA, which seeks to attain a "mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran's nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful." [1]

History

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: 1950s to 1988
Iran's nuclear program began in the 1950s but was slow to progress. The United States supplied the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) with a small 5MWt research reactor (TRR), fueled by highly enriched uranium (HEU), in 1967. In 1973, the Shah unveiled ambitious plans to install 23,000MWe of nuclear power in Iran by the end of the century, charging the newly founded Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) with oversight of this task. [2]

In the five years that followed, Iran concluded several nuclear technology related contracts with foreign suppliers and invested in education and training for its personnel. In 1976, Iran paid one billion dollars for a ten percent stake in Eurodif's Tricastin uranium enrichment plant in France and a fifteen percent stake in the RTZ uranium mine in Rossing, Namibia. [3] Tehran signed a $700 million contract to purchase uranium yellowcake from South Africa, and sent Iranian technicians abroad for nuclear training. [4] By the time of the 1979 revolution, Iran had developed an impressive baseline capability in nuclear technologies.

Much of Iran's nuclear talent fled the country in the wake of the Revolution. [5] This loss, compounded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's opposition to nuclear technology, resulted in the near disintegration of Iran's nuclear program post-1979. Work on nuclear projects that had been ongoing under the Shah, such as construction of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant was suspended. However, in 1984 Khomeini expressed a renewed Iranian interest in nuclear power, seeking the assistance of international partners to complete construction at Bushehr. [6]

Accelerating Under the Radar of the International Community: 1989 to 2003
Freed from the burden of the costly war with Iraq, Iranian leaders began refocusing on nuclear technology acquisition in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Iran signed long-term nuclear cooperation agreements with Pakistan and China, in 1987 and 1990 respectively. [7] Accords with both countries involved the training of Iranian personnel, and China also agreed to provide Iran with a 27KW miniature neutron source reactor (MNSR) and two 300MW Qinshan power reactors. [8] In January 1995, Russia announced that it would complete Bushehr's construction and agreed to build three additional reactors. [9]

U.S. intelligence agencies have long suspected Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for clandestine weapons development, and the U.S. government has actively pressured potential suppliers to limit nuclear cooperation with Iran. As a result, China did not ultimately supply Iran with the research reactor (which would have been suitable for plutonium production), the two Qinshan power reactors, or the uranium conversion plant it had previously offered Iran. The United States also blocked Iran's agreement with Argentina for uranium enrichment and heavy water production facilities.

Russia and Iran signed a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement in August 1992. [10] In a follow-up agreement in 1995, Russia agreed to complete construction of the Bushehr-1 nuclear power plant and also secretly offered to supply Iran with a large research reactor, a fuel fabrication facility, and a gas centrifuge plant. [11] Hearing of these covert negotiations, U.S. President Bill Clinton expressed concerns about the technology transfers to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who eventually agreed to scale back Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation at least until Bushehr's construction had been completed. [12] Despite this top-level ban on nuclear cooperation with Iran, American officials believe that individual Russian scientists and institutes assisted Iranian engineers in sensitive areas of the nuclear fuel cycle, and with the construction of a 40MW heavy water research reactor at Arak. [13]

On 14 August 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revealed the existence of undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran, including Natanz Enrichment Complex, the address of the Kalaye Electric Company, a heavy water production plant under construction at Arak, and the names of various individuals and front companies involved with the nuclear program. [14] Between September and October 2003, the IAEA carried out a number of facilities inspections and met with Iranian officials to determine the history of Iran's nuclear program. In November, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution welcoming Iran's decision to sign the Additional Protocol and suspend enrichment. However, the Board noted with concern Iran's previous concealment efforts and pointed out that Iran's new declarations contradicted the Agency's previous information about its nuclear program. The Board requested that the Director General take all of the necessary steps to confirm Iran's past and present nuclear activities. [15]

At a Diplomatic Impasse with the International Community: 2003 to 2009
To avoid referral to the UN Security Council, Iran entered into negotiations with the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and agreed in October 2003 to cooperate with the IAEA, sign the Additional Protocol, and temporarily suspend conversion and enrichment activities. [16] However, Iran exploited ambiguities in the definition of "suspension" to continue to produce centrifuge components and carry out small-scale conversion experiments. [17] Faced with renewed sanctions threats, Iran concluded the Paris Agreement with the EU-3 on 15 November 2004. [18] Tehran agreed to continue the temporary suspension of enrichment and conversion activities, including the manufacture, installation, testing, and operation of centrifuges, and committed to working with the EU-3 to find a mutually beneficial long-term diplomatic solution. [19]

In early November 2004, the CIA received thousands of pages of information from a "walk-in" source indicating that Iran was modifying the nose cone of its Shahab-3 missile to carry a nuclear warhead. Iranian officials continue to dismiss these documents as forgeries. [20] Furthermore, in early 2004, the IAEA discovered that Iran had hidden blueprints for a more advanced P-2 centrifuge and a document detailing uranium hemisphere casting from its inspectors. [21] The IAEA called on Iran to be more cooperative and to answer all of the Agency's questions about the origins of its centrifuge technology. [22] Iran amended its previous declaration and admitted that it had clandestinely imported P-1 centrifuges through a foreign intermediary in 1987. Iran also acknowledged for the first time that it had imported P-2 centrifuge drawings in 1994. [23] The Agency determined that the traces of HEU and LEU on Iranian centrifuge equipment most likely originated from the foreign intermediary, as they did not match any samples from Iran's declared inventory. [24]

Diplomatic progress broke down on 1 August 2005, when Iran notified the IAEA that it would resume uranium conversion activities at Esfahan. [25] On 5 August, Iran rejected the EU-3's Long Term Agreement, because Tehran felt that the proposal was heavy on demands, light on incentives, did not incorporate Iran's proposals, and violated the Paris Agreement. [26] The Board of Governors responded by adopting a resolution that found Iran in non-compliance with its Safeguards Agreement.

On 28 June 2005, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13382, blocking the financial assets of individuals and entities supporting WMD proliferation. Four Iranian entities were designated as agents of proliferation concern, including the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and the Aerospace Industries Organization. [27]

Both sides performed a series of diplomatic advance-and-retreat maneuvers in 2006. In February, Tehran ended its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol and resumed enrichment at Natanz. The IAEA Board of Governors subsequently voted to report Iran's case to the UN Security Council (UNSC). On 15 March, the United Nations Security Council released a Presidential Statement, calling on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. [28] Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by delivering a speech in April in which he discussed Iran's possession of a second uranium enrichment facility with P-2 centrifuges. [29] In June, the EU-3 together with the United States, China and Russia (P5+1) offered to provide Tehran with advanced civilian nuclear technology if Iran suspended enrichment activities and resumed implementation of the Additional Protocol. [30] Iran responded to this proposal in a letter addressed to President Bush, which made only brief reference to the nuclear issue and did not address the demands of the international community. [31] In response to Iranian defiance, the UNSC unanimously passed Resolution 1696 in July, which demanded that Iran suspend enrichment activities, banned the international transfer of nuclear and missile technologies to Iran, and froze the foreign assets of twelve individuals and ten organizations involved with the Iranian nuclear program. [32] President Ahmadinejad vowed to ignore the UNSC resolution and continue enrichment. [33] That same month, Iran inaugurated a heavy water production plant at Arak, prompting yet another UNSC resolution. [34] As it had with Resolution 1696, Iran also ignored Resolution 1737 and continued to operate its enrichment facility and to install 18 cascades at the FEP's 3000-machine hall. [35]

In November 2007, Iran admitted that the foreign intermediary from its previous declarations was the A.Q. Khan network. Iran also admitted to purchasing a complete set of P-2 centrifuge blueprints from the Khan network in 1996, which it used when it began constructing and testing P-2 centrifuges in 2002. However, Iran refused to answer the Agency's outstanding questions about its UF4 conversion activities ("The Green Salt Project"), high explosives testing, and re-entry vehicle design. [36]

On 14 June 2008, the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, met in Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to deliver a new P5+1 incentives package. The proposal offered economic incentives, access to LWR technology, and a guaranteed nuclear fuel supply in exchange for the freezing of Iran's enrichment efforts. [37] Speaking just days before the deadline set by world powers for Iran's reply, Ayatollah Khamenei said Iran would "continue with its path" of nuclear development. [38] The UN Security Council responded by adopting Resolution 1835 on 27 September 2008. [39]

On 21 September 2009, ahead of the public revelation by the leaders of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, Iran disclosed to the IAEA that it was building a second pilot enrichment facility. [40] According to IAEA Spokesperson Marc Vidricaire, Iran's letter "stated that the enrichment level would be up to 5%," and the Agency was assured that additional information would be provided in due time. The facility is located in an underground tunnel complex on the grounds of an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) base near the city of Qom. Managed by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, the enrichment facility, known as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), is slated to hold 2,784 centrifuges, and has been operational since early 2012. [41] The plant's size, secrecy, and location on an IRGC military base have led some analysts in the U.S. government to argue that Iran constructed it in order to produce HEU for nuclear weapons. [42]

In fall 2009, Iran and the P5+1 resumed talks-first on October 1 in Geneva, and then on October 19 in Vienna. During the October negotiations with the P5+1, Iran agreed to IAEA inspections at the FFEP and, in principle, to send 1,200kg of LEU to Russia for further enrichment and to France for fuel plate fabrication. [43] The Tehran Research Reactor was expected to run out of 19.7% enriched LEU fuel soon after 2009. This prompted Iran to seek a replacement for the fuel and, reportedly, to signal readiness to ship its domestically produced LEU to a third country for further enrichment. Representatives from the P5+1 and Iran tentatively agreed to this fuel swap arrangement at the meeting in Geneva on 1 October 2009. [44] Iran, however, subsequently rejected the deal and proposed instead to conduct the exchange in phases, with the first phase involving the swap of 400kg of LEU for fuel on the Gulf island of Kish. The proposal, announced by Iran's Foreign Minister Mottaki, was dismissed by the IAEA and the United States as inconsistent with earlier negotiations. [45]

Following the breakdown in negotiations, Iran informed the IAEA that it would begin enriching some of its low enriched uranium to up to 20% U-235. [46] Four days later, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had produced 20% enriched uranium and had the ability to enrich it further if it chose to do so. [47] Following President Ahmadinejad's announcement, France, Russia, and the United States sent a letter to the IAEA expressing their commitment to the fuel swap agreement and their resolve to ensure that the deal would be implemented in full. [48]

Tensions with the international community further increased after President Ahmedinejad announced that Iran intended to construct 10 additional uranium enrichment facilities. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the AEOI, announced that Iran had identified close to twenty sites for these future plants and that construction work on two of the plants would begin "within the year." [49] On 15 December 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill stipulating the imposition of sanctions on "foreign companies that help supply gasoline to Iran." [50]

Agency inspectors visited the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), and carried out the first design information verification inspection from 26 to 27 October 2009. The Agency verified that the facility was being built to house 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges. Iranian officials claim that the Qom facility was allocated to the AEOI in 2007 due to repeated threats to bomb the Natanz facility, and that construction of the FFEP began the same year. IAEA officials informed Iran that the Agency had received commercially available satellite photos indicating that construction of the Qom facility began between 2002 and 2004. [51] In November 2009, the IAEA Board of Governors voted to rebuke Iran for building the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in secret. The resolution urged Iran to clarify the original purpose of the Fordow enrichment site, stop its construction, confirm that there are no more undeclared facilities, and comply with the UN Security Council Resolutions adopted earlier. [52]

Increased Sanctions and Stalled P5+1 Talks: 2010 to early-2013
In June 2010, the UN Security Council approved another set of sanctions under UNSCR 1929, primarily aimed at Iran's nuclear-related investments; three affiliates of the state-owned shipping company the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which had already been targeted by unilateral U.S. and EU sanctions; and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. [53] In 2011, the United States increased pressure on the IRISL, and several companies and individuals were indicted on charges of aiding the IRISL in conducting fraudulent transactions through nine major banks located in New York. [54] In October 2011, the United States sanctioned a ring of six front companies in Panama which allegedly took over control of some IRISL vessels after the June 2011 indictment. [55]

In a letter dated 19 February 2010, Iran informed the IAEA that it was still seeking to purchase the required fuel for the TRR on the international market and would be willing to exchange LEU for fuel assemblies "simultaneously or in one package inside the territory of Iran." Iran requested that the IAEA convey this message to the P5+1 but the sides were not able to restart negotiations. [56] The breakdown of talks was followed by a new nuclear fuel swap proposal brokered by Brazil and Turkey. On 17 May 2010, Brazil, Turkey and Iran issued a joint statement in which Iran agreed to export half of its LEU stock (1,200kg) to Turkey as a confidence-building measure, in return for 120kg of 20% enriched uranium for use in its medical research reactor. [57] The deal, however, was not accepted by Western countries, who saw Iran's agreement to the removal of only 1,200kg of LEU from its territory as too little, too late.

In October 2010, the P5+1 extended another invitation to Iran to discuss its nuclear program, but did not accept Iran's request for Turkey or Brazil to attend. [58] Talks resumed on 6 December 2010 in Geneva, during which the P5+1 requested assurances that the Iranian nuclear program remained peaceful and Iran requested that international sanctions be lifted. [59] Diplomats convened for the next round of talks in Istanbul, Turkey in late January 2011. The talks broke down due to Iran's insistence on the lifting of all economic sanctions as a precondition for substantive discussions on its nuclear program. [60]

On 13 July 2011, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov proposed a phased approach to addressing the nuclear dispute with Iran. Under the Russian proposal, Iran's cooperation with the IAEA would be met with reciprocal steps from the P5+1. [61] According to Iranian former chief nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian, the proposal envisioned five stages, with Iran limiting its enrichment activities to one site; capping enrichment levels at 5% U-235; implementing modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements that provides for early provision of design information; ratifying the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement; and finally, suspending enrichment for three months. In response, at each stage the P5+1 would gradually lift sanctions imposed unilaterally and through the UN Security Council. [62] Iran initially welcomed the Russian plan, but the United States, the United Kingdom and France did not accept the idea of lifting sanctions at an early stage. [63] Formal discussions on the basis of the proposal never took place.

On 8 November 2011, the IAEA released a highly anticipated safeguards report on Iran. [64] In an annex to the report, the Agency presented a lengthy, detailed account of "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear program. Most of the information in the annex had been known previously, but the November 2011 report was the first time that the IAEA assembled available evidence into one overview document. According to the report, Iran has engaged in a range of activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device." [65] These included efforts to "procure nuclear related and dual-use equipment and materials by military-related individuals and entities;" to develop "undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material;" to acquire "nuclear weapons development information and documentation," presumably from the A.Q. Khan network; and to "work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components." The report further stated that prior to the end of 2003 those activities took place under a "structured program," and that there are indications that "some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing." [66] The IAEA report led to the adoption of a new resolution by the Board of Governors that expressed "deep and increasing concern" about the unresolved issues and urged Iran to fully comply with its obligations. [67]

After the November 2011 IAEA report, and given that Russia and China both opposed a new UN Security Council resolution and new sanctions, the United States and the European Union launched a series of unprecedented unilateral measures. For the first time, the United States designated the Government of Iran and all financial institutions in the country as entities of money laundering concern, warning financial institutions around the world that doing business with Iranian banks entailed significant risks. [68] In December 2011, the U.S. Congress enacted the Menendez-Kirk amendment, requiring the President to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, as well as foreign financial institutions, including central banks, for processing transactions related to oil and petroleum products on behalf of Iranian companies and the Iranian government. [69] The measures entered into force in the summer of 2012. The Obama administration has granted waivers to 20 countries, exempting them from financial sanctions because they significantly reduced their purchases of Iranian oil. These countries include China, Turkey, South KoreaJapan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Taiwan, India, and Malaysia. The administration also granted waivers to 10 European Union members after the bloc agreed on 23 January 2012 to freeze all assets of the Central Bank of Iran and phase-out Iranian oil imports by 1 July 2012. [70] On 5 February, the United States ordered the freezing of all property of the Government of Iran, including its Central Bank, and all other Iranian financial institutions. [71]

In late January 2012, an IAEA team headed by the Deputy Director General for Safeguards Herman Nackaerts visited Iran to discuss ways to resolve outstanding issues. A follow-on visit took place in late February 2012, but the two sides were unable to agree on a plan, and the IAEA expressed its disappointment in the meeting due to Iran's refusal to grant access to the Parchin military complex―a site where Iran has allegedly conducted high explosive and hydrodynamic experiments relevant to the development of nuclear weapons. [72] On 6 March 2012, Iran announced that it would allow IAEA inspectors to visit Parchin, but several rounds of subsequent IAEA-Iran talks throughout 2012 did not produce an agreement on a "structured approach" that would include a visit to the site. [73] Furthermore, at a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors in September 2012, the U.S. envoy accused Iran of "systematically demolishing" the very facility IAEA inspectors wanted to visit. [74] The Institute for Science and International Security has published satellite images of the site that show items that "could be associated with the removal of equipment or with cleansing it." [75] A May 2013 report by the IAEA Director General noted that Iran has "[spread, leveled and compacted] material over most of the site, a significant portion of which it has also asphalted." [76]

In March 2012, the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, speaking for the Western powers, announced that she had "offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue." [77] On 14 April, 2012, Iran and the P5+1 countries met in Istanbul to re-open discussions about Iran's nuclear program. The talks lasted two days and were described as constructive, with the two sides reportedly refraining from confrontational rhetoric, and agreeing to hold another round of talks in May 2012 in Baghdad. [78] On 23 May 2012, the second round of new P5+1 talks with Iran was held in the "Green Zone" of Baghdad, Iraq. In an attempt to build on the momentum from the Istanbul talks, both sides went to Baghdad with specific proposals on key issues. The P5+1 requested that Iran stop uranium enrichment up to 20% U-235, ship out all of the 20% enriched uranium already produced, and close the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. [79] In return, the P5+1 were reportedly prepared to discuss the provision of medical isotopes, cooperation in nuclear safety, and the supply of parts for Iran's civil aviation. [80] They also "offered to refrain from imposing further United Nations sanctions against Iran." [81] For its part, Iran signaled a willingness to halt the 20% enrichment if the move were met with lifting of some of the current sanctions, such as those imposed against its oil industry and central bank.. The P5+1 position, however, is that an end to 20% uranium enrichment and greater transparency must precede the lifting of any sanctions currently in place, rather than happening simultaneously. Iran has insisted that its "inalienable right" to enrich uranium be recognized by the P5+1. Media reported that Iran's five-point proposal included non-nuclear issues, such as regional security, but no further details were publicly available. The parties were once again unable to agree on substantive actions. [82]

At a round of negotiations in Moscow, Russia, from 18-19 June 2012, the parties did not change their positions, but more details on Iran's proposal were reported. The five-point proposal included the recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium along with the "'operationalisation' of the Supreme Leader's fatwa against nuclear weapons;" sanctions relief in return for Iran's cooperation with the IAEA; cooperation in nuclear energy and safety; a possible cap on 20% enrichment; and several non-nuclear issues. [83] With no agreement achieved, the high-level talks were suspended. On 3 July 2012, the P5+1 and Iran held a technical meeting in Istanbul among lower-level officials. [84] At the gathering, "the experts explored positions on a number of technical subjects." On 24 July, Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri and EU deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid met in Istanbul to find "common ground and coordination" between the parties. [85] Although the talks were described as constructive, no agreement was achieved and details of the discussions were withheld. [86]

On 10 August 2012, President Obama signed into law the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, expanding sanctions against Iran. [87] The law included a ban on the provision of insurance, reinsurance, and other shipping services to vessels of entities involved in proliferation. [88] The European Union also tightened its restrictions on trade with Iran, prohibiting the import, financing, insurance, and brokering of Iranian natural gas, and banning the supply of vessels to transport or store Iranian oil. The EU banned the provision of ship-building, flagging, and classification services to Iran's ships, as well as the sale of graphite, aluminum, and steel. [89] The shipping sanctions affected not only U.S.- and EU-sanctioned IRISL, but also the vessels of the National Iranian Tanker Company, which transport oil.

In November 2012, the members of the P5+1 agreed to pursue new talks with Iran as soon as possible. [90] Carrying updated proposals, the parties eventually met in late February 2013, in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Initial political consultations were followed by a technical meeting in Istanbul, but the subsequent round in Almaty failed to end the stalemate, and no further talks were scheduled. [91] Media later reported that the P5+1 presented their new proposal in Almaty, which envisioned that Iran would suspend enrichment to 20% U-235; ship its 20%-enriched stockpile out of Iran (except material used for production of medical isotopes); agree to enhanced IAEA verification measures; and "suspend operations at, but not dismantle the cascades," at Fordow for six months, while the parties negotiate a long-term settlement. In return, the P5+1 offered some relief from "sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales," as well as licensing U.S. repairs of Iran's civilian aircraft. Iran's counterproposal, presented at the second Almaty meeting, suggested that Iran suspend 20% enrichment and continue to convert existing stock to oxide in return for recognition of its right to enrichment and "lifting of some banking sanctions." [92]

In May 2013, a U.S. Congressional committee approved legislation to further limit Iran's oil exports and access to foreign currency reserves. [93] On June 3, 2013, President Obama signed an executive order that authorized, effective July 1, 2013, sanctions against "any foreign financial institution that conducts 'significant transactions' in the Iranian rial…or maintains rial accounts outside Iran." [94]

Diplomatic Breakthrough: 2013 and the Joint Plan of Action
Hassan Rouhani's victory in the June 2013 Iranian presidential elections signaled a shift in Iran's position on nuclear negotiations. In his first press-conference, president-elect Rouhani, who served as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, indicated his intent to ease tensions with the international community and increase the transparency of Iran's nuclear program. [95] In his inaugural address, President Rouhani put priority on "elevating Iran's position based on national interest and lifting of the oppressive sanctions," further signaling his intent to resume negotiations with the P5+1. [96] Secret bilateral talks between U.S. and Iranian officials in Oman, which reportedly started in March, received new impetus following Rouhani's election and began to focus on the outline of an eventual deal. [97]

On 27 September 2013, President Obama and President Rouhani spoke by phone in the first direct conversation between U.S. and Iranian leaders since the 1979 revolution. The 15-minute conversation, conducted through interpreters, centered on the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program. Following the phone call, President Obama said the "discussion with [President] Rouhani had shown the basis for resolution of the dispute over the Iran nuclear program," but he was mindful of obstacles ahead. [98] On his return to Tehran, President Rouhani said that both he and President Obama expressed their mutual political will to rapidly solve the nuclear issue. [99] The dialogue followed President Rouhani's statement at the UN General Assembly, during which he said that Iran would be willing to "engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties." [100] "Before the next meeting in Geneva, Iran will prepare its plan for the [P5+1]," President Rouhani said. "More effective steps towards solving the nuclear issue will be made in Geneva." [101]

A first round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 was held in Geneva from 15-16 October, 2013. In a background briefing, the U.S. Department of State described the talks as having encompassed "detailed technical discussions at a level [they had] not had before." [102] After two additional rounds of intensive negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 announced on November 24th that they had reached an agreement on a Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), including interim steps over the next six months and elements of a longer-term, comprehensive solution. In addition, the IAEA and Iran also agreed on a Framework for Cooperation (FFC) binding both parties to cooperate further "with respect to verification activities to be undertaken by the IAEA to resolve all present and past issues." [103]

The Joint Plan of Action and Framework for Cooperation

The four principle objectives of the JPOA are as follows:

  1. Suspend enrichment activities to produce near-20% uranium hexafluoride (UF6), as well as convert and blend down the stockpile of near-20% UF6 Iran has produced into less proliferation sensitive forms. UF6 can be directly used as a feed material into centrifuges, which is why uranium hexafluoride is a prime material of concern.
  2. Resolve outstanding questions about a possible military dimension to Iran's nuclear program.
  3. Resolve concerns about the plutonium production capability of the IR-40 heavy water reactor, as well as devise a Safeguards Approach, which is a set of actions to implement safeguards at the facility. Once operational, the IR-40 could produce as much as 8-10 kg of weapons grade plutonium annually.
  4. Allow the IAEA unprecedented access to Iran's nuclear facilities, such as daily access to uranium enrichment plants, and periodic access to centrifuge construction shops, mines and conversion plants.

In return, the P5+1 will provide limited sanctions relief, including by suspending certain sanctions on goods, industry and resources, and returning confiscated funds totaling as much as $7 billion. [104] The United States and EU will suspend sanctions on Iran's petrochemicals exports and trade in gold and precious metals; suspend sanctions on Iran's auto industry; license the supply of spare parts for Iran's civilian aviation, and "establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade for Iran's domestic needs." [105] The UN Security Council will refrain from imposing any further sanctions for the duration of the interim phase, and the United States and EU will not impose new unilateral nuclear-related sanctions. Finally, the P5+1 and Iran agreed to establish a Joint Commission, which would also work with the IAEA to monitor implementation of the interim steps. [106]

The FFC from November 2013 between Iran and the IAEA initially consisted of six specific measures to be completed within three months, but the two sides agreed two additional sets of measures in February and May 2014, respectively. [107] Under these agreements, Iran has provided information and managed access to nuclear facilities, submitted an updated Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) for the IR-40 reactor, agreed to conclude a Safeguards Approach for the IR-40 by 25 August 2014, and clarified past statements regarding the construction of additional enrichment facilities. In addition, the February agreement required Iran to provide information so that the IAEA could assess the legitimacy of its need to develop Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators, used for nuclear weapons but also for civil applications such as mining. The set of measures agreed to in May and scheduled to be completed by 25 August 2014 focuses on concerns about the possible military dimension of Iran's nuclear program, relating to certain activities that could lead to a deeper understanding of how nuclear weapons function.

In essence, the JPOA halted Iran's nuclear activities and provided previously unavailable detailed information about Iran's nuclear program. Since most of the near-20% UF6 has been converted to less proliferation sensitive forms, the agreement has also delayed Iran's breakout capability. These material forms are considered less proliferation sensitive because multiple steps would be required to convert the material back into near-20% UF6, which can be directly enriched further to weapons grade levels.

Wait and See
The JPOA never explicitly states a capacity for Iran's enrichment plants that both sides could accept. According to a May 2014 IAEA report, Iran has installed nearly 20,000 centrifuges across its three declared enrichment facilities, including 16,428 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant; 702 at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant; and 2,710 at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. [108] The extent of Iran's enrichment program in quantitative terms has become a major source of friction between Iran and the P5+1. Iran has said that it has the right to produce fuel for the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), which has been operating at full capacity since March 2012, while the P5+1 fears this capability could make it easier for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. The challenge is that the fuel required for powering the BNPP will likely far exceed the enrichment quantity to which the P5+1 would agree. The number of centrifuges required would be at least 5 times the current capacity of all Iran's known centrifuge plants combined.

However, the extent of Iran's enrichment program was not the only challenge that emerged from the discussions held in May and June 2014. As mentioned in an article by Reuters: "One diplomat said that Iran had appeared to row back on its previous openness to resolve concerns over the heavy-water Arak reactor that the West fears could provide plutonium for bombs once it is operational." [109] Iran reportedly "publically dismissed" as "ridiculous" one of the solutions that Western officials proposed. [110] This has further exacerbated the situation, making a deal by the 20 July 2014 deadline highly unlikely. [111] However, if a comprehensive agreement cannot be reached by July 20th, the JPOA has a provision for prolonging the agreement. Therefore, an extension to resolve outstanding disagreements, such as dealing with the IR-40, deciding on a mutually acceptable capacity for the enrichment plants, and resolving the issue of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program, now seems a forgone conclusion.

Sources:
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[109] Justyna Pawlak and Fredrik Dahl, "Exclusive: Iran's reactor fuel demand emerges as sticking point in nuclear talks," Reuters, June 3, 2014, www.reuters.com.
[110] Justyna Pawlak and Fredrik Dahl, "Exclusive: Iran's reactor fuel demand emerges as sticking point in nuclear talks," Reuters, June 3, 2014, www.reuters.com.
[111] F. Dalnoki-Veress, "Optimism Ebbs - A 6 Month Extension Likely," IranFactFile.org post, June 5 2014. Accessed at: www.iranfactfile.org.

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

Get the Facts on Iran

  • Nuclear program condemned and sanctioned under multiple UN Security Council Resolutions
  • Possesses ballistic missiles with a range of at least 1,500 km
  • Produced 95.4 kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% as of February 2012