Last year, Iran came to the table to talk to the U.N. about its contentious nuclear enrichment program and about nuclear weapons. At that meeting, a six month interim agreement was reached, but those six months will end on July 20 and talks are set to resume this week. International nuclear politics can be hard to unravel, but the story began over 60 years ago.
Iran’s nuclear power program has its roots back in the 1950’s, assisted by the U.S., France and other powers. Iran’s nuclear weapons program, however, was ended by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following Iran’s 1979 revolution, as Khomeini felt that nuclear weapons were prescribed by Muslim religious law. In 1990, Iran ramped up its nuclear power program with the assistance of the Russian government and concerns began to mount in the international community that the nuclear fuel being produced could be used to create a nuclear bomb.
Iran has several operating light water nuclear reactors that use uranium to produce power. Uranium usually needs to be enriched before it can be used for either power or weapons, but the degree to which it is enriched is important. Iran operates a number of centrifuges to perform that enrichment. Most light water nuclear reactors are capable of efficiently producing power with uranium enriched to only five percent or less. Most nuclear weapons need uranium enriched to 90 percent or more. The problem arises in that the same centrifuges that can enhance uranium to five percent, can generally be used to enhance it to 90 percent. To make things more complicated, there is one type of reactor that does not need enriched uranium to function, called a “heavy water” reactor, but that type of reactor has the potential to be used to produce plutonium, another possible pathway to nuclear arms. Iran has a “heavy water” reactor as well, near the city of Arak.
Despite claims that their program is focused entirely on power, and a fatwa issued by the current Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Hosseini Khamenei repeating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s prohibition against nuclear weapons on moral and religious grounds, the international community has long feared that Iran may be pursuing a secret a nuclear weapons program. The fear was enhanced when the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report detailing their concerns in 2003. As a part of these fears and other worries, such as the use of Iran as a pathway for conventional arms and materials to reach terrorists, Iran is currently under significant trade sanctions upheld by much of the international community.
In November of last year, Iran came to the table to talk about those trade sanctions and its nuclear program. A six month temporary deal was reached between Iran, the U.S. and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. That deal was large and complex, but in essence the U.S. relaxed the precious metal import and auto industry export restrictions against Iran, some of the restrictions on Iran’s banking institutions and frozen assets were lifted, and the U.N. agreed to levy no new sanctions for six months. In exchange for that relief, Iran agreed to totally halt all Uranium enrichment above five percent, to neutralize or dilute all of its then-current stockpile of Uranium enhanced above five percent, not to expand its stockpile of nearly four percent enhancement Uranium and not to install, expand or update its uranium enhancing centrifuges. Iran agreed to stop the Arak heavy water reactor entirely during the six months and not not to pursue any technology that might have allowed that reactor to produce plutonium. Finally, Iran agreed to a host of invasive inspection requirements so the IAEA can ensure they are meeting the above promises.
Six months have past, and the political landscape has altered considerably. According to Wendy Sherman, the U.S.’s lead negotiator, Iran has kept up its end of the deal as have the U.N. signatories, but Iran’s ballistic missile program has come into the limelight and raised concerns about its ability to strike at targets thousands of miles away. This adds considerable pressure to the world’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The recent troubles in Iraq might impact negotiations either way. Shiite Iran’s fears of a Sunni power at its borders might make Iran defensive and intransigent, or the possibility of U.S.-Iran military cooperation against the ISIS militants might make Iran more cooperative.
The Iran-U.N. nuclear talks are scheduled to resume this week in Vienna. No one involved is speaking with great confidence about specific outcomes, but earnest talk about concrete steps and sober negotiations characterize the interviews.
By Evan Prieskop