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Iran: Nuclear Developments

Author: Lionel Beehner
August 9, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What are the latest developments with Iranís nuclear program?

On August 8, Iran announced it would resume uranium-conversion activities at its Isfahan reactor, which were stopped last year as part of the EU-Iran agreement signed last November. Under the terms of the agreement, Tehran agreed to temporarily suspend all uranium-enrichment activities during negotiations over the long-term fate of its nuclear program in exchange for various technology, trade, and security incentives. The so-called EU3--Britain, France, and Germany--has asked Iran to relinquish its uranium-enrichment program because the technology can easily be adapted for military uses. Iranian diplomats rejected the Europeans' latest offer of incentives and said they will not give up what they see as their sovereign right to enrich uranium as part of a peaceful nuclear program.

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Is conversion the same thing as enrichment?

No. Conversion is an early stage of the uranium-enrichment process in which mined uranium ore concentrate, or yellowcake, is combined with fluoride and turned into uranium tetrafluoride (UF-4), which can then be converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF-6). When placed in centrifuges, however, these substances can be enriched into the uranium isotopes that fuel nuclear-power reactors and weapons. Iran argues that simply converting uranium into UF-4 or UF-6 does not qualify as enrichment and is therefore allowed under the November agreement. The Europeans disagree.

How has Europe reacted to Iranís latest move?

On August 9, European officials held an emergency session of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based organization that monitors proliferation. If the IAEA's board of governors finds substantial evidence that Iran is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)--the 1968 international agreement that regulates the spread of nuclear weapons technology--or other agreements, it may refer Iran's case to the UN Security Council for possible political or economic sanctions.

Is this a departure from Europeís past dealings with Iran?

Yes. In the past, Europe has generally taken a softer stance on Iran, experts say. In June 2004, for example, Iran reneged on an October 2003 agreement to halt enrichment activities. At that time, however, the United States, not the Europeans, threatened UN Security Council action. Europe has preferred to negotiate with Tehran directly, offering generous incentive packages and blocking efforts by the United States and Israel to refer Iran to the Security Council for its nuclear activities. "Traditionally, the United States has always been waving the stick while the Europeans have offered carrots," says Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate and nuclear expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "Now, Europe is beginning to think in terms of some sticks too."

What are the ground rules of the EU-Iran negotiations?

The November agreement called for an immediate freeze of Iran's enrichment activities, increased inspections under an Additional Protocol of the NPT, and the tagging and sealing of Iranian centrifuges and other nuclear components to guarantee they could not be used. The freeze was not intended to be a final arrangement but rather a "confidence-building measure" to be upheld before further negotiations could take place. Some experts argue that the resolution, which called the ban "voluntary" and "non-legally binding," was too vaguely worded and left room for Tehran to assert a different interpretation of the agreement.

What does Iran want out of the negotiations?

Publicly, at least, the Iranians have said they want "their sovereign right to enrich uranium," says Charles D. Ferguson II, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Iranians argue that right includes, among other things, the ability to build multiple commercial-use nuclear reactors, enrich their own nuclear fuel versus having to acquire it from Europe or Russia, and add 3,000 or more centrifuges to their current collection of around 100. Some experts say Iran is practicing brinksmanship in order to bargain for better concessions from Europe. "Iran is saying, 'Where are the sweeteners? We want something to show for our efforts,'" Ferguson says. Iran has called for major investments in its economy from Europe, particularly in its oil industry, specific security guarantees, and support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization.

What is Europeís objective?

"A quasi-permanent halt to enrichment-related activities," Bunn says. "No one is talking about Iran completely abandoning its civilian nuclear program." Rather, the Europeans want Iran to forgo the "sensitive" aspects of its nuclear program. The reason is not because enriching uranium is illegal--it is not, under international treaty rules--but because the technology for making low-enriched uranium for civilian reactors is nearly identical to that for making highly enriched uranium for atomic bombs. "[The Iranians] already have some capacity for enrichment," says Ray Takeyh, senior fellow of Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The question becomes the scope and scale of the program."

What leverage does Europe have over Iranís nuclear objectives?

It has some, experts say. The European Union is Iran's largest supplier of goods, comprising some 37 percent of its total imports. "Together, these states must raise the economic stakes of Iran's nuclear aspirations," wrote Takeyh and Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in a recent Foreign Affairs article. "They must force Tehran to confront a painful choice: either nuclear weapons or economic health."

What is the likelihood negotiations with Iran will succeed?

Not very good, experts say. "The negotiations have not been satisfactory in terms of giving [the Iranians] what they want," says Lawrence Scheinman, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies. "I think we're just treading water." Experts also add that Iran has deceived IAEA inspectors for the past seventeen years about its nuclear activities. If Tehran refuses to negotiate, the Europeans have said they will push the IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

What happens then?

If the Security Council finds "irrefutable evidence" Iran is developing a nuclear-weapons program, it will have to take decisive action, Scheinman says. "It could make life difficult for [the Iranians]," he says, either by lodging economic sanctions or placing other trade restrictions on Iran. Most experts, however, say sanctions are unlikely because several Security Council members--namely China and Russia--have strong interests in Iran's oil industry. If brought before the United Nations, a senior Iranian diplomat told the Financial Times May 10 that Iran would retaliate by withdrawing formally from the NPT or by resuming enrichment activities at its Natanz plant, a nuclear-research facility that suspended its enrichment-related activities in 2003.

What is the U.S. role in negotiations?

Its current role is largely consultative. The United States refuses to deal with the Iranians directly and says it continues to support talks between Europe and Iran. But if Iran violates the November 2004 agreement, said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan August 1, the United States "would have to look to the next step and we would be talking with our European friends about that next step." The United States has repeatedly spoken out in favor of bringing Iran before the UN Security Council for its nuclear violations. More recently, Washington has threatened to deny a visa to Iran's recently sworn-in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, expected to address the UN General Assembly in September.

Is a military strike possible?

Using military force against Tehran is "simply not on the agenda at this point in time," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said February 5. On the other hand, some experts have refused to rule out the option of a U.S. military strike. "It is a grave step to tolerate a world of multiple nuclear weapons centers without restraint," said former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in a July 14 interview with cfr.org. "I'm not recommending military action [against Iran], but I'm recommending not excluding it." In one such scenario, the United States or Israel could carry out a disabling preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. On April 26, the Pentagon announced plans to sell Israel 100 so-called bunker-buster bombs capable of reaching Iran's underground nuclear facilities. However, Iranian officials have issued strongly worded warnings against such an attack, saying they would retaliate. In addition, many experts doubt that U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear facilities is strong enough to guarantee the entire program would be eliminated in such an attack.

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