(Updated June 2015)
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) traces Iran’s nuclear arms ambitions as far back as 1984, when current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei was president and Iran was in the middle of the War with Iraq. Fearing that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might be developing a nuclear weapon, Iran felt the need to have its own bomb to deter its enemies. At a top-level meeting at that time, Khamenei endorsed a nuclear weapons program, saying "a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God's soldiers" (AP, September 18, 2009). Ideally, Israel would like to see a complete dismantling of any sort of Iranian nuclear capacity. Prime Minister Netanyahu stated on October 20 2014 that a nuclear capable Iran "Is a threat to the entire world, and, first and foremost, this is a threat to us." (The Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2014) At this point, Iran faces “no insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon,” as stated by Marine Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Bloomberg, February 2, 2015)
- Developing a Nuclear Program
- Brains Behind Nuclear Project
- Iran's Secret Nuclear Plants
- Committment to Join "Nuclear Club"
- Iran Admits Deception
- 2003 National Intelligence Estimate
- Stuxnet Slows Uranium Enrichment
- Iran Approaching a "Red Line"
- Defiance & Advances in 2013
- A New Nuclear Facility?
- Plutonium Bomb Threat grows
- Interim Deal Struck
- Renewed Distrust
- A Second Extension
- Framework For a Deal
- Reaching an Agreement
- Is Iran Cheating?
- Skepticism Surrounding a Final Deal
Developing a Nuclear Bomb
In 1990, China signed a 10-year nuclear cooperation agreement that allowed Iranian nuclear engineers to obtain training in China. In addition, China had already built a nuclear research reactor in Iran that became operational in 1994.
Israel first received reports about an Iranian nuclear program in May 1992 and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tried to warn the Clinton Administration. The CIA, however, maintained that the Iranian program was civilian rather than military, an assessment the agency did not abandon until 1998 (New Republic, February 5, 2007).
In 2003, a man went to visit Olli Heinomen at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. Heinomen won't reveal his source, but said that the man told him that Iran was building a replica of its existing uranium-enrichment site near the city of Qom. The informant also said Iran was replicating its heavy-water plant in Arak, which is capable of producing plutonium. The first claim was verified, but the second has not been -- yet. Heinomen also said that as early as 1993-94, the IAEA had learned that China had secretly sent two tons of uranium to Iran and that inspectors found suspicious laboratories, but still said everything was okay. The agency, he said, said nothing for three years (Wall Street Journal, March 2-3, 2013).
By 2003 the CIA had few doubts about Iran’s activities: "The United States remains convinced that Tehran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, in contradiction to its obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). During 2003, Iran continued to pursue an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle ostensibly for civilian purposes but with clear weapons potential."
The reference to Iran having a civilian nuclear program refers to the nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Construction of the plant was started in 1975 by German companies, but abandoned following the Islamic revolution in 1979. Iran subsequently signed a contract in 1995 with Russia to complete the plant. Financial wrangling between the Russians and Iranians delayed completion of the project, which was expected to be finished in 2006. Russia informed Tehran in early 2007 that it would withhold nuclear fuel for Bushehr unless Iran suspended its uranium enrichment (New York Times, March 20, 2007), but reversed its position a few months later and delivered the long-delayed first shipment of nuclear fuel. Still, other delays prevented the plant from coming online until 2011.
The Russian decision came after the release of a U.S. intelligence report that concluded Tehran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in late 2003. President George W. Bush said, "If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there’s no need for them to learn how to enrich." But a senior Iranian official said his country would under no circumstances halt its efforts to enrich uranium (Reuters, December 18, 2007 ).
The CIA saw the Bushehr project differently:
Iran continues to use its civilian nuclear energy program to justify its efforts to establish domestically or otherwise acquire the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Iran claims that this fuel cycle would be used to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors, such as the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor that Russia is continuing to build at the southern port city of Bushehr. However, Iran does not need to produce its own fuel for this reactor because Russia has pledged to provide the fuel throughout the operating lifetime of the reactor and is negotiating with Iran to take back the irradiated spent fuel.
The Bushehr project provided valuable training to Iranian technicians and engineers, and expanded the regime's nuclear infrastructure. To allay U.S. fears that the fuel Russia is providing for the plant could be diverted to a weapons program, the Russians agreed to take back the spent fuel rods from the plant, but Iran would not agree to this.
Brains Behind Nuclear Project
Though China and Russia have provided technology to Iran, the “brain” behind the Iranian nuclear program is believed to be Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, who passed secrets and equipment to Iranian officials.
Khan became involved in helping Iran in the mid-1990s. Pakistani investigators told the IAEA that centrifuges built by Iran closely resemble the design of Pakistani centrifuges. Khan also helped the Iranians to set up a secret procurement network involving companies and middlemen around the world. In March 2005, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani admitted Iran developed its nuclear program in secret, going to the black market for material.
Iran's Secret Plants
In 2002, two previously unknown nuclear facilities were discovered in Iran by a delegation of the IAEA lead by Mohamed El-Baradei. One in Arak produces heavy water, which could be used to produce weapons. The other plant is in Natanz.
Also in 2002, Iran revealed that it had purchased special gas from China that could be used to enrich uranium for the production of nuclear weapons. The gas purchase was supposed to be reported to the IAEA, but it was concealed instead. Chinese experts have also been involved in the supervision of the installation of centrifuge equipment that can be used to enrich uranium.
In February 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced the discovery of uranium reserves near the central city of Yazd and said Iran was setting up production facilities “to make use of advanced nuclear technology for peaceful purposes” (AP, February 11, 2003). This was an alarming development because it suggested Iran was attempting to obtain the means to produce and process fuel itself, despite the Russia’s offer to provide all the uranium Iran required for civilian purposes.
The Iranian government, confronted in February 2004 with new evidence obtained from the secret network of nuclear suppliers surrounding Khan, acknowledged it had a design for a far more advanced high-speed centrifuge to enrich uranium than it previously revealed to the IAEA. This type of centrifuge would allow Iran to produce nuclear fuel far more quickly than the equipment that it reluctantly revealed to the agency in 2003. This revelation proved that Iran lied when it claimed to have turned over all the documents relating to their enrichment program.
A Commitment to Join the Nuclear Club
After pledging to suspend its nuclear program, the IAEA reported in June 2004 that Iran was continuing to make parts and materials that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear arms. The report also cited continuing evidence that Iran misled inspectors with many of its early claims, especially on questions about where it obtained critical components. For example, Iranian officials admitted that some of those parts were purchased abroad, after initially insisting that Iran had made them itself (New York Times, June 3, 2004).
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi rejected further outside influence on Tehran's nuclear ambitions. “We won't accept any new obligations," Kharrazi said. “Iran has a high technical capability and has to be recognized by the international community as a member of the nuclear club. This is an irreversible path” (AP, June 12, 2004).
On July 27, 2004, The Telegraph reported Iran had broken the seals on nuclear equipment monitored by UN inspectors and was again building and testing machines that could make fissile material for nuclear weapons. Teheran's move violated an agreement with European countries under which Iran suspended “all uranium enrichment activity.” Defying a key demand set by 35 nations, Iran announced on September 21, 2004, that it had started converting raw uranium into the gas needed for enrichment, a process that can be used to make nuclear weapons. A couple of weeks later, Iran announced it had processed several tons of raw ''yellowcake'' uranium to prepare it for enrichment - a key step in developing atomic weapons - in defiance of the IAEA (AP, October 6, 2004).
South African Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota and his Iranian counterpart Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani signed a memorandum of understanding August 17, 2004, on bilateral cooperation. The agreement included an arrangement for South Africa to sell uranium to Iran, according to Israel's Channel 1 TV. Lekota reportedly said that making peaceful use of nuclear energy is the legitimate right of the Islamic Republic. The South African Ministry of Defense subsequently denied the report.
In another sign of Iran's determination to move forward with a nuclear weapons program, the government approved the establishment of a secret nuclear research center to train its scientists in all aspects of atomic technology (Telegraph, March 20, 2005). Then, in contradiction to earlier claims, Iran admitted in June 2005 that it conducted experiments to create plutonium, which is used only in weapons and not for energy production, for five years beyond the date when it previously insisted it had ended all such work.
According to an intelligence assessment from July 2005, Iran was aggressively trying to obtain the expertise, training, and equipment for developing nuclear weapons, a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe, and biological and chemical weapons arsenals. The leak of the report came shortly after Iran notified the IAEA that it intended to resume nuclear fuel research (Guardian, January 4, 2006).
On September 2, 2005, the IAEA reported that Iran had produced about seven tons of the gas it needs for uranium enrichment since it restarted the process the previous month. A former UN nuclear inspector said that would be enough for an atomic weapon. In unusually strong language, an IAEA report also said questions remained about key aspects of Iran's 18 years of clandestine nuclear activity and that it still was unable “to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran” (Chicago Tribune, September 3, 2005).
On September 20, 2005, Iran threatened to resume uranium enrichment and bar open inspections of its nuclear facilities if the IAEA referred it to the Security Council for sanctions. Newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended his country's right to produce nuclear fuel in a fiery speech to the UN General Assembly and later raised worldwide concern about nuclear proliferation when he said, “Iran is ready to transfer nuclear know-how to the Islamic countries due to their need” (AP, September 15, 2005). Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, repeated the proliferation threat the following April, telling the president of Sudan, "Iran's nuclear capability is one example of various scientific capabilities in the country ... The Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to transfer the experience, knowledge and technology of its scientists" (New York Times, April 26, 2006).
Meanwhile, the head of IAEA disclosed that in 1987 Iran obtained through the Khan network the blueprint for casting uranium required in making the core of a nuclear warhead, but this alone was not enough for the manufacture of a weapon (The Guardian, November 19, 2005). A few days later, a former spokesman for the National Council of the Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, said that, beginning in 1989, North Korea helped Iran build dozens of underground tunnels and facilities for the construction of nuclear-capable missiles (ABC News, November 21, 2005).
Iran Admits Deception
Negotiations with Iran aimed at convincing the Iranians to halt their nuclear program began in 2003. Hassan Rouhani, the man who headed talks with Britain, France and Germany until 2005, told a meeting of Islamic clerics and academics that Iran played for time and tried to dupe the West after its secret nuclear program was uncovered by the Iranian opposition in 2002. He revealed that while talks were taking place in Teheran, Iran completed the installation of equipment for conversion of yellowcake at its Isfahan plant. Rouhani also said that on at least two occasions the IAEA obtained information on secret nuclear-related experiments from academic papers published by scientists involved in the work (Telegraph, March 5, 2006).
At this time, Iran also stepped up the pace of its weapons program by secretly enlarging the uranium enrichment plant at the Natanz site. A U.S. intelligence report also indicated that Iran’s facilities appeared to replicate those used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons in Pakistan (Telegraph, January 22, 2006). Furthermore, Iran reportedly reached an agreement with North Korea to share with Teheran's nuclear scientists all the data the Koreans received from their nuclear test in October 2006.
The Security Council urged Iran on March 29, 2006, to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and asked the director of the IAEA to report back on Iran's compliance within 30 days. The Council took its action in a presidential statement, a nonbinding declaration that needs unanimous support, which was possible only after the European authors of the final draft eliminated language suggesting that any Iranian drive to produce nuclear weapons would be a “threat to international peace and security” (New York Times, March 30, 2006).
In February 2007, an internal European Union document said there was no way to prevent Iran from enriching enough weapons-grade uranium to produce a bomb and that the Iranian program had been slowed by technical limitations rather than diplomatic pressure. The Financial Times quoted the document as saying: “At some stage we must expect that Iran will acquire the capacity to enrich uranium on the scale required for a weapons program” and that “the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone” (Jerusalem Post, February 13, 2007).
In April 2007, Iranian President Ahmadinejad announced the Natanz facility had begun “industrial-scale” production of nuclear fuel using a new array of 3,000 centrifuges (AP, April 12, 2007). A week later, however, the head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, admitted that some of the centrifuges blew up during the enrichment process. Without giving a precise number, he said that the damages ranged from ten to twenty per cent. Aghazadeh said Iran ultimately hoped to install 50,000 uranium enriching centrifuges at the plant in Natanz. Aghazadeh added it would take four years for Iran to complete its own nuclear fuel cycle (Agence France-Presse, Haaretz, April 17, 2007). A month later, however, IAEA inspectors concluded that Iran appeared to have solved most of its technological problems and was starting to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before (New York Times, May 15, 2007).
In June 2007, Iran’s interior minister said Iran had produced 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of enriched uranium. Experts say that about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of enriched uranium would be needed for one bomb (AP, June 22, 2007). Iran’s spiritual leader’s representative to the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, said Tehran was committed to uranium enrichment and termed “nuclear fuel a strategic product for Iran.” He stated his country’s next strategic plan was to produce nuclear fuel locally (Reuters, December 20, 2007).
The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate
The highly publicized release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the United States on November 2007 was portrayed in the media as an indication that the Bush Administration was falsely and hysterically whipping up opposition against a non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons program to impose draconian sanctions on Iran and possibly justify military intervention. The finding that received the most publicity was that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and America’s spy agencies believed the program was frozen. The report also said Iran was not expected to have the capability to build a weapon until the middle of the next decade.
Other nations immediately expressed skepticism of the NIE. The leaders of Great Britain, France and Germany, as well as the Gulf Arab States, have continued to voice their concerns based on their own independent evaluations of Iranian capabilities and intentions. French Foreign Minister Herve Morin, for example, stated on January 31, 2008, “Coordinated information from a number of intelligence services leads us to believe that Iran has not given up its wish to pursue its (nuclear) program,” and is “continuing to develop [it]” (Agence France-Presse, February 1, 2008). Israel also remained convinced Iran was still developing a weapon.
On April 8, 2008, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has started to install 6,000 new centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility at the underground Natanz facility (Reuters, April 8, 2008). Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, added that Iran would not retreat in the face of demands by world powers for Tehran to halt sensitive nuclear work (Agence France-Presse, July 31, 2008).
On September 25, 2009, it was disclosed that Iran had a second fuel enrichment plant. The United States was apparently aware of the facility, but it was hidden from weapons inspectors (Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2009).
By January 2010, President Obama’s top advisers concluded that the 2007 NIE's conclusion that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003 was inaccurate (New York Times, January 2, 2010). CIA director Leo Panetta said the United States suspected Iran had enough low-enriched uranium for two weapons (Washington Times, June 27, 2010). The CIA subsequently issued a public report indicating that Iran had installed centrifuges at the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near Qom and initiated production of near 20-percent enriched uranium there.
The Iranian’s continued defiance of the international community prompted the Obama Administration to announce new sanctions against Iran. The following day Tehran announced it had begun enriching uranium to a higher level of purity, 20 percent, one step closer to producing weapons-grade uranium (Washington Post, February 11, 2010).
Stuxnet Slows Iranian Enrichment
In 2010, Iran announced that uranium enrichment at Natanz had stopped several times because of a series of technical problems. News reports suggested that as many as 1,000 centrifuges used to enrich uranium were damaged. It was subsequently reported that the destruction was likely caused by sabotage. In June, anti-virus experts discovered a sophisticated computer worm dubbed “Stuxnet,” which spreads via Microsoft Windows and targets Siemens industrial software and equipment used by Iran to control centrifuges used to enrich uranium at its Natanz plant. The New York Times subsequently reported that Stuxnet is part of a U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation called "Operation Olympic Games," initiated by President George W. Bush and expanded under President Barack Obama (New York Times, June 1, 2012).
At the time the worm was reportedly infecting the Iranian machines, IAEA cameras installed in Natanz recorded the sudden dismantling and removal of approximately 900–1000 centrifuges. These were quickly replaced, however, and Iran resumed uranium enrichment (Washington Post, February 16, 2011).
Although Stuxnet was discovered, it is believed that the United States, Israel and others continue to use cyberwarfare in an effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran Approaches a "Red Line"
In March 2011, Robert Eihorn, the U.S. State Department's senior adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, said that Iran was moving closer to the threshold of being able to build a nuclear weapon but that it was not close to a “breakout” of being able to construct one quickly. While Israeli officials were mostly convinced Iran was committed to building a bomb, Eihorn expressed the view still held by American intelligence that Tehran's leaders had not yet decided whether to build nuclear weapons (AP, March 9, 2011).
Iran’s stockpile of higher-grade uranium rose nearly 50% between August and November 2012 levels, according to an IAEA assessment, and was approaching the 250 kg needed to make one atomic bomb (Reuters, November 27, 2012). By combining its stockpiles of low-enriched and higher-enriched uranium, Iran could make weapons-grade fuel of around 90% purity (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2012). According to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), Iran could make enough highly enriched uranium for one atomic bomb in as little as two to four months at its largest uranium-enrichment facility near Natanz (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2012).
New concerns about Iran’s progress toward developing a weapon emerged in 2012 when satellite imagery detected evidence the Iranians were trying to clean up the area around Parchin, a military complex roughly 20 miles outside of Tehran. IAEA inspectors were given "partial access" to the base as a confidence-building measure in 2005, but have been denied permission since then to conduct further inspections. Analysts suspect Iran may be trying to erase radioactive traces that may have been associated with testing of a nuclear trigger (AP, March, 7, 2012). Following the report of the clean-up efforts, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China called on Iran to allow UN inspectors to visit the Parchin military site. Iran denied the request and the accusations.
A second revelation providing new evidence of Iran’s intent to build a bomb was a diagram obtained by the IAEA and leaked to the press that indicated Iranian scientists had run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon. The IAEA reportedly has additional secret documents that also support the conclusion that Iran is working on a weapon (AP, December 1, 2012).
Another serious concern is that of Iran may be pursuing multiple routes (enriched uranium and plutonium) to build weapons. Iran has already been developing a plutonium-breeding heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak. Once again, the Iranians insist this reactor is for peaceful research purposes, but they have denied inspectors access to the plant since August 2011. In addition, U.S. intelligence is increasingly worried that the “peaceful” nuclear power plant at Bushehr could be used to reprocess the plant’s fuel rods, which contain enough weapons-grade plutonium to build a number of Nagasaki-type bombs. The plant has received heightened scrutiny since the discovery that Iran removed fuel rods that were supposed to be returned to Russia for storage. Iran says it returned the rods to the reactor’s core, but this claim hasn’t been verified (Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2012).
Israel has said that Iran could reach the point where it has enough fissile material to build a bomb as early as spring 2013. Prime Minister Netanyahu told the UN in September 2012 this would cross a “red line” for Israel. Many people believe that if no other nation acts, Israel will then feel compelled to use force to eliminate the Iranian threat (Reuters, November 27, 2012).
Interestingly, in December 2012, intelligence reports suggested Syria might be preparing to use chemical weapons against its people. President Obama announced that this would cross a red line and result in severe consequences for the Syrian regime. Imagine if Syria had nuclear weapons? If Syrian preparation of chemical weapons is serious enough to provoke a warning of U.S. action, shouldn’t Iranian construction of a nuclear weapon warrant similar concern?
The Obama Administration has insisted that the United States will know well in advance if Iran is preparing to build a bomb and can take appropriate action at that time. Israel and others have raised doubts about this and suggested at that point it may already be too late.
Iranian Defiance & Nuclear Advances in 2013
Once again defying the international community, Iran announced plans to use more sophisticated centrifuges that will allow it to enrich more uranium. The declaration came just before negotiations were to restart. Iran is now capable of quadrupling the enrichment of 20 percent uranium at its Fordo facility (Bloomberg, January 25, 2013). One analyst called the Iranian advancemnt a "game-changer." Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert and former senior official at the U.S. State Department, said "If thousands of the more efficient machines are introduced, the timeline for being able to produce a weapon’s worth of fissile material will significantly shorten ... This won’t change the several months it would take to make actual weapons out of the fissile material or the two years or more that it would take to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, so there is no need to start beating the war drums." "But," he added, "it will certainly escalate concerns." (AP, January 31, 2013).
Israel's Institute for National Security Studies released a study that suggested that Iran is trying to go to the edge, but not beyond Israel's "red line," whch would trigger a military strike. "They have all the ingredients necessary to make a nuclear bomb," said Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, the Institute's director, but he added, "It would take four or six months for Iran to enrich enough military-grade uranium" to build a weapon (The Telegraph, February 4, 2013).
John Kerry, America's new Secretary of State, restated U.S. policy during his confirmation hearing on Janurary 24, 2013, "Our policy is not containment," Kerry said. "It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance." (Bloomberg, January 25, 2013).
Iran has more than 12,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at its main Natanz facility. Iran's nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, said that 3,000 new centrifuges have been built to replace older versions at Natanz. The newer centrifuges can produce more enriched uranium in a shorter period of time (AP, March 3, 2013).
In March, Obama Administration officials expressed concern about a scientific-cooperation pact between North Korea and Iran that officials said could advance the nuclear and missile programs of both countries. The agreement, reached in September 2012, is similar to one North Korea signed with Syria in 2002, just as Pyongyang began secretly constructing a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in Syria. The U.S. became more concerned with the agreement after North Korean nuclear and missile tests. According to the Wall Street Journal, "North Korea could provide Iran with a range of supplies for its nuclear program, including uranium ore, centrifuge machines and enriched uranium, according to these officials. Pyongyang also is seen as being ahead of Iran in developing the technologies needed to place an atomic warhead on a missile" (Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2013).
The United States is becoming increasingly concerned about the plutonium reactor in Arak. Tehran hopes to have a plutonium-producing reactor up and running in 2014. Both plutonium and enriched uranium can be used to produce a nuclear weapon. International concern has focused primarily on Iran’s uranium enrichment path because it is now only a step away from reaching weapons-grade. The plutonium reactor, however, is “of increasing concern,” U.S. envoy Joseph Macmanus told a recent meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (AP, March 2013).
Following the latest failed negotiations to halt Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon, Tehran announced an expansion of its nuclear program. On April 8, 2013, Iran opened the Saghand 1 and 2 uranium mines in the central city of Yazd, and the Shahid Rezaeinejad yellow cake plant at Ardakan. The Iranian News Agency claimed the Ardakan plant is capable of producing 60 tons of raw uranium annually. "They (world powers) tried their utmost to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but Iran has gone nuclear," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. "This nuclear technology and power and science has been institutionalized ... All the stages are in our control and every day that we go forward a new horizon opens up before the Iranian nation" (Reuters, April 9, 2013).
Iran shows no signs of being prepared to make concessions following the latest round of talks in April. In fact, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, reiterated that Iran was determined to pursue “all legal areas of nuclear technology, including full (nuclear) fuel cycle and enrichment technology, for peaceful purposes” under IAEA supervision (Jamejamoline, April 23, 2013).
In May 2013, the IAEA released its quarterly report on the Iranian nuclear program which showed the Islamic Republic accelerating the installment of advanced uranium enrichment equipment at Natanz. Iran has installed almost 700 advanced IR2m centrifuges at the plant, compared with 180 in February, prompting the agency to restate its ongoing concern about the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear project. The report also says the heavy water reactor in Arak will be completed and online by the end of 2014. One positive finding was that Iran has not started to operate new equipment at the Fordo facility, which, unlike Natanz, can enrich uranium to the sensitive 20% level. The report said Iran did not produce a significant amount of of ths enriched uranium so as, to approach but not cross the red line that might trigger a military response. A more disturbing development, however, it the revelation that Tehran has started to produce plutonium. Iran is also continuingt to conceal the military base at Parchin, covering it with asphalt and restricting the work of nuclear inspectors who believe it was used to test nuclear triggers. In the last three months, the IAEA disclosed that Iran increased its total stock of low-enriched uranium by almost 8 percent, to nearly 10 tons (BBC, AFP, Haaretz, New York Times, May 22, 2013).
Analysts had suggested that Iran was temporarily slowing its nuclear program in advance of Iranian elections. Meanwhile, several candidates for the presidency who were seen as possible reformers or moderates that might be willing to curb the nuclear program and work to end Iran's isolation were disqualified from running. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hand-picked successor was one of those also disqualified. The June 2013 election was won by Hassan Rouhani who was depicted in the media as a “moderate,” but is a strong supporter of the Islamic Revolution and a close political ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In his first press conference as president, Rouhani said there would be no further suspensions of the nuclear program and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization reiterated that the “enrichment linked to fuel production will also not change” (Rouhani.Ir, June 18, 2013; Haaretz, July 3, 2013).
One group of experts predicts that if Iran continues on its current course, it will have the ability by mid-2014 “to dash to fissile material in one ore two weeks unless its production of 20 percent-enriched uranium is curtailed.” Iran could reach “breakout capacity” if “the number or efficiency of Iran's centrifuges unexpectedly increases, or if Tehran has a secret operational enrichment site” (Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2013).
A New Nuclear Facility?
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a group that opposes the Iranian theocracy, has frequently been the source of information on previously unknown Iranian nuclear sites. On July 11, 2013, the group disclosed the discovery of a new site located in tunnels under mountains approximately six miles east of the town of Damavand and roughly 30 miles northeast of Tehran.
According to NCRI, the site has been under construction since 2006, and was completed recently. It consists of four tunnels constructed by companies with ties to the Ministry of Defense and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Reuters reported that satellite images released by the NCRI did not prove this was a nuclear facility (Times of Israel, July 11, 2013).
Plutonium Bomb Threat Grows
Most of the attention of negotiators and the press has focused on Iran's enrichment activities and the progress toward building a bomb with enriched uranium; however, analysts believe a more imminent threat may come from a bomb made using plutonium. The Iranians have been building a heavy water reactor in Arak that can be used to produce 40 megawatts of power, but the spent fuel from the nuclear reactor contains plutonium, which can be used to produce a bomb. India, Pakistan and North Korea have all built plutonium-based bombs and U.S. and UN officials now believe that the Arak facility will be able to produce two plutonium bombs a year beginning as early as 2014. After learning of the construction of the facility in Arak, the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2006 calling for Iran to cease construction. That demand was ignored (Washington Post, August 5, 2013).
Despite hopes that the new Iranian regime would change its policy, the IAEA found in its August 2013 report that the nuclear program continues to accelerate. According to the report, Iran's stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has reached 185.8 kilogram, an increase of only about 4 kilograms since May 2013, because Iran is continuing to convert 20% material into powder. This continues a pattern where Iran increases its enriched uranium supply, but keeps the total below the estimated 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade, would be enough for one nuclear weapon. This is Israel's stated “red line.” The IAEA also found that Iran has now installed 1,008 advanced (IR-2M) centrifuges at Natanz but these centrifuges are not yet producing enriched uranium. Iran continues to make progress on the Arak (heavy water) reactor (IR-40), but its anticipated start-up date (early 2014) is no longer achievable due to construction delays.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to stonewall the IAEA and prevent a complete inspection of its nuclear facilities.
In September 2013, President Obama asked Congress to approve military action against Syria following revelations about the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces. Obama's hesitancy to act quickly after his own red line was crossed raised questions in Israel about his commitment to take action to stop Iran's nuclear program. The president, however, assured Prime Minister Netanyahu in a telephone conversation on August 31 that he remains determined to keep Iran from going nuclear (Jerusalem Post, September 2, 2013).
On June 11 2014, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced that the Arak heavy water reactor was going to be redesigned to decrease plutonium production. Ali Akbar Salehi stated that the reactor was going to be downsizing, and going from producing 9-10 kilograms of plutonuim per year to 1 kilogram or less.
Interim Deal Struck
On November 23, 2013, the P5+1 and Iran reached a set of initial understandings that if followed, halts the progress of Iran's nuclear program and rolls it back in key respects. The agreement was hailed as only an interim deal, set for six months, that will give world powers extended time to work with the Islamic Republic on a permanent solution to the nuclear crisis.
The details of the deal stipulate that Iran committs to halt enrichment above 5%, neutralize its stockpile of near-20% uranium, halt progress on its enrichment capacity, halt progress on activities at the Arak reactor and provide daily access by IAEA inspectors at the Natanz and Fordow sites. In return for these steps, the international community will not impose new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran for at least six months and will suspend certain sanctions on gold and precious metals, Iran's auto sector, and Iran's petrochemical exports. (White House, November 23, 2013)
U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration led the international effort for a deal with Iran, called the agreement "an important first step toward a comprehensive solution" of the Iranian nuclear dilemma and credited his administration's push for diplomacy and its adoption of stern economic sanctions for "a new path toward a world that is more secure."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pitched the deal to Congress saying: "We make sure that these sanctions don't get lifted in a way that reduces the pressure on Iran. The Iranian nuclear program is actually set backward and is actually locked into place in critical places." (Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2013)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, criticized the overtures to Iran and warned of crisis ahead for dealing with the mullahs. "What was achieved in Geneva is not an historic agreement; it is an historic mistake," said a statement released by Netanyahu. "This is a bad agreement. It gives Iran exactly what it wants: both substantial easing of sanctions and preservation of the most substantial parts of its nuclear program." (Prime Minister's Office, November 23, 2013)
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird noted he was "deeply skeptical" of the interim deal and said that "Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt." (Globe & Mail, November 24, 2013)
Conversely, Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah hailed the deal as a "major victory" for Iran and a "defeat for the enemies" of the Islamic Republic. (Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2013)
The last details of this temporary agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action (or JPOA) were finalized by the P5+1 on January 12, 2014, and pursuant to the agreement much of Iran's nuclear capabilities were supposed to be temporarily frozen after January 20. Although this plan was originally rolled out in November of 2013, it was not ready to take effect or finalized until January 2014. Iran agreed to this temporary halt in uranium production in exchange for foreign aid from the West in the form of sanctions relief totalling $6-$7 billion. (New York Times, January 12, 2014)
On July 2 after this temporary agreement was reached, a new round of negotiations took place and a date of July 20 was set for a possible permanent solution to be reached with all parties involved. However, on July 18 the P5+1 and Iran agreed to a four month extension of the talks as they did not believe that an agreement could be met. The talks were extended until November 24 and this extension was been met with much criticism, but the White House released a statement that after the extension there is a "credible prospect for a comprehensive deal". Although there is hope in this extension, officials doubt whether coming to an agreement is at all feasable. (The Jerusalem Post, July 19, 2014)
The IAEA's monthly report for July indicated that Iran had in fact cooperated with all aspects of scaling down it's nuclear capabilities agreed to in the Joint Plan of Action. To read the full monthly report click here.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran rose on July 22 when Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and his wife Yegani Salehi were detained in Iran by security officers dressed in plain clothes. The two were taken to an undisclosed location and were not yet formally charged with any crimes. Iranian media reported that they are spies relaying sensitive information to Washington DC. The Iranian government announced that Rezaian and his wife were being charged with espionage and acting against Iranian national security in April 2015.
In attempts to bridge the gaps between the wants of the Iranians and the security needs of the other players involved, negotiations again resumed on Thursday August 7. U.S. diplomats met Iranian leaders in Geneva in the first meeting since July 18 when it was decided that the current negotiations were fruitless and the agreement date was extended until November 24. The first days of the talks were "constructive" according to White House officials, and after the weekend Iranian President Hassan Rouhani referred to Iranians who are opposed to striking a nuclear deal with the West as "political cowards". Rouhani is in favor of an agreement because he sees the benefit that the lifting of heavy sanctions imposed on Iran would have. At the same time however Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei downplayed and dismissed the value of direct negotiations with the P5+1 (specifically the United States). In a conference with Foreign Ministry officials on August 13 Khamenei stated "Some pretend that if we sit down with Americans at the negotiating table, many of the problems will be resolved. We knew that won't be the case but developments in the past year proved this reality once again".
In light of these statements the director of the IAEA Yukiya Amano arrived in Tehran on August 17 for meetings with Iranian leaders and senior officials. The IAEA had recently been given increased access to Iran's nuclear facilities pursuant to the interim agreement struck in November, and they are trying to determine the past, present, or future military capacity of the Iranian nuclear program. During these meetings, Hassan Rouhani repeatedly emphasized that missiles were not on Iran's nuclear agenda and that Iran was willing to cooperate with the IAEA. The meetings saw the two go over the previously agreed to joint cooperation plan, along with IAEA regulations. After returning, Mr Amano said that the meeting with Rouhani was "useful" and he recieved a firm commitment from the Iranian officials that they will cooperate with the IAEA's inquiry. This meeting came before the August 25 deadline for Iran to implement transparency measures and provide relevant information to the IAEA on the military dimensions of it's nuclear program, and these meetings are seperate and unrelated to Iran's relations and meetings with the P5+1. (Bloomberg, August 17 2014)
On August 16 Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that the chances that an agreement will be met by November 24 "are low", adding that even if they came close to an agreement there would definitely be more time needed to get the fine details together. The Iranians were not willing to comply with the extremely limited uranium enrichment capabilities or the reduction in centrifuges that the P5+1 were trying to impose on them during the July negotiations, and there has been minimal progress made since then. (Tehran Times, August 16 2014)
Iran's parliament ousted their Science, Research and Technology Minister on August 20 for being too moderate and supporting pro-Western voices and ideas at Universities. Reza Faraji Dana was elected just last year and this marks the first time that a Minister from Rouhani's cabinet has been impeached. Dana was accused of supporting teachers who participate in pro-Western rallies and supporting student publications that question Muslim teachings and values. After his impeachment, President Rouhani immediately appointed Reza Faraji Dana as Advisor on Science and Education. (US News, August 20 2014)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated on August 21 that Iran would be willing to help the U.S. and other nations fight and defeat ISIS in Iraq, but in return for their help they are asking that all sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program be completely lifted. This offer is a response for the French Minister's call for all countries in the region, including Iran, to help stop the brutal ISIS menace. Iran is negotiating with several European governments to work out a way to possibly form joint action or sanctions against ISIS. There is little chance that the United States will agree to the lifting of sanctions in order to gain Iran's help with ISIS. (Business Insider, August 21 2014)
As part of the interim deal struck between Iran and the P5+1, on August 23 Iran opened a new uranium conversion plant to convert nuclear weapons grade uranium into a material that cannot be weaponized. The uranium hexaflouride that Iran currently has stock of will be converted to uranium dioxide which can only be used in nuclear reactors and not weapons. Located in the Iranian city of Isfahan, the new plant is a step in the right direction in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. (ABC News, August 23 2014)
The IAEA deadline with Iran for them to implement transparency measures and fully disclose the possibe militarization of their nuclear capabilities came and went without a final word from Iran. By the August 25 deadline, set in November, Iran had to accomplish a number of things in order to calm international concerns of their possible weaponization and militarization of their nuclear program. This list of 5 demands from the IAEA has not been fully publicly disclosed, but it includes full disclosure of explosive experimentation, and statistical measurements of their nuclear facilities. Statements from Iranian officials point to the fact that some of these demands have been met and others have not. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that "They have 5 demands and questions... some are completed, and some are in the process of being completed," providing no elaboration on this statement. (Voice of America, August 25 2014)
Although Iran has seemed cooperative with the P5+1 and the IAEA thus far in pursuing a nuclear deal, August 2014 saw Iran begin to resist efforts to provide transparency to the international mechanisms tasked with determining the weaponization and militarization capabilities of it's nuclear program. Iran has missed the major deadline of August 25 to comply with the list of 5 demands from the IAEA, has told the UN that they cannot go back in to Iran's Parchin nuclear site, and has made their nuclear scientists unnavailable for comment. Additionally, and most alarmingly, a senior Iranian official confirmed on Wednesday August 27 that Iran has been conducting "mechanical" tests on a new, advanced centrifuge machine designed to refine uranium. (New York Times, August 29 2014)
As the August 25 transparency deadline came and passed with no final word from Iran, world leaders realized that they will once again have to play hard-ball with the Iranian leadership. Iran failed to submit reports to the IAEA detailing it's experiments with explosives that could be used for an atomic device, and studies relating to nuclear program yields. The IAEA report for August 2014 included that Iran has effectively stopped cooperation with the IAEA and the international community. Iran so far has carried out the minor components of the 5 transparency measures but still has to submit the most important portions including details of it's explosive expirementation and studies relating to nuclear program yields. These are by far the most critical components of the transparency measures because they evaluate the potential military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. The international community cannot be sure of what the intentions of the Iranian nuclear program are until they disclose these aspects, and by refusing to cooperate in this way Iran has completely shut off the international negotiations. Especially because of the renewed activity at the Parchin nuclear base, the IAEA is extremely concerned about concealed Iranian nuclear activity that they have not reported as part of the transparency measures. To read the complete IAEA report for August 2014, click here.
Iranian officials have refused UN officials access to the Parchin nuclear base, on the claim that the agency has carried out multiple investigations there prior to 2005 and found no evidence that Iran is attempting to weaponize nuclear material. The UN inspectors have been requesting access since 2005 and have been denied at every corner, with Iranian officials stating that they have not found anything there before so there is no use in looking again. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehgan stated on August 23 that "The agency carried out several visits to Parchin (before 2005), took samples and found nothing untoward... There is therefore no reason for new access to Parchin as nothing new has come up since the last inspections". Although access to Parchin was not stated in the Iranian accord with the IAEA, IAEA inspectors have wanted to perform tests there for quite some time. In the past Iran has denied the IAEA and UN access to the Parchin station on the basis that it was being used as a military installation not a nuclear site. Allowing access to Parchin would be an important step in earning the trust of the international community and would display even further the intention of the Iranian nuclear program. According to a June 2014 report prepared by the IAEA, satelite images show fresh activity at Parchin since February 2014 (Middle East Eye, August 23 2014).
Western states pushing Iran to scale down it's nuclear program got a rude awakening on August 27, when it was revealed that Iran had been undertaking "mechanical" tests on a new centrifuge system. Iran claims that it's centrifuges are not for nuclear weaponization purposes and that it is manufacturing new ones to replace it's old and accident-prone centrifuges. These new advanced centrifuges could allow Iran to come up with a nuclear weapon at a much faster rate than before. The interim deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 in November 2013 states that Iran could not go beyond the current centrifuge research and development programs it had in place. This restriction expressly prohibits the manufacture or testing of new centrifuges and centrifuge materials, and Iran has blatantly disregarded the agreement by carrying out new tests. The IAEA's monthly report for August, released on August 20 made no mention of new centrifuge development taking place. According to the IAEA document titled Centrifuge Research and Development Limitations in Iran the IAEA clearly state that "Iran’s development of more advanced centrifuges would also significantly complicate the verification of a long-term agreement. In a breakout or cheating scenario, Iran would need far fewer of these advanced centrifuges in a clandestine plant to make weapon-grade uranium than in one using IR-1 centrifuges". The international community acknowledges the fact that if Iran develops more advanced centrifuges it will be exponentially easier for it to create a nuclear weapon and pose a grave threat to the Western world. (Reuters, August 27 2014)
In response to these actions taken by Iran, on August 29 President Barack Obama announced new sanctions directed against 25+ organizations, banks and individuals suspected of helping the Iranian government work towards acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. U.S. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen stated that the sanctions are directed against organizations and individuals that "are involved in expanding Iran's proliferation program, support terrorism in the region, and help Iran evade U.S. and international sanctions". Some of the groups sanctioned by this action include: Asia Bank, Meraj Air, Caspian Air, Faylaca Petroleum, The Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, Nuclear Science and Technology Research Institute, Mandegar Baspar Kimiya Co, and Jahan Tech Rooyan Pars. Individuals sanctioned by this action include: Sayyed Jabar Hosseini (a senior Iranian official who has supported terrorist activities), Abdelhak Kaddouri (the financial chief of the National Iranian Oil Co), Mohammad Javad, and Arman Imanirad.
Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz has made it clear thar Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, and he has begun lobbying world powers to make sure that Iran's nuclear program is stifled through negotiations with the P5+1. Using Israel's political clout in the international arena, Steinitz met with world powers in the begining of September because he saw no signs that Iran intends to slow down or alter it's nuclear production capabilities.
On Thursday September 4 2014 Japan transferred $1 billion in frozen oil assets to Iran, the first and second installments of the $2.8 billion promised to Iran as a part of the interim deal with the P5+1. It is estimated that Iran has $100 billion in frozen funds abroad which it does not have open access to due to sanctions against Iran. Iran has been slowly moving to meet the IAEA and P5+1 requirements, and the release of these funds serves as an incentive to continue on the path to nuclear security.
Although the West would like to keep nuclear talks separate, Iran is continuing to attempt to gain concessions on their nuclear program by offering to help the rest of the world combat the ISIS threat. This prospect has not been brought up in official negotiations, but according to multiple official sources they have been privately voicing a willingness to help in exchange for a loosening of sanctions. On Monday September 22, the United States formally rejected the Iranian bid to assist with ISIS in exchange for an easing of nuclear sanctions.
Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 resumed in New York City on September 17 2014, with the November 24 deadline looming on the horizon. According to experts this was a "make-or-break" moment for the negotiations and if a deal was not reached by November 24, it is unlikely that negotiations would be extended once more. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani travelled to New York on Tuesday September 16 in order to prepare for the relaunch of negotiations. The negotiations stalled over the next few days, and on Friday the negotiations were called off due to "lack of progress".
The quintessential issue in the Iran nuclear saga has been their number of centrifuges. Ideally the P5+1 wants Iran to have no more than 1,500 centrifuges capable of operation, and Iran wants to keep their 9,400 machines currently running and expand more centrifuges as well. The deal being considered during this round of negotiations would have included Iran being able to keep up to 4,500 centrifuges operational, but reduce the amount of uranium gas being fed into the centrifuges. The reduction in uranium gas being fed into the centrifuges would give the world enough time to respond if it was discovered that Iran was in fact attempting to weaponize nuclear materials. Israel objected to this plan, and Israeli officials believe that Iran is well on it's way to developing a nuclear bomb and subsequently igniting a "nuclear chain reaction" in the region.
On October 2 John Kerry recieved a letter from 354 members of the United States House of Representatives expressing their collective concern that the United States needs to be harder on Iran during these negotiations. The letter expressed the concern of the representatives regarding Iran's noncompliance thus far with the IAEA's transparency demands.
A huge explosion tore through Iran's Parchin nuclear facility on October 6, 2014 leaving two workers dead. The blast was so powerful that it shattered the windows in buildings up to 9 miles from the facility. Allegedly the blast was an accident that occured when weapons materials were being transported. The Iranian government has refused the IAEA access to the Parchin nuclear facility since 2005. (Jerusalem Post, October 6 2014)
With the November 24 deadline coming quickly, the United States increased their concessions to Iran even more in order to attempt to gaurantee a nuclear deal. On October 21 the Iranian Mehr News Agency reported that the Obama administration may change it's stance during the negotiations and allow Iran to have 4,000 operational centrifuges instead of the 1,500 that they had been pushing for in the negotiations so far. The P5+1 met with Iranian officials multiple times in Vienna during October, but large gaps between the groups still remained. On November 5 it was reported that during negotiations the United States had agreed to let Iran have 6,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium instead of the 4,000 previously agreed to. The United States negotiating team has repeatedly given ground on the centrifuge issue, starting earlier in 2014 with an acceptable number of 500, then 1,500, then 4,000.
The Obama administration, desperate for a deal, continued to bend to Iran's will on October 22 when it was announced that the administration considered bypassing congress and lifting the majority of sanctions against Iran as part of the negotiation process. Reports from U.S. officials detailed that the President was considering using his executive powers to lift sanctions on Iran in an attempt to spur a deal. Members of Congress were visibly upset about the idea of the President circumventing them on this issue and publicly condemned the idea. This plan would have only been a temporary lifting of sanctions, and administration officials have clarified that Congress will have the final say in any lifting of sanctions that is more permanent. Non-proliferation groups such as the Arms Control Association have come out in favor of the President using unilateral executive authority to push a deal with Iran, and claim that it may be the only way to reach a deal.
Israeli officials have expressed their concerns of a bad nuclear deal with Iran on many occasions during the negotiation process. Prime Minister Netanyahu stated on October 20 that a nuclear capable Iran "Is a threat to the entire world, and, first and foremost, this is a threat to us". Israelis are worried that the P5+1 deal with Iran may leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state with many active centrifuges that it could use to create nuclear weapons. Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer stated in a speech on October 27 2014 that "you don’t have to be a nuclear expert to understand that reducing pressure on the world’s most dangerous regime and leaving it on the threshold of developing the world’s most dangerous weapons is not a good deal. The international community is prepared to leave Iran with thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium – when Iran doesn’t even need a single centrifuge to have peaceful nuclear energy" (The Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2014).
As of December 2014, Iran had still not carried out the IAEA's transparency measures that they were supposed to have implemented by August 25. Director General of the IAEA Yukiya Amano said on October 20 that "In order to resolve all outstanding issues, it is very important that Iran implements, in a timely manner, all practical measures agreed under the Framework for Cooperation".
On October 21, Iranian news agency Fars News reported that 2 "spies" had been discovered, detained, and arrested near Iran's first nuclear power plant in Bushehr. According to Iranian officials these individuals were likely foreign agents who were attempting to gather intelligence and information and use it with maliscious intent.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the United States chief nuclear negotiator with Iran, gave a speech on October 23 in which she stated that "we have made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable". However, she clarified that although progress has been made, "this is a puzzle with many interlocking pieces," and the negotiations will take time and increased effort on all fronts for a deal to come to fruition. A senior administration official stressed that the negotiations would take "every single minute of the time through November 24" (The Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2014).
Throughout the negotiations process Iran continued to prevent IAEA nuclear investigators and officials from gaining access to Iranian nuclear sites or scientists. This refusal to cooperate has effectively crippled the negotiations and peace process, and made it exceedingly complicated to reach agreements between the P5+1 and Iranian leaders. With the November 24 2014 deal deadline approaching, at the end of October Iranian officials once again denied IAEA inspectors access to their nuclear sites including Parchin, where a suspicious explosion had occured recently. Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano stated on October 31 2014 that "almost no progress" had been made over the course of 2014 involving the allegations of Iranian nuclear weapons development.
In an agreement reached through negotiations in Vienna, on November 4 Iran tentatively agreed to ship a significant portion of it's uranium stockpile to Russia, where it will be processed into specialized fuel rods that can only be used for nuclear power purposes and not for a weapon. This agreement has not been made official, and the day after the announcement Iranian Foreign Ministry officials dismissed news of this tentative agreement as "all speculations and rumors by some foreign media". Diplomats and officials involved in the negotiations however have faith that this may be a major breakthrough in regards to reigning in Iran's nuclear capabilities. As November 24 moves closer, the P5+1 are still hopeful for a deal that will not leave Iran on the cusp of a nuclear weapon. (RT, November 2014)
It was revealed in early November 2014 that during the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 President Obama wrote a secret letter to Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei expressing their mutual interest in defeating the Islamic State. Cooperation between the United States and Iran is extremely rare, and the nuclear negotiations during 2014 represent the most sustained period of diplomacy between the two countries since 1979's Islamic Revolution. This is the fourth letter that Obama has written to Khamenei, and these suggest that the United States is genuinely interested in pursuing a mutually beneficial relationship with Iran with further cooperation if the nuclear issue is sorted out.
In an IAEA report released on November 7 2014, which can be found here , the agency reported that Iran "has not provided any explanations that enable the Agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures in the next step of the Framework for Cooperation". According to the report Iran has failed to answer almost every critical question about the potential military dimensions of it's nuclear program, and has continued to thwart further investigations into the program. The report also detailed that Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpile had grown 8% since the previous report, now totalling 8.4 tons. The report states that no progress has been made into the investigation since the last report was published.
New information released on November 7 showed that the Iranian nuclear program may be more advanced than the international community previously thought. The existance of one Iranian explosive chamber to carry out explosive tests has been known for some time, but an Iranian dissident group claimed to have evidence of a second explosive chamber, possibly hidden at Iran's secretive Parchin nuclear complex. Officials from the National Council of Resistance of Iran stated that this is an issue that the IAEA should pursue immediately, claiming that "Today’s information uncovers a simple truth: The clerical regime is ceaselessly and secretly forging ahead with the military dimensions of its nuclear program and has no intention whatsoever of abandoning that program" (Free Beacon, November 7 2014).
Seperate from the P5+1 negotiations, on November 11 Russia forged their own nuclear deal with Iran, prompting anxiety and questions from the West. Russias state nuclear power agency, Rosatom struck a deal with Iranian officials to build multiple new nuclear reactor units in Iran. The deal calls for the immediate construction of two nuclear reactors at the Russian built Bushehr power plant and the construction of two more at a later date, and four more in unspecified locations around Iran. The construction of these new facilities opens the way for Iranian domestic production of power for their own nuclear reactors. As a part of the agreement Russia indicated that it would discuss with the Iranian leadership "the feasibility of fabricating fuel rods in Iran, which will be used at these power units". Domestically producing these fuel rods would likely allow Iran to build up a nuclear infrastructure and creep them closer to developing a nuclear bomb, something that the international community has obviously attempted to avoid at all costs. In order to curb Western anxieties about this nuclear material being used for weaponry purposes, Russian officials have assured the international community that these reactors would be constructed and operated under the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency. Russia would provide the nuclear material for these new reactors, as it does currently. (LA Times, November 11 2014).
November saw negotiations continue between the P5+1 and Iran in Oman and Vienna with little progress made. Every day a different spokesperson from the negotiations claimed to news outlets that negotiations were going well, but there were still wide gaps between the nuclear ambitions of Iran and the safety concerns of the Western world. In the weeks leading up to the November 24 deadline, both parties hinted that more time may be required to come to an agreement in negotiations that had already been extended for 4 months in July.
All parties involved returned to negotiations in Vienna on November 17, a mere week before the proposed deadline for a deal. According to experts and individuals close to the negotiations, chances of finding mutual ground and coming to a more permanent agreement are extremely low.
The United States officially came out with their stated goal for the negotiations on November 20. Secretary of State John Kerry clarified that the reached agreement should degrade the weaponization capability of the Iranian nuclear program so that it will take at least one year for them to develop a nuclear weapon. The P5+1 are pushing for this minimum "breakout time" of at least one year because it will allow the international community sufficient time to respond, should it be revealed that Iran is begining to develop a nuclear weapon.
A Second Extension
It was revealed late in the afternoon on the deadline of November 24 that the two parties still had significant differences to work out and that no comprehensive nuclear deal had been reached. After months of intense negotiations between Iran and world superpowers from the P5+1, the two groups could not come to an agreement by the deadline agreed to in July. The nuclear discussions were once again extended, this time for seven months. The negotiating teams hope to have a draft agreement by March 1, 2015, with a finalized agreement on the table ready to be accepted by all parties in July. Until a more comprehensive deal is reached, the conditions and stipulations of the current temporary deal remain in effect. As a part of this extension, Iranian officials are expected to allow United Nations inspectors increased access to workshops where Iranian centrifuges and rotors are built, in an effort to increase the transparency of their nuclear program and facilities. Negotiators are optimistic about prospects for an agreement in the coming months. John Kerry stated that new ideas had been brought to the table during the last days of negotiations and that the P5+1 "would be fools to walk away" now. After the announcement of the extension, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif smiled and stated during a press conference that "we don't need seven months." The Iranian government came out of these negotiations victorious, ensuring the continuation of the sanctions relief that has brought in $700 million per month since the temporary deal was reached, and ensuring that they can still continue their covert nuclear operations without having to open their doors and give in to increased international scrutiny of their nuclear facilities (New York Times, November 25 2014).
After harping for months that no deal is better than a bad deal, Israeli officials were happy with the outcome, favoring an extension of the talks over a bad deal that would leave Iran free to pursue their nuclear ambitions. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this extension of the negotiations gives the world " the opportunity to continue the economic pressures that have proven to be the only thing that have brought Iran to the table." Israeli officials expect a fresh round of crippling sanctions against Iran to come from the United States in response to a deal not being reached. Netanyahu stated that economic sanctions "are the route that needs to be taken" when dealing with Iran, and word of a nuclear extension brought a sense of relief to senior Israeli officials (Washington Post, November 24).
Delivering his first remarks on the extension, on November 25 Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that the Western nations had "failed to bring [Iran] to it's knees." According to Khamenei's personal website, during a meeting with many of Iran's top Muslim clerics he stated that "In the nuclear issue, America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so — and they will not be able to do so." (New York Times, November 25 2014)
Following the announcement of an extension of the negotiations, South Korea made a $500 million payment to Iran for crude oil imports. Under the interim agreement Iran is allowed to access $700 million per month in sanctions relief in the form of oil payments from their frozen international bank accounts. According to official documents, Iran sold over $1.3 billion in oil to South Korea during 2014. A senior South Korean official told the International Business Times that "we had to play our role, as the international community agreed to unblock some of Iran's assets." (International Business Times, November 26 2014)
On November 30 2014, less than one week after the negotiations failed to bring about a more permanent solution to the Iranian nuclear dilema, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated to a group of senior Iranian Navy officials that "our armed forces should continuously improve their (combat) readiness, irrespective of political calculations". Khamenei's call for increased combat readiness and improvement regardless of the diplomatic and political situation was a bold move in the face of possible increased U.S. sanctions and international scrutiny of Iranian military activities. (Reuters, November 30 2014)
With the stipulations from the temporary agreement still in force until at least the end of June 2015, the IAEA requested more funds on December 3 to continue their monitoring of Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA detailed in a confidential note to members that they would need an estimated additional 4.6 million Euros ($5.67 million) in external contributions in order to continue their monitoring practices in the same way as before. Yukiya Amano, the director of the IAEA stated that "[any] member states which are in a position to do so to make the necessary funding available for the continuation of the agency’s monitoring and verification." (Reuters, December 3, 2014)
The IAEA announced on December 11 that they had indeed secured the funding required to continue their monitoring of Iran's nuclear program. At an IAEA meeting that week international donors including large contributors the Netherlands and Norway pledged more than the expected 4.6 million Euros, demonstrating the international support for avoiding a nuclear Iran.
Despite the international scrutiny of the nuclear program, on December 7 2014 Iran's President Hassan Rouhani announced a military spending hike of 33.5% in the state's 2015 budget, increasing spending to 282 trillion Iranian rials. Iran's 2015 general budget represents only a 6% increase in spending over 2014. (Reuters, December 7, 2014)
In allegations that had been previously unreported, in December 2014 U.S. officials accused Iran of breaching the nuclear sanctions placed on them by the United Nations by secretely seeking to acquire parts for a heavy water reactor that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons grade materials. U.S. and international monitors observed "no recent downturn in [Iranian] procurement" activities according to a November 7 report made public in early December. The extension of the negotiations was good news for countries looking to do business with Iran, and they took advantage of the favorable diplomatic climate. These accusations were taken with a grain of salt by the international community, as news like this usually takes a very long time to be released so the accusations may predate the interim agreement, meaning that Iran did not violate the agreement at least in this way. (Foreign Policy, December 8, 2014)
Negotiations between Iranian officials and the P5+1 resumed on December 17 in Geneva. After the first day of negotiations, Iranian officials claimed that the talks were proceeding in a "good atmosphere." On December 17 officials from Iran and various countries involved in the P5+1 efforts spent over six hours in the negotiating room, speaking on all topics but mostly covering sanctions.
The IAEA report for the end of 2014 included details that showed that Iran was cooperating in certain aspects with the temporary deal agreed to in January 2014. According to the report, the Iranians kept their word and continued to not enrich uranium over 5%, and had also not made any other technological advances at their nuclear facilities.
U.S. Secetary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reconvened with their respective negotiating teams in early January 2015 in Geneva, holding extensive and beneficial meetings. On Wednesday January 14 Kerry and Zarif had "substantive meetings for approximately five hours" and discussed "a broad range of issues with a small group of staff from each side" as reported by official sources. Following this meeting, after postponing his flight to Bulgaria Kerry returned to the hotel where negotiations were taking place and held a personal, unscheduled meeting with Zarif. This round of negotiations seemed to be going well, with Kerry and Zarif taking a break to stroll around Downtown Geneva. Before the negotiations began Secretary Kerry declared that "We are at a juncture where most of the issues are now getting fleshed out and understood." (Reuters, January 14 2015)
While the negotiating teams were hard at work on January 14th, the Iranian government made a troubling announcement. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced during a visit to the Bushehr nuclear power facility that the facility is to be expanded and that two new nuclear power facilities are to be built in the vicinity. The goal of these power plants is to increase nuclear power output according to the Iranian government. Rouhani firmly stated that
"construction of two new power plants will increase the capacity of Bushehr province's power generation to 2,000 megawatts." (Fars News, January 14 2015)
The P5+1 and Iran are slated to continue nuclear negotiations in February 2015, after making limited progress during January. The negotiator from France, Nicolas de la Riviere told reporters that "The mood was very good, but I don't think we made a lot of progress." (Reuters, January 18 2015)
During U.S. President Barack Obama's January 2015 State of the Union address, he warned the new Republican controlled legislature against levying new sanctions on Iran, lest they unravel the progress that has been made in the negotiations so far. The President told the legislators that "New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails—alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear programme again." House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress in January 2015, in hopes of swaying them away from voting in favor of a bad nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu requested a meeting with President Obama during his visit and was given a public rejection, with National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan releasing a statement that read "As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country." (Foreign Policy, January 22 2015)
Democrats in Congress gave Obama and the negotiating teams substantial breathing room on January 27, when they announced that they would hold off on voting or moving any legislation forward that might tighten any penalties or sanctions against Iran until after March 24. Congressmen and government officials hope that this two month timeframe will be enough for the negotiating teams to come to a comprehensive and complete framework for ensuring Iran's nuclear program has only peaceful applications. Obama has stated that he will veto any sanctions bill that arrives on his desk while the negotiators are still attempting to reach a deal.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry appointed a new Iranian ambassador to the United Nations on January 28, 2015, Gholamali Khoshroo. Khoshroo is a career Iranian diplomat with close ties to some of the Iranian leadership including former President Mohammad Khatami and family ties with current President Hassan Rouhani. Prior to being appointed to this position, Khoshroo was serving as the Iranian diplomat to Switzerland. The Iranian Foreign Ministry released a statement in which they assured international leaders that Khoshroo had thus far played an integral part of the negotiations and has been active in Iran's nuclear discussion with the P5+1. (Al Monitor, January 28, 2015)
The U.S. Senate Banking Committee approved the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 on January 29, 2015, by an 18-4 vote. The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and although it did not impose any new sanctions on Iran, it increased the pressure on the Iranian regime. The act set in stone that if there is no agreement reached by the June 30 deadline all of the sanctions that were waived with the acceptance of the interim agreement would be put back in place. In addition, the act imposes monthly escalating sanctions begining in August should the negotiating teams fail to reach an agreement. The bill provides for President Obama to be able to shoot down any sanctions activity, should he feel that it would interfere with reaching a comprehensive deal. The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 will be passed on to the Senate for a vote, and if approved may still be vetoed by President Obama. (Govtrack.us)
Still wary of the prospect of a bad deal between the P5+1 and Iran, unnamed Israeli officials blasted the U.S. negotiating team on February 1, 2015, claiming that they have given the Iranians 80% of what they want during the negotiations, in return for very little. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver a speech to Congress on March 3, where he will warn them of the dangers of a bad nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu sees a nuclear capable Iran as the greatest threat to Israel, and is prepared to do everything in his power to ensure that Iran does not acquire weapons-grade nuclear materials. During a visit to soldiers wounded in an attack by Hezbollah on January 28, 2015, Netanyahu declared that "We are in a continuous struggle with Iran which is opening new fronts against us, which is engaged in terrorism in the Middle East and throughout the world. This is the same Iran that the world powers are now working toward an agreement that would leave in its hands the ability to develop a nuclear bomb. That is an agreement we are opposed to." (Jerusalem Post, January 30, 2015) In a campaign speech on February 9, Netanyahu stated that he is "determined to go to Washington and present Israel's position before the members of Congress and the American people." (Yahoo, February 9, 2015)
Netanyahu's invitation to speak to Congress was very controversial. He was invited to speak by House Speaker John Boehner, not President Obama, and was actually denied a request for a meeting with the President while in town delivering the speech. Spokespeople for the White House defended their rejection of his request, citing that it would be innapropriate to meet with a foreign leader so close to their country's elections. Critics argued that the invitation was being used as political showboating and manipulation, with the Republicans just inviting Netanyahu to bash President Obama and using him to get a tougher deal on Iran. It is unprecedented for Congress to conduct foreign relations bypassing the President like this, and Congressional Democrats were upset because Boehner, a Republican, invited Netanyahu without consulting with President Obama first. Many Democrats in the House and Senate have said that they will be skipping Netanyahu's speech, including the U.S.'s most senior lawmaker Senator Patrick Leahy, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative Jim McDermot, and Senator Bernie Sanders. A letter petitioning to postpone the speech was circulated around Capital Hilll on February 9, by Representatives Keith Ellison, Steve Cohen and Maxine Waters. The letter does not state that the undersigned members will not be attending, but rather just petitions for a postponement of the speech. All in all, one quarter of Democrats ended up skipping Netanyahu's speech. (Bloomberg, February 9, 2015)
Speaking under the condition of anonymity, officials close to the negotiations in early February in Vienna detailed to the Associated Press that U.S. and Iranian negotiating teams may be moving closer to a compromise on Iran's nuclear program. The compromise focuses on neutralizing much of Iran's capacity to make nuclear weapons by reducing the amount of nuclear material that their centrifuges can produce, while keeping a good amount of their centrifuges running. The compromise would also include stipulations such as: Iran would only be allowed to store a certain amount of uranium gas which would be monitored by UN agencies, and Iran would commit to exporting most of it's enriched uranium. (The Washington Post, February 4, 2015)
Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif made it clear in early February that he was not in favor of another extension to the negotiations, and that this may be the last chance for diplomatic negotiations to work. Zarif claimed that “I do not believe another extension is in the interests of anybody, as I did not believe this extension was either necessary or useful,” and said that the negotiators needed to “seize this opportunity,” emphasizing that “it may not be repeated.” In a seperate interview on February 8, Secretary of State Kerry claimed that it would be “impossible” for another extension to the negotiations to be put in place if no solution is reached this time around. (The New York Times, February 9, 2015)
Speaking at a ceremony commemorating Space Technology Day in Iran on February 17, 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the claim that the Iranians had made “highly important progress in the nuclear field” in the pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy. Rouhani complained however that “the negotiations receive so much attraction and hue and cry that they overshadow these activities,” but despite this, the Iranian nuclear program is “running at a higher speed” according to Rouhani. He rebuked the United States attempts to sanction them and derail their nuclear program, stating that “we don’t and will not take permission from anyone to make progress in science and knowledge.” (Fars News, February 17, 2015)
A report prepared by the IAEA and released by Reuters on February 19, 2015, claimed that Iran was and still is stalling the United Nations nuclear inquiry and deliberately complicating efforts to reach a deal with the P5+1. Included in the report was evidence that Iran was continuing to refuse cooperation with two aspects of the long-running nuclear investigation; aspects that Iran committed to have completed by August 2014. In the report, IAEA officials stated that “Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures,” referring to the scope of Iranian explosive tests and other allegations. A new round of talks between Iranian and U.S. officials began on February 20, 2015. (Reuters, February 20, 2015)
Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the people concerned about a bad deal and it's impact on February 23, 2015, when he stated that “Anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, ‘Well, we don’t like the deal,’ or this or that, doesn’t know what the deal is... There is no deal yet. And I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce.” (New York Times, February 23, 2015)
The National Coalition of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an Iranian dissident group with ties to the nuclear program who had in the past reported claims of hidden nuclear sites, presented evidence in late February 2015 that the Iranians had been hiding an undisclosed uranium enrichment facility under the suburbs of Tehran since 2008. The NCRI claimed that the site, known as "Lavizan-3," had been used for the past number of years for enrichment with advanced IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuge machines. Accusations by the NCRI are taken seriously, since in the early 2000's NCRI claims assisted in exposing the now public Natanz uranium enrichment facility and Arak heavy water facility. The NCRI has officials working in the Iranian government and with the nuclear program within their ranks, and released their discovery of the hidden site following years of intelligence gathering. (The Washington Times, February 24, 2015)
Legislation titled the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” was introduced into the Senate on February 27, 2015, by Senators Corker, Menendez, Graham, and Kaine. The bill would require the text of any agreement reached between the U.S. and Iran to be submitted for Congressional review, and would prohibit the lifting of Iranian sanctions during the given 60 day congressional review period. President Obama threatened to veto the legislation. To read Senator Corker's response to Obama's threat of a veto, click here. A letter penned by the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce was circulated among his colleagues following the introduction of this legislation, stressing the need for congressional involvement in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. In the letter, Royce states that his peers are “prepared to evaluate any agreement to determine its long-term impact on the United States and our allies.” To read the full letter, click here. (The Hill, March 2, 2015)
The IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stated on March 2, 2015, that Iran had recently slowed their pace of cooperation with the IAEA and P5+1, raising concerns that a deal may not be reached by the end of March. According to the IAEA Iran had still not implemented two sets of transparency measures that they were required to have implemented by August 2014. (Reuters, March 2, 2015)
Information was leaked in early March that during negotiations the U.S. was only pushing for Iranian nuclear activity to be halted for the next ten years. The emerging agreement was lambasted by critics, claiming that after the ten year period we would be back in the same situation, in a similar political climate, without any significant changes. Two days after this information was leaked, Iranian negotiator Mohammed Javad Zarif stated that this ten year freeze on nuclear operations was “unacceptable,” but stated that the negotiations would continue.
Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015 was met with a mixed reaction. The Prime Minister of Israel delivered an impassioned address in which he made his case against an agreement with Iran that would leave them with a breakout time of only one year, and thousands of operational centrifuges in order to make nuclear materials. The deal taking shape through negotiations was very dangerous for Israel according to Netanyahu, who stated that the deal being considered at the time “Doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb. It paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” The Prime Minister was heavily critical of the unfolding deal between the P5+1 and Iran, but according to President Barack Obama, Netanyahu did not provide any alternative solutions to come to a nuclear agreement. Many people were unhappy with Netanyahu coming to address Congress because they viewed the speech as a political stunt, taking place so close to Israeli elections. While speaking to Congress Netanyahu addressed these concerns, stating that “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sad that she was “near tears” during the speech, because she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States,” and “the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.” (The New York Times, March 4, 2015)
While the Israeli Prime Minister was attempting to convince Congress not to approve a bad deal that would leave a nuclear capable Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif met in Switzerland to continue negotiations to reach a final agreement. When asked if an agreement was close, Zarif stated on March 3 that “We'll try, that's why we are here. The only way to move forward is through negotiations.” Speaking about the negotiations, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier confidently said that “In ten years of negotiations, we never achieved as much progress as we have made this year.” (Reuters, March 3, 2015)
Approaching the last weeks until the deal deadline, on March 3, the United States negotiating team laid out their “bottom lines,” or areas where the United States was not willing to budge (Yahoo News, March 4, 2015). These bottom lines include that:
- Any deal struck should provide for a minimum breakout time of one year and freeze Iranian nuclear activities for at least ten years
- Iran should not produce weapons-grade plutonium at the Arak reactor
- Iran should not use the Fordo nuclear plant to enrich uranium (leaving only the Natanz plant for uranium enrichment)
- Iran should reduce their number of operating centrifuges significantly
- Iran should agree to full inspections of nuclear and production facilities, as well as mines and mills
- Under the agreement sanctions against Iran must be phased out over time
The second to last round of negotiations wrapped up in Gevena, Switzerland on March 4, 2015. China's envoy to the P5+1 negotiations with Iran stated later that day that the negotiations could be “moving into the final stage.” John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia the next day for a brief visit to reassure the Arab allies of the United States that the U.S. will work with them to counter Iranian influence in the region whether or not a nuclear accord is reached by the March 17 deadline. While in Saudi Arabia, Kerry facilitated talks between the Foreign Ministers of members of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Riyadh Air Base. The final round of talks are set to begin on March 15, 2015. (The Washington Post, March 5, 2015)
A group of fourty-seven Republicans gave the Iranian leadership a lesson in balance of power principles on March 5, 2015, informing them in a letter that any agreement struck without Congressional approval is simply an executive agreement which could be easily overturned by the next U.S. President. 2016 Republican Presidential candidate hopefuls Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all signed on to the letter. Not only was the letter meant to discourage the Iranian regime from signing the current deal, it was also meant to encourage President Barack Obama to consider Congressional advice if a deal is to be reached. Experts and Washington insiders said that this letter sent by Congressional Republicans to Iran in an attempt to thwart a nuclear agreement was unprecedented, with the only somewhat similar examples coming 40 years prior during the Nixon and Carter administrations. To read the full text of the letter, click here. (Politico, March 9, 2015)
Vice President Joe Biden delivered scathing criticism to the authors of the letter in response, stating that the act severely undercut presidential authority and was “beneath the dignity” of the Senate. Biden said that “In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary—that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them.” President Obama claimed that the signatories to the letter were effectively aligning themselves with the Iranian hard-line conservatives who are vehemently opposed to a nuclear deal. European leaders including German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond voiced their opposition to the letter as well. (Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2015)
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif issued a response to the letter in which he offered to mediate talks between Congress and Obama, and called the letter “unprecedented and undiplomatic.” Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei posted on social media that the letter was indicative of a “collapse in ethics” of American politics. (Politico, March 12, 2015)
According to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released in March 2015, Americans were very skeptical as to whether the negotiations will actually limit Iran's ability to produce nuclear materials. The poll found that 24% of Americans think that the negotiations will make a difference in preventing Iran from eventually obtaining nuclear weapons material, and 74% think they will not make a difference. (Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2015)
On March 12, 2015, President Barack Obama sent Congress a letter stating that he was extending the March 1995 declaration of a national emergency with respect to Iran. In the letter the President expressed hopefulness, stating that, "This marks the first time in a decade that Iran has agreed to take [...] specific actions that stop the advance and roll back key elements of its nuclear program." Despite this, he also addressed his concerns that "the crisis between the United States and Iran resulting from certain actions and policies of the Government of Iran has not been resolved," and that "certain actions and policies of the Government of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States." Citing these reasons, President Obama sent notice to the Federal Register in March 2015 to extended the declaration of a national emergency with respect to Iran for another year. To read the full text of the letter, Click here. (The White House, March 12, 2015)
Seperate from nuclear negotiations, the five permanent UN Security Council members -Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S.- plus representatives Germany and Iran begun talks in mid March aimed at lifting UN sanctions on Iran if a nuclear agreement is in fact reached. These talks were confirmed by an anonymous American official. Although a deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 would be monumental, it would not be legally binding and could be edited or thrown out by a future U.S. President or Congress. A Security Council resolution however would be completely legally binding, and would make it significantly harder for a deal to fall apart. These talks are in response to the Republican invitation of Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress in early March, and the condescending letter written by 47 Republican U.S. Senators to the leadership of Iran, which has garnered significant international criticism. Officials close to the Security Council talks said that a UN resolution would help protect any nuclear deal from potential sabotages from Republicans in the U.S. Congress. If these international sanctions are lifted on Iran's oil export limit, Iran could be producing an additional 800,000 barrels of oil per day within one year.
Kerry and Zarif held five hours of negotiations on Monday, March 16 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Following the meeting, Zarif and the Iranian delegation went to Brussels to meet with European Foreign Ministers, and an anonymous American source unsurprisingly stated that it was not clear whether a deal would be reached by the upcoming deadline. During the talks Zarif addressed the letter written during the previous week by 47 Republican U.S. Senators to Iran's leadership, calling it “ill-timed and ill-advised.”(Reuters, March 16, 2015)
Coming into the final countdown before the deal deadline at the end of March 2015, there were still quite a few issues and differences between the Iranians and the P5+1. Obstacles still troubling negotiators in the weeks leading up to the deadline included: when U.N. sanctions would be lifted, how inspections would be conducted, and how many centrifuges Iran would be allowed to keep operational. Multiple new issues also surfaced during the final weeks of the negotiations. Iranian officials went back on their earlier words that the Fordo facility would be converted into one solely for scientific research, and demanded that it remain operational with centrifuges capable of producing uranium. Iran insisted that they be able to retain the Arak heavy water reactor during the final weeks of negotiations as well, which could provide them an alternate route to a nuclear weapon.
On the heels of the embarassing letter written by 47 Republican U.S. Senators, U.S. and European lawmakers began circulating a letter on March 17, asserting that a “bad deal” with Iran that only freezes it's program for ten years would surely result in more sanctions placed on the Islamic Republic. The letter was first presented to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, after being signed by Parliamentarians from France, Britain, and Germany. The letter stresses that “A nuclear Iran is an imminent threat not only to the U.S. but also to Europe, the Middle East and to the world at large. Bearing in mind Iran’s history, we remain skeptical of the Iranian regime’s sincerity and commitment to reach an agreement. We believe Iran must realize that any failure to negotiate an acceptable deal, one that prevents a nuclear armed Iran, will result without fail in tougher sanctions than ever.” To read the full text of the letter, click here.
Senators Bob Corker and Robert Menendez drafted a bill coming into the final phase of the negotiations that would give congress the overall authority to accept or reject any nuclear deal with Iran. As the bill circulated in mid-March, senior Obama Administration officials including President Obama himself took to the Senate offices to lobby against the bill, advising Democrat and Republican Senators alike not to sign the bill, and telling Democrats to notify the White House if they are planning to sign. The President wanted to cut off any Democratic support for the bill before it picked up steam in order to prevent a veto-proof majority from forming in support of the bill. The administration officials attempted to persuade Senators to let the negotiations finish and not to act too soon and destroy what the negotiators had worked so hard for. In addition to these in person meetings, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough sternly warned lawmakers in a letter not to interfere with ongoing negotiations.
A letter from a bipartisan group of 360 U.S. lawmakers was presented to President Obama on March 19, 2015, advising him against bypassing Congress in the event of an Iran deal, and stipulating the need for Congressional approval of any agreement. Speaking about the letter, Representative Eliot Engel from New York stated at a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting that “There really cannot be any marginalization of Congress. Congress really needs to play a very active and vital role in this whole process, and any attempts to sidestep Congress will be resisted.” The authors and signatories of the letter asserted that “Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent sanctions relief from Congressionally-mandated sanctions would require new legislation.”(PressTV, March 19, 2015)
President Obama used the pretense of a video wishing Iranian citizens a happy Nowruz (Iranian New Year) to make his case to Iranian youth that their leaders should accept the nuclear deal on the table with the P5+1. After mentioning the Nowruz celebration held at the White House, Obama wasted no time attempting to convince young Iranians that it is in their best interests for their government to sign the nuclear accord. Obama juxtaposed Iran's current path of isolation and hardship with the path of cultural exchanges, travel, economic opportunity, and inclusion that they could have if their government committed to abandon pursuit of nuclear weapons. The video message from the President was disseminated via YouTube with a Persian title and subtitles. (New York Times, March 20, 2015)
Israeli officials worried about a bad deal with Iran took their message to France on March 23, 2015, where they spoke to French National Security Advisor Jacques Audibert and the French nuclear negotiating team about the potential implications of a deal that leaves Iran on the path to a nuclear weapon. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz stated during an interview in France that the Israelis "think it’s going to be a bad, insufficient deal." The Israelis then took their message to London, where they met with the British negotiating team before the negotiations restarted on Thursday, March 26. (New York Times, March 23, 2015)
After intercepting communications between Israeli officials containing information that could have only come from access to the confidential nuclear talks, the United States announced in March 2015 that it believed Israeli officials had spied on the negotiations. In order to build a case against the emerging Iran deal, Netanyahu's government allegedly penetrated the negotiations and passed information on to U.S. lawmakers, hoping to drain support from the deal. Israeli officials denied the spying accusations and maintained that they received the confidential information through other means such as close surveilance of Iranian and European leaders outside of the negotiations. This incident further strained the U.S.-Israel relationship, but according to an official close to the negotiations the U.S. should not be surprised, as they helped the Israelis build an advanced system to listen in on high-level Iranian communications.
IAEA Director Yukiya Amano stated at a press conference on March 23, 2015, that the IAEA "are still not in a position to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful purpose." (Yahoo News, March 24, 2015)
House Speaker John Boehner made waves earlier in 2015 when he extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress about Iran without consulting with the White House beforehand. In March 2015 he announced that he was going to be leading a team of lawmakers to Israel at the end of March, to coincide with the nuclear deal deadline. Boehner's aides asserted that the trip was planned prior to Israel's 2015 election, which saw Benjamin Netanyahu win a historic fourth term as Prime Minister.
With the deadline for a nuclear agreement less than one week away, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stated in an interview on March 24 that out of a dozen inquiries into the potential military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranian government had officially provided the answers to only one of them.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi reached out to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif via phone call on March 24, urging him to sign a nuclear deal with the P5+1 that would curb Iran's nuclear program. "The Iran nuclear talks have reached the final sprint in the marathon," Wang Yi told Zarif, stating that a nuclear agreement is "the trend of the times and the will of the people." (Reuters, March 24, 2015)
In March 2015, 40 Iranian shipping firms and an Iranian bank were placed back on a list of sanctioned groups by the European Union, after a European court removed them from the lists in January. The groups were originally sanctioned because it was believed that they were associated with the blacklisted Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). In January 2015 however, the General Court of the European Union ruled that these sanctions be lifted due to insufficient evidence that IRISL was supporting any aspect of Iran's nuclear program. The sanctions were put back in place in later March, after a letter was sent to the lawyer representing the shipping firms stating that the companies were being relisted due to being owned or controlled by IRISL and/or for providing economic or material support to IRISL. (The Daily Star, March 24, 2015)
Reports coming out during the final week of negotiations revealed that the United States was willing to be flexible as far as the format for an agreement goes. Working to get a written framework for cooperation done by the end of March and a full agreement done by the end of June, officials involved claimed that they "do not know what form this [deal] will take." The Iranian negotiating team hinted that they would be open to a "loose" deal in the form of a statement or political declaration if a more permanent written solution could not be produced. The United States government expressed skepticism at this, prefering a firm, written agreement that Iran could not misrepresent. As March 30 approached, U.S. and French negotiators confirmed that the deadline for a full comprehensive deal was June 30, and there was no reason to rush into an incomplete deal by the end of March. John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif continued negotiations on Thursday, March 26, in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In a unanimous vote on March 26, 2015, the U.S. Senate approved a non-binding measure that would make it easier to re-impose sanctions on Iran if they were to violate an agreed-to nuclear deal. The amendment was attached to a budget bill and sponsored by Senator Mark Kirk. The amendment establishes a fund to cover the cost of imposing sanctions on Tehran in the event that they violate either the current interim agreement or the potential future more permanent agreement.
The Iranian negotiating team demanded in March 27, 2015, that as a part of any agreement international sanctions should be lifted immediately, instead of gradually as the P5+1 had been pushing for.
On March 29, 2015, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters that "The export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our program, and we do not intend sending them abroad," contradicting earlier reports that Iran would be willing to ship part of it's uranium stockpile to Russia. In November 2014 the Iranian negotiatiors tentatively agreed to ship part of their stockpile of uranium to Russia, where it would be processed and converted into specialized fuel rods that cannot be weaponized. This announcement caused another point of contention between Iran and the P5+1 during the final week of negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers on March 29 that the emerging nuclear deal with Iran "Bears out all of our fears, and even more than that."
Framework For a Deal
In the final days of the negotiations it became clear that the Iranians had the advantage, as the United States negotiators did not want to return home to Congress at the end of March without a framework for a deal. No such internal pressure existed within Iran, and the United States did not have time on their side. The president of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, stated on the final day of negotiations that "part of the reason the Iranians are playing such hardball right now is they know the U.S. can't go back without anything. But if the Iranians walk away, it's less of a problem for them, because the interim deal is still in place for another three months."(Foreign Policy, March 30, 2015)
The negotiators failed to complete a plan by the self imposed deadline of the end of March, but they announced on April 2 that they had agreed on "key parameters" for resolving the nuclear Iran issue. European Union Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini confirmed that under the supposed agreement Iran would not have the ability to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials, and Iran would allow wider international access to their nuclear facilities for inspections. International sanctions are to be lifted as a part of the agreement, but a timetable was not revealed. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif proclaimed that the agreement represents "a major step forward." Twitter was abuzz with news of the negotiations, with John Kerry tweeting "Big day: #EU, P5+1, and #Iran now have parameters to resolve major issues on nuclear program. Back to work soon on a final deal," and Zarif posting hopeful statements like "Found solutions. Ready to start drafting immediately."(USA Today, April 2, 2015) Under the agreement:
- Iran agreed to reduce it's installed centrifuges by approximately 2/3. Iran will
go from having about 19,000 installed today to 6,104 installed under the deal, with only
5,060 of these enriching uranium for 10 years. All centrifuges will be IR-1s, Iran’s
- Iran agreed to not enrich uranium over 3.67% for the following 15 years.
- Iran agreed to reduce it's current stockpile of 10,000kg of low-enriched uranium to 300kg of 3.67% enriched uranium for the following 15 years.
- Iran agreed to not build any new facilities for the purposes of uranium enrichment for the following 15 years.
- Iran's breakout time will be extended from the current time of 2-3 months to a full year.
- To read the full summary text of the agreement released by The White House, click here.
- To read the AICE Fact Sheet regarding to framework agreement, click here.
Many U.S. states have passed their own sanctions against Iran, and even in the context of a final nuclear agreement these sanctions may stay in place. States such as California, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York have their own state policies in place that divest public funds from businesses conducting business with Iran.
The Iranians released their own “fact-sheet” pertaining to the framework agreement, which stood in stark opposition to the one released by the White House. On the Iranian fact sheet, it claimed that the agreement was limited to only five years, and during the agreement period 10,000 centrifuges would continue to operate at the Fordow facility. The Iranian text also specifies that the rest of their non-operational centrifuges would be kept in the facilities themselves instead of a UN monitored storage facility, and that all sanctions are to be immediately lifted once the agreement takes effect. A “reversability” measure was also included in the fact sheet, stating that “In case of the two sides' non-commitment to their undertakings, there will be a possibility for reversing all measures” (Fars News, April 15, 2015)
The day following the announcement of the framework agreement, Benjamin Netanyahu sternly asserted that any permenent Iran deal must include “Unambiguous Iranian recognition of Israel's right to exist.” U.S. President Barack Obama fired back during an interview with NPR the next day, stating that “The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms. And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment. We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing.” (Politico, April 4, 2015)
Unsatisfied with the assurances present in the framework agreement, Israel's Minister of Intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, published on April 5 a list of specific requirements that in his opinion should be part of any final agreement with Iran. Some of the requirements on this list were ones that the United States had unsuccessfully tried to implement in the basic framework agreed to earlier in the month. Wary of unraveling an already delicate deal, the United States government showed little inclination that they were willing to consider any of these ideas.
In the wake of the announcement of the framework agreement, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak urged the United States to give Iran an ultimatum: get rid of your nuclear program, or else. Speaking of ways to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, Barak explained that “The Pentagon and the forces of America under the backing and probably directive of the [U.S.] president [could] create an extremely effective means to destroy the Iranian nuclear military program over a fraction of one night.” The former Prime Minister said that in his opinion "there is no deal, basically," but went on to state that he is confident that the United States will protect Israel's domestic and international security interests. (CNBC, April 8, 2015)
Speaking in public about the deal for the first time, on April 8, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called the framework agreement "“non-binding,” and stated that nothing had been officially finalized. Khamenei claimed that the document outlining the framework agreement, published by the White House the day following the conclusion of negotiations, contained false information. He expressed his skepticism about the deal, confirming that he neither supports nor opposes the framework nuclear accord. Earlier in the day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asserted that the Iranian team would not sign any final agreement unless it completely lifts all economic sanctions levied against Iran on the first day of implementation. Rouhani proudly commented that Iran had “not surrendered to a policy of pressure, sanctions, and bullying. This is out victory.” (Haaretz, April 8, 2015) The White House responded to this demand of an immediate lifting of sanctions as soon as the deal takes effect, stating that "“It's very clear and understood that sanctions relief will be phased.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov explained that “We adhere to our view that the lifting of Iran sanctions stipulated by the UN Security Council resolution should run parallel to signing of the [nuclear] agreement. But it does not mean that all sanctions will be removed altogether. What sanction are to be removed or suspended and in what sequence continues to be a matter of debate."(The Iran Project, April 10, 2015)
According to a statement issued by the Iranian Defense Ministry on April 9, “visiting military centers are among the red lines and no visit to these centers will be allowed.” Iranian Defense Minister, Brigadier General Hossein Deghan, confirmed the validity of these statements later in the day. Deghan stated during a press conference that reports that the deal would allow IAEA access to Iran's nuclear sites for inspections were not based on factual information (Times of Israel, April 9, 2015). General Hossein Salami, a commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, made the disturbing announcement on April 19, 2015, that Iran “ will respond with hot lead (bullets) to those who speak of it,” referring to allowing foreign inspections of Iran's military sites. He went on to say that “Iran will not become a paradise for spies. We will not roll out the red carpet for the enemy.”(Times of Israel, April 19, 2015)
The spokesperson for the EU Foreign Policy Chief informed the media at a press conference on April 10 that negotiations aimed at finalizing the framework agreement would be begining within the following week.
Israeli political leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni called for a deep strategic discussion between U.S. and Israeli lawmakers concerning the nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in an official statement released April 12, 2015. The goal of this proposed discussion would be to give preliminary approval for Israeli use of force against Iran and the Iranian nuclear facilities, should Iran violate the terms of the agreement. The paper provides suggestions on how to "close the loopholes" to come to a comprehensive and airtight final deal, chastises the Israeli government for criticising the deal but not providing any viable alternatives, calls for enhanced oversight of the Iranian facilities by the IAEA, and asserts that the removal of sanctions will be done gradually.
During the week following the announcement of a framework agreement aimed at limiting Iran's nuclear capabilities, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree lifting a ban on the delivery of S-300 anti-missile systems to Iran. According to Russian officials the arms embargo was no longer needed due to progress made during the nuclear negotiations. The Russian government cancelled the original delivery of these missile systems in 2010 due to international pressure eminating from sanctions imposed on Iran. In addition to the missiles, Russia and Iran signed a oil-for-goods agreement, by which Russia will sell Iran grain, construction materials, and other supplies in exchange for oil. Russian and Iranian officials had been discussing such a deal for approximately one year prior to this announcement. American officials including Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concerns over the Russian decision (Haaretz, April 13, 2015). The following week at a meeting of the G-7, all member nations heavily criticized the Russian decision. The German Foreign Minister asserted that the deal is in contrast to the spirit of the negotiations, and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni stated that “When at the end of June there is a complete accord, Italy will be one of the countries in there trying to reestablish commercial relations. But first we need the accord, we shouldn’t be getting ahead of ourselves."(Bloomberg, April 14, 2015) Russian Foreign Ministry officials clarified on April 23 that the delivery of the S-300 missile system to Iran was not something that would happen in the immediate future, seeming to cave to international pressure. On June 2, 2015, Russian officials released a statement revealing that the missile system would not be delivered to Iran until after a final deal aimed at limiting the Iranian nuclear program is reached.
Following the announcement that a framework nuclear agreement had been reached, international actors were skeptical as to whether Iran would stick to it's obligations under the deal. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on April 13, 2015, that the Pentagon has a bunker-busting bomb capable of destroying Iran's secretive underground nuclear facilities in order to ensure that Iran does not cheat the agreement and begin to develop a nuclear weapon. The weapon, called the Massive Ordinance Penetrator, is being “continually improved and upgraded” and provides the United States with the capability to “shut down, set back, and destroy” Iran's nuclear program. (The Hill, April 10, 2015)
Late on April 14, 2015, President Obama caved in to Congressional pressure and the White House announced that the President would sign a compromise bill that would allow Congress to review the hypothetical nuclear accord with Iran, if one were to be agreed to by the June 30 deadline. Essentially the bill allows Congress to vote on whether they approve of the text of the deal, which is to be sent to Congress along with all necessary classified information as soon as a deal is reached. The agreement also halts any lifting of sanctions after the agreement pending a 30 day Congressional review period, as opposed to the original proposed 60 day review period. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest stated during a press conference that the President wasn't very satisfied with the legislation, but it was at least acceptable. In response to this news, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated during a press conference that “we (Iran) are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress” (The Washington Post, April 15, 2015).
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) revealed on April 14, 2015, that China, in addition to Russia, was going to begin constructing nuclear plants in Iran. At a press conference of the AEOI, dubbed “An Analysis of the Lausanne Statement,” their spokesman stated that “we have inked an agreement with the Russians to construct two nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity, while the Chinese will also enter this arena soon.” (Algemeiner, April 14, 2015)
“Constructive” talks were held between Iranian leaders and the IAEA on April 15, with their investigation of the potential military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program running parallel to the negotiations for an agreement aimed at limiting the program. The IAEA officials held “technical talks” with the Iranian leadership, in which they addressed issues relating to the Iranian nuclear program that Tehran had been avoiding since August. Successive to the meeting, IAEA officials stated that they expected progress within the month on issues including Iranian experimentation on explosives that could be used to develop an atomic bomb (Reuters, April 16, 2015).
Iranians celebrated Rouz-e Artesh, their annual “Army Day,” on April 18, complete with parades and displays of Iranian military vehicles and equipment. During these celebrations, the usual cries of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” were heard, accompanied by banners hanging from military vehicles and local stores advertising the same message.
In contrast to Iranian assertions, member of the U.S. negotiating team and nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz stated that “we expect to have anywhere, anytime access” to the Iranian nuclear facilities under the framework for a nuclear deal. Moniz said that the inspections would be part of a well-defined process and would not be erratic or frivolous (Bloomberg, April 21, 2015).
Reaching an Agreement
Iranian and P5+1 officials reconvened on April 22, 2015, to begin the difficult task of trying to pull together a final deal by June 30 that will satisfy all parties involved. This round of negotiations included EU diplomat Helga Schmid, Iran's deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and technical experts from the P5+1 and Iran. The main issues still to be worked out are the pace and timing of sanctions relief, as well as finalizing the number of allowable centrifuges.
The New York Times reported on April 21 that the United States had constructed a secret replica of Iran's nuclear facilities deep in the heart of the woods of Tennessee. The Oak Ridge Nuclear Reservation in Tennessee is part of an extensive program aimed at replicating in order to better understand Iranian nuclear capabilities. Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who oversees these facilities and was a key negotiator in the talks with Iran, stated that the negotiating diplomats would have been “stumbling in the dark if we did not have this capability nurtured over many dacades”(New York Times, April 21, 2015). These facilities helped the negotiating teams decide whether the stipulations of an agreement would work, based on tests in similar environments to Iranian facilities.
Worried that Prime Minister Netanyahu would publicly air his criticisms of the administration's Iran policy and the nuclear framework, President Obama stated that he had no intention of inviting Netanyahu for a face-to-face meeting before the deal is finalized. During a meeting at the White House with leaders from prominent organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, and the Jewish Federations of North America, Obama said he would be talking with Netanyahu on the phone regularly in the meantime but would not be scheduling a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister until after June 30.
With slightly more than two months to formulate a deal by the self-imposed “final” deadline of June 30, John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif met in the New York residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations on April 28. The was the first time that the two had met since the framework deal was announced on April 2, and this meeting occured simultaneously with the U.N. conference on nuclear non-proliferation. While negotiations were underway in New York, in Washington the Senate began a serious debate over empowering Congress to review and accept or reject the potential nuclear deal.
The U.S. Senate rejected a measure aimed at toughening the Corker-Menendez Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act by classifying any Iran deal as an international treaty on April 29, 2015. By classifying a nuclear agreement with Iran as an international treaty, the amendment to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act would require the agreement to be ratified by 2/3 of the 100 members of the Senate. The vote failed with 39 Republican Senators voting in favor, and 57 other Senators voting against it.
The Senate subsequently rejected another amendment that would have linked sanctions relief to a requirement that Obama certify that Tehran is not supporting acts of terrorism against Americans.
A handful of Republicans joined Senate Democrats to reject the proposal by a 54-45 vote (Reuters, April 29, 2015).
Senator Marco Rubio pushed for amending the Corker-Menendez bill to require that Iran recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state as a part of any final nuclear accord. Considering the Iranian governmen't record on Israel, Rubio's colleagues argued that such a requirement would make it impossible to negotiate a deal with Iran and the idea was dropped.
Although the White House agreed not to veto the Corker-Menendez bill on April 14, the president warned he would veto the bill if it had any significant changes made.
Is Iran Cheating?
“The UK government informed the Panel [that monitors Iran's compliance with the UN sanctions regime] on 20 April 2015 that it ‘is aware of an active Iranian nuclear procurement network which has been associated with Iran's Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA) and Kalay Electric Company (KEC).’” Both companies are under sanctions because of their suspected links to banned Iranian nuclear activities.
The existence of this network reinforces fears that Iran cannot be trusted to comply with the proposed nuclear deal. If true, the report also contradicts claims by the Obama administration that Tehran has complied with the terms of the November 2013 agreement between Iran and the six powers requiring reductions in its nuclear activities, including enrichment (Reuters, April 30, 2015).
The United States Senate passed the Corker-Menendez Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act with an overwhelming majority (98-1) on May 7, 2015. This approval brought U.S. lawmakers one step closer to being able to approve or reject any nuclear deal forged between Iran and the P5+1. To view the final text of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, please click here.
Contrary to the claims of the Iranian government, IAEA head Yukiya Amano stated on May 12, 2015, that the framework being considered by the P5+1 and Iran provides for IAEA access to Iranian nuclear sites for inspections.
Adding to the general skepticism of whether Iran can be trusted to fulfill the obligations of a nuclear agreement, Czech officials reported in May 2015 that earlier in the year they had blocked a shipment of nuclear materials bound for Iran. The Iranian government attempted to make the purchase of U.S. made Howden CKD Compressors from a third party in the Czech Republic, but Czech authorities were alerted to the deal and prevented it from happening. Authorities were tipped off when the transport company provided false documentation accompanying the shipment in attempts to hide it's origin and destination. The estimated value of the thwarted transaction was $61 million (Reuters, May 13, 2015).
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei referred to the P5+1 requests for interviews with Iranian nuclear scientists as “unreasonable demands,” on May 19, stating that Iran, “will never yield to pressure,” and “will not give access to it's nuclear scientists”(Reuters, May 19, 2015). In a broadcast on Iranian state television Khamenei said that allowing interviews with Iranian nuclear scientists would be a violation of the scientists individual privacy, referring to the interviews as interrogations. The P5+1 and the IAEA have continually asserted that under any nuclear deal they must be provided access to Iranian nuclear scientists.
Russian officials voiced their opposition to the automatic reimposition of international sanctions if Iran is caught cheating in regards to elements of the proposed nuclear deal. Russias Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, bluntly stated that “there can be no automaticity, none whatsoever”(Bloomberg, May 13, 2015).
In response to Israel's skepticism and disapproval of the framework nuclear deal reached between the P5+1 and Iran, the United States and Israel entered unnoficial negotiations in mid-May 2015 aimed at providing the Israeli military with additional U.S. military equipment. U.S. officials announced on May 20 that they had signed a deal to sell Israel $1.8 billion in precision guided munitions, large and small bombs, and amunition. As a part of the deal Israel will also receive 3,000 Hellfire missiles that were supposed to be delivered in 2014, but were postponed due to Operation Protective Edge. Saudi Arabia will also receive 10 Seahawk helicopters from the United States as a part of this reassurance deal surrounding the framework agreement with Iran.
North Korean officials including nuclear experts and defense officials made their third visit to Iran in May 2015, amid reports that the two countries were forging ballistic and nuclear ties. The dissident group NCRI alleged that the North Korean officials were allowed access to Iranian nuclear sites and held meetings with Iranian nuclear officials and scientists, some of whom the IAEA had been denied access to in the past.
An IAEA report released in May 2015 unsurprisingly claimed that certain key questions still had not been answered by the Iranian regime, leaving a large part of the agreement essentially stalled. The IAEA still had not recieved adequate information to assess whether or not Iranian scientists had worked on nuclear arms; information that it was supposed to have been provided with over 9 months prior. The IAEA report for May 2015 detailed how the organization remained, “concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for missiles” (AP, May 29, 2015).
Throwing a wrench in the wheel of negotiations, on May 29, 2015, it was revealed via the IAEA's report for May 2015 that the Iranian stockpile of nuclear fuel had experienced a 20% increase during the previous 18 months. Although the IAEA inspectors noted the increase in nuclear material, they also stated in the report that there was no evidence that Iran was racing towards a bomb, and that Iranian nuclear facilities that may give them the capability to develop a bomb are non-operational. The report also clarified that certain aspects of the Iranian nuclear program have been frozen or rolled back. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf held a press conference on July 2, in which she clarified the findings of the report. When asked if the increase in the Iranian nuclear stockpile would complicate negotiations, Harf quickly responded that it would have no such effect, and said that officials at the State Department were in fact “perplexed” by the findings of the report. She explained that officials in Washington were not worried about the number, because the Iranians just had to be below a certain number when the deal is officially put in place, and until then it was fine for their stockpile numbers to fluctuate. To read the full IAEA report released on May 29, 2015, click here.
A “snapback” of UN sanctions was agreed to by the P5+1 on May 31, 2015, answering the question of what would occur if Iran were to be caught cheating a final deal and clearing a major obstacle to reaching a nuclear accord. The nations agreed that if Iran were to be caught engaging in any activities that could be considered “cheating,” while the deal is in place, it would mean the reimposition of lifted UN sanctions against the country. If Iran were to be caught cheating, under the agreement the situation would be evaluated by a panel including representatives from the P5+1 and Iran. If in any case Iran is found incompliant with the deal by the IAEA, the P5+1 agreed that UN sanctions would be automatically reimposed (Reuters, May 31, 2015).
During the negotiations Iran continued to work on technology that could be applied to nuclear weaponry, according to a secret report produced by the Pentagon in January 2015 but not released until June. The Pentagon report reached the conclusion that, “covert [Iranian nuclear] activities appear to be continuing unabated, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen” (Bloomberg, June 3, 2015).
Confirming that Iran had little intention of honoring a nuclear agreement from the begining, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) issued a report in June 2015 showing that Iran had produced four tons of enriched uranium since the interim deal came into effect in January 2014. Under the interim deal this uranium was to be converted into an oxidized form that is not easily weaponizable, and according to the ISIS report only 5% of this newly produced uranium had been converted into uranium oxide. The report revealed that between November 2014 and June 2015 Iran had not bothered to convert any uranium into uranium oxide, thwarting their responsibilities per the interim agreement.
The UN Committee on Iran Sanctions questioned whether countries were simply ignoring Iranian violations of sanctions for the sake of preserving the possibility of a final deal in June 2015. A report issued by the committee presented a whitewashing of Iranian sanctions violations, including violations of travel restrictions imposed on Iranian officials, banking activity outside Iran related to nuclear procurement, and arms purchases. Even though Iran violated the stipulations of international sanctions in public multiple times since the Committee on Iran Sanctions most recent report, no countries reported any of these violations of sanctions during that same period. According to the report, “The current situation with reporting could reflect a general reduction of procurement activities by the Iranian side or a political decision by some member states to refrain from reporting to avoid a possible negative impact on ongoing negotiations” (The Tower, June 9, 2015). To read the full report, click here.
The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report in June 2015 that demonstrated how the United States State Department had been severely falling behind when it came to reporting Iranian violations of U.S. and internationally imposed sanctions. The report detailed that the State Department was at times more than three years late in reporting sanctions violations, with an example given of sanctions violations that occured in 2011 not being reported to Congress until December 2014. The Government Accountability Office concluded in their report that, “[the] State [Department] is falling further and further behind in providing the reports and is now juggling a backlog of draft reports at different stages of that process.” To read the full report, click here.
In mid-June 2015, Iran's parliament approved draft legislation that would bar international inspectors from it's military sites, effectively solidifying Khamenei's statements that he would not allow inspections. The bill also asserts the Iranian idea that all sanctions on Iran should be lifted on the day that a deal is signed. International actors expressed concern that a final nuclear deal would not be able to be reached if Iran were to not allow inspections of their nuclear facilities.
According to the U.S. State Department's 2014 Report on Global Terrorism, Iran's support for terrorism through 2014 was “undiminished”. The report cited Iran's continued support of the Hezbollah terror organization, and Assad's regime forces, as disturbing examples of Iran's continued support of terrorist activities. The report designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, as in years past (The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2015).
Coming in to the last week before the “final” deadline to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei appeared on Iranian state television and clarified his demands and “red lines” when dealing with the P5+1 negotiators. These demands included, as before, that all sanctions against Iran be lifted as soon as a nuclear accord is signed, and that international inspectors receive no inspection access to Iranian nuclear facilities. During the speech Khamenei also stated that “freezing Iran’s [nuclear] research and development for a long time, like 10 or 12 years, is not acceptable” (Foreign Policy, June 23, 2015).
Skepticism Surrounding a Final Deal
Five members of President Obama's trusted inner circle of Iran advisers wrote an open letter to the President, which was released to the public on June 25, 2015.
In the letter they cautioned that the likely deal would possibly fall short of what the Obama Administration may consider a “good agreement”. The officials made themselves clear, stating that in their opinions, “the agreement will not prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability. It will not require the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment infrastructure... The agreement does not purport to be a comprehensive strategy towards Iran. It does not address Iran’s support for terrorist organizations (like Hezbollah and Hamas), its interventions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen (its “regional hegemony”), its ballistic missile arsenal, or its oppression of its own people” (The Washington Institute, June 25, 2015).
In addition to criticizing the emerging deal, the letter laid out five minimum requirements that Iran must meet and/or agree to before a deal is to be signed. These requirements include that strict limits be placed on Iranian centrifuge research & development, IAEA inspectors be granted frequent and effective access to Iranian nuclear facilities,sanctions relief be based on Iran's cooperation with it's obligations, and an effective mechanism for enforcing consequences of sanctions violations be established. To read the full letter, please click here.
With no great breakthrough in the final hours, the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran were once again extended, this time only for one week. The negotiators announced the last-minute extension late on the deadline of June 30th, and President Obama stated that the United States was willing to “walk away” from the negotiating table if a deal could not be reached within the extended time frame.
Official representatives of the negotiating teams announced that they would know with certainy within days whether a deal could possibly be reached.