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Iran Nuclear History: A Second Extension

(August 2015)

It was revealed late in the afternoon on November 24, 2014, that the United States and Iran still had significant differences to work out and that no comprehensive nuclear deal had been reached. After months of intense negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (USA, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia), 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 hoped 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 remained in effect. As a part of this extension, Iranian officials were expected to allow United Nations inspectors increased access to workshops where Iranian centrifuges and rotors are built to increase the transparency of their nuclear program and facilities. Negotiators were optimistic about prospects for an agreement in the coming months. U.S. Secretary of State 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 expected a fresh round of crippling sanctions against Iran to come from the United States in response to a deal not being reached (Washington Post, November 24, 2014).

Delivering his first remarks on the extension, on November 25, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a group of Iran’s top Muslim clerics, “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 dilemma, Ayatollah 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 International Atomic Energy Agency (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). Shortly thereafter, the IAEA announced it had indeed secured the necessary funding.

In December 2014, U.S. officials accused Iran of breaching the nuclear sanctions placed on them by the United Nations by secretly 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. It was possible, however, that the violations predated the interim agreement (Foreign Policy, December 8, 2014).

The IAEA report for the end of 2014 indicated Iran was cooperating in certain aspects of the temporary deal agreed to in January 2014. According to the report, the Iranians did not enrich uranium over 5% and had made no technological advances at their nuclear facilities.

Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reconvened with their respective negotiating teams in early January 2015 in Geneva. Before the negotiations began, Kerry said, “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, the Iranian government made a troubling announcement on January 14. During a visit to the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Rouhani said the facility would be expanded and that two new nuclear power facilities would be built in the vicinity. The goal of these power plants is to increase nuclear power output according to the Iranian government. “Construction of two new power plants will increase the capacity of Bushehr province’s power generation to 2,000 megawatts,” Rouhani stated (Fars News, January 14, 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 program again.”

House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress in January 2015, in hopes of swaying members 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 snub, 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 legislation that might tighten any penalties or sanctions against Iran until after March 24. Congressmen and government officials hoped this two-month timeframe would allow the negotiating teams to come to a comprehensive and complete framework for ensuring Iran’s nuclear program had only peaceful applications. Obama stated he would veto any sanctions bill while the negotiators were attempting to reach a deal.

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 had given the Iranians 80% of what they want during the negotiations, in return for very little. 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, “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 controversial. Democrats and administration officials were angered because he was invited to speak by House Speaker John Boehner, not President Obama. Spokespeople for the White House defended their rejection of his request for a meeting with the president, insisting it was inappropriate to meet with a foreign leader so close to their country’s elections. Critics argued the Republicans invited Netanyahu to undermine President Obama’s negotiating position. Many Democrats subsequently skipped his speech in protest (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 were moving closer to a compromise on Iran’s nuclear program. The compromise focused 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 some of their centrifuges running. The compromise included stipulations limiting the amount of uranium gas Iran could store, which would be monitored by UN agencies, and a commitment by Iran to export most of its enriched uranium (Washington Post, February 4, 2015).

Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif made it clear in early February that he opposed another extension to the negotiations. “I do not believe another extension is in the interests of anybody,” Zarif said, “as I did not believe this extension was either necessary or useful.” He added that negotiators needed to “seize this opportunity” because “it may not be repeated.” In a separate interview on February 8, Secretary of State Kerry claimed that it would be “impossible” for another extension if no solution was reached this time around (New York Times, February 9, 2015).

Speaking at a ceremony commemorating Space Technology Day in Iran on February 17, 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed Iran had made “highly important progress” in the pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy. Rouhani added that the Iranian nuclear program was “running at a higher speed” and complained about American attempts to sanction Iran and derail its nuclear program. “We don’t and will not take permission from anyone to make progress in science and knowledge,” he said (Fars News, February 17, 2015).

A report prepared by the IAEA and released by Reuters on February 19, 2015, claimed that Iran was 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 refusing to cooperate in areas it had promised to have completed by August 2014. “Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures,” the report said, referring to the scope of Iranian explosive tests and other allegations (Reuters, February 20, 2015).

Kerry addressed the people concerned about a “bad deal” and its impact on February 23, 2015, when he stated, “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, which had previously claimed to have located 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. 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 (The Hill, 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. Critics jumped on the news as evidence the deal would not prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb after it expired. Two days after this information was leaked, Iranian negotiator Mohammed Javad Zarif stated that this ten-year freeze on nuclear operations was “unacceptable.”

When Netanyahu gave his speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015, he argued the proposed agreement with Iran would leave them with a breakout time of only one year and thousands of operational centrifuges in order to make nuclear materials. He said the deal endangered Israel because it did not “block Iran’s path to the bomb.” Instead, “it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

Obama responded to the criticism by saying that Netanyahu did not provide any alternative solutions to come to a nuclear agreement.

While the Israeli Prime Minister was attempting to convince Congress not to approve a bad deal, Kerry and Zarif met in Switzerland to continue negotiations to reach a final agreement (Reuters, March 3, 2015).

On March 3, the United States negotiating team laid out their “bottom lines,” which included:

  • 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 (Yahoo News, March 4, 2015)

The second to last round of negotiations wrapped up in Geneva 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.”

Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia the next day to reassure America’s Arab allies the United States would work with them to counter Iranian influence in the region whether or not a nuclear accord was reached by the March 17 deadline (The Washington Post, March 5, 2015).

A group of forty-seven Republicans gave the Iranian leadership a lesson in balance of power principles on March 5, 2015, presciently warning them in a letter that any agreement struck without Congressional approval was an executive agreement that could be reversed by the next president. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all signed the letter. The letter was meant to discourage the Iranian regime from signing the current deal and pressure Obama to submit any agreement to Congress for approval (Politico, March 9, 2015).

Vice President Joe Biden said the authors of the letter severely undercut presidential authority and was “beneath the dignity” of the Senate. Biden said, “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 hardline 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 an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released in March 2015, Americans were very skeptical as to whether the negotiations would limit Iran’s ability to produce nuclear materials. The poll found that 24% of Americans thought the negotiations would make a difference in preventing Iran from eventually obtaining nuclear weapons material, and 74% said they would not make a difference (Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2015).

On March 12, 2015, President 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 said, “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 (The White House, March 12, 2015).

Separate 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 was reached. They discussed the adoption of a UN resolution to protect any nuclear deal from potential sabotage from Republicans in the Congress.

Coming into the final countdown before the deadline to reach a deal at the end of March 2015, there were still several outstanding disagreements between the Iranians and the P5+1. These included when UN sanctions would be lifted, how inspections would be conducted, and how many centrifuges Iran would be allowed to keep operational. Negotiations were further complicated when Iranian officials reversed their earlier commitment to convert the Fordo facility for use solely in scientific research, and demanded that it remain operational with centrifuges capable of producing uranium. Iran also insisted on retaining the Arak heavy water reactor, which could provide them an alternate route to a nuclear weapon.

Senators Bob Corker and Robert Menendez drafted a bill that would give congress the overall authority to accept or reject any nuclear deal with Iran. As the bill circulated in mid-March, Obama and members of his administration lobbied against the bill, putting great pressure on Democrats to support the president or face retribution. Obama wanted to head off possible Democratic defections to prevent a veto-proof majority from forming in support of the bill..

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 for 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 “permanent sanctions relief from Congressionally-mandated sanctions would require new legislation”(PressTV, March 19, 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 negotiating team about the potential implications of a deal that left Iran with a 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 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. To build a case against the emerging deal, Netanyahu’s government allegedly passed information on to U.S. lawmakers, hoping to drain support for the deal. Israeli officials denied the spying accusations and maintained that they received the confidential information through other means. This incident further strained ties between Obama and Netanyahu.

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. At a press conference the day before, he said the IAEA was “still not in a position to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful purpose” (Yahoo News, March 24, 2015).

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 late 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).

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.

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 violated a nuclear deal.

Negotiations were again complicated by the Iranian demanded that international sanctions be immediately lifted after signing an agreement. The P5+1 insisted they be removed gradually.

On March 29, 2015, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi threw another wrench into the talks when he told reporters, “The export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our program, and we do not intend sending them abroad.” In November 2014, the Iranians had agreed to ship part of their stockpile of uranium to Russia, where it would be processed and converted into specialized fuel rods that could not be weaponized.

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.”