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Iran Nuclear History: Renewed Distrust

August 2015

Although Iran has seemed cooperative with the P5+1 (USA, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (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 its 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 unavailable 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 five transparency measures but still has to submit the most important portions including details of its explosive experimentation 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. 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.

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, satellite images show fresh activity at Parchin since February 2014 (Middle East Eye, August 23 2014).

Western states pushing Iran to scale down its nuclear program got a rude awakening on August 27, 2014, 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 its 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 that 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 beginning of September because he saw no signs that Iran intends to slow down or alter its 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 its way to developing a nuclear bomb and subsequently igniting a “nuclear chain reaction” in the region.

On October 2, 2014, John Kerry received 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 occurred 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 guarantee a nuclear deal. On October 21, the Iranian Mehr News Agency reported that the Obama administration may change its 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” (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 two “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 malicious 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” (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 occurred 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 its 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 regard 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, 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 its 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 totaling 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 existence 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).

Separate from the P5+1 negotiations, on November 11 Russia forged their own nuclear deal with Iran, prompting anxiety and questions from the West. Russia’s 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 (Los Angeles 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 four 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 beginning to develop a nuclear weapon.