The Deal with Iran
On 29 January 2002, George W. Bush designated Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, despite Iranian co-operation in Afghanistan the previous year. In summer 2002, the US told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that two nuclear sites were under construction in Iran, at Natanz and Arak, neither of which had been declared to the IAEA as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran was a signatory.
To defuse the situation, President Khatami offered to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme with the EU3 (France, Germany and the UK). Jack Straw, Joschka Fischer and Dominique de Villepin visited Tehran in October 2003. Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, agreed to suspend the enrichment facility at Natanz and the construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak, and to sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which provides for more intrusive inspections of nuclear sites than the NPT does. In return the EU3 promised technical help with the nuclear programme. At the beginning of 2004 it seemed that a diplomatic solution could be reached. But the Bush administration was not pleased. A senior US official spoke of ‘the importance of holding Iran’s feet to the fire’. Iran was given no meaningful technical help.
Khatami was replaced in August 2005 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner who did not want to deal with the West. Iran withdrew its co-operation under the Additional Protocol: it would still allow IAEA inspectors at its nuclear sites as required by the NPT but they would have substantially reduced powers. The Board of Governors of the IAEA reported Iran to the UN Security Council which passed a resolution instructing Iran to cease enrichment. In response, Iran renewed its enrichment activities at Natanz: by October 2006 it had 328 centrifuges running, which had produced 34 kg of low-enriched uranium (less than 5 per cent fissile U-235, suitable for use in reactors but not in bombs).
‘We are going to ratchet up the pressure step by step,’ said Nicholas Burns, the US undersecretary of state. Each time the pressure was ratcheted up, Iran expanded its nuclear capabilities which led in turn to the Security Council passing another resolution while the EU and US increased sanctions. But there were dissenters even in the US to this policy. Richard Haass, the director of policy planning at the State Department until 2003, believed that ‘Iran should be offered an array of economic, political and security incentives,’ including ‘a highly limited uranium-enrichment pilot programme so long as it accepts highly intrusive inspections’.
In February 2009, a new enrichment plant at Fordow was discovered deep in a mountain. By late 2009, about 4000 centrifuges were running in the two centres with another 800 installed. The total LEU had reached 1760 kg while the Security Council had passed four resolutions instructing Iran to halt enrichment. In November 2012, about 25,000 centrifuges were either operational or being installed while more than 7500 kg of LEU had been produced together with about 240 kg of uranium of higher enrichment. The US and EU tightened sanctions: Western companies could not do business with Iran without being blacklisted.
Ahmadinejad left office in 2013. Rouhani, the former nuclear negotiator, was elected president on a platform of engaging with the US. President Obama began his second term of office in January 2013 having pledged to ‘extend a hand’ to Iran if it were willing to unclench its fist. The atmosphere for a nuclear deal had changed for the better. After ten years of escalation, both sides attempted a deal along the lines suggested by Haass in 2006.
Following preliminary agreements at Geneva in October 2013 and Lausanne in April 2015, the main elements of a deal were thrashed out. The final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed on in Vienna on 14 July. Under the deal, the maximum enrichment allowed will be 3.67 per cent; any uranium of higher enrichment will be diluted; the stockpile of LEU will be limited to 300 kg; no more than 5060 centrifuges will be allowed at Natanz; and Fordow will be converted into a general research laboratory which will not enrich uranium. Most provisions of the JCPOA will last for 10 years but the restrictions on enrichment and the size of the LEU stockpile will last for 15 years.
A Joint Commission is to be established to oversee the implementation of the agreement and to deal with disputes. Once the IAEA confirms that Iran has fulfilled its obligations under the JCPOA, the nuclear-related sanctions will be withdrawn. A new UN Security Council resolution will nullify the six resolutions that placed restrictions on Iran. After ten years, barring upsets, the file will be closed.
It seems that both sides have achieved their goals. Iran has gained international acceptance of its enrichment programme and the withdrawal of sanctions, while its interlocutors are satisfied that Iran will not construct a nuclear bomb for at least ten years.The agreement can be undone by the US Congress but only if both houses can obtain the two-thirds majority necessary to overturn a presidential veto.
Does Iran plan to build a bomb? Probably not: it wants the prestige that goes with mastery of nuclear technology and the knowledge that if the political situation were to change, it would be able to change course. Rather like Churchill’s view, as reported by Graham Farmelo, that ‘Britain needed only to be an expert in the science of the bomb, not the weapons themselves.’