Nukes for Dummies: A Primer on Iran Talks

Despite the broad coverage of the talks in Lausanne, the subjects being discussed by Iran and the six world powers are complex and technical. Here's what you need to know.

Barak Ravid
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Head of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Sunday March 29, 2015.Credit: AP
Barak Ravid

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Iran and the six major world powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany – are holding a decisive round of negotiations this week in an attempt to reach a framework agreement regarding Tehran’s nuclear program. Despite the broad coverage of the subject in the media and the major preoccupation with it on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and world leaders, the subject being discussed in this city is complex and technical. In recent years, and with greater intensity in recent days, terms such as enriching uranium, centrifuges, sanctions, a heavy water reactor and others have been bandied about.

The U.S. and Iranian delegations in Lausanne, March 29, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The average person who is neither a professional diplomat nor a professor of nuclear physics has difficulty finding his way around in this confusing body of knowledge. It is doubtful whether even the politicians who talk about the subject day and night fully understand what it’s about.

An Iranian security person walking in the Uranium Conversion just outside the city of Isfahan, March 30, 2005.Credit: AP

To introduce some order, then, following is a partial “guide for the perplexed.”

How did it all start?

Iran has been developing a nuclear program for the past four decades, beginning even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Starting in the early 1990s various prime ministers, such as Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, warned of the danger of a nuclear Iran.

One of the reasons for that was intelligence indicating that along with its civil nuclear program, the Iranians were carrying out tests to produce nuclear warheads for long-range missiles and various nuclear explosive mechanisms. According to U.S. intelligence, Iran froze its military nuclear program in 2003 in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq.

Israel claims that later, Iran secretly renewed its military nuclear activity. The International Atomic Energy Agency suspects that Iran has developed a military nuclear program and demands that it reveal the details in full. Iran for its part denies that it ever had a military nuclear program and claims that nuclear weapons contradict the teachings of Islam.

How long have the negotiations been going on?

The Western powers have been conducting negotiations with Iran for over a decade. In 2005 the major European countries reached an agreement that was supposed to significantly limit the Iranian nuclear program. But Washington, under the Bush administration, rejected it. In the following years Iran raised a series of proposals but none of them ripened into an agreement. Since the victory of Hassan Rohani in the Iranian presidential election of June 2013, Iran and the United States have seen a warming in relations and have been conducting serious, direct negotiations over the nuclear program.

In November 2013, after several months of open talks in Geneva alongside clandestine exchanges in the Persian Gulf Sultanate of Oman, the major powers and the Islamic Republic reached a historic interim agreement. Iran agreed to freeze the enrichment of uranium to a high level of 20 percent, and to get rid of its stockpiles of uranium enriched to such a level. In return Iran received a limited easing of international sanctions and the release of Iranian money that had been frozen in foreign accounts.

If there was already an agreement in Geneva, what are they talking about now?

In the year and a half since the interim agreement signed in Geneva, Iran and the world powers have been continuing negotiations toward an overall nuclear agreement that will end the long-term crisis. The final-status talks have been extended several times, with the final deadline set for June 30.

If negotiations can continue until June 30, then why all the fuss now?

In recent months there has been increasing pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama by senior members of the Republican Party, as well as by Democratic Party lawmakers who oppose the agreement with Iran. A group of senators and congressmen, who have received support and encouragement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, claimed that the Iranians are dragging their feet in the negotiations and thus there is no choice but to impose additional sanctions.

The White House claimed that additional sanctions would lead to a crisis in the nuclear talks, threatening that the president would impose a veto on any sanctions law passed in Congress. In an attempt to deal with the domestic pressure, the White House announced that it wants to achieve a “framework agreement” with Iran by the end of March. The senators and congressmen made it clear that if no agreement is reached by that date they would promote a new sanctions law despite White House opposition.

But what is a “framework agreement”?

The description of the outcome that the White House wishes to achieve by the end of March has changed several times. At first senior administration officials used the term “framework agreement,” later the description was changed to a “declaration of principles” and afterwards to “diplomatic understandings.” The bottom line is that the White House is interested in attaining a written document of one or two pages that will define the principles for solving each of the issues and serve as a basis for continuing negotiations for an overall agreement by the end of June.

It is not at all clear whether attaining such a document is possible because the Iranians, due to political pressure from extremist groups in Tehran, are afraid that presenting a written document now will expose them to internal criticism and undermine their ability to maneuver later in the negotiations.

What do the Americans want to achieve in a framework agreement?

The American objective is to limit Iran’s nuclear breakout capability as much as possible. In other words, to keep Iran as far as possible from a situation in which it possesses sufficient enriched uranium to be able to produce one nuclear bomb. According to American estimates, the combination of the amount of enriched uranium in Iran’s possession and its enrichment infrastructure puts Iran two to three months away from nuclear breakout capability.

The Israeli estimate is four to six weeks. The Americans claim that the agreement being formulated should distance Iran at least one year from this capability, keep them at that distance for a lengthy period of 10 to 15 years, and impose unprecedented international monitoring that in effect would make its nuclear program fully transparent to the West.

What are the issues being discussed in the negotiations?

The uranium enrichment infrastructure that Iran will be permitted to possess and operate. Iran now has about 19,000 centrifuges, industrial machines that revolve at very high speed and enrich uranium to a level that enables the production of nuclear weapons. Iran operates only about 10,000 centrifuges at various facilities. At the start of negotiations, the United States and the world powers demanded that Iran be left with only a few hundred centrifuges, but later they relented and raised the number to 1,500 centrifuges and later to 4,500. In the end, in the context of the agreement being negotiated, Iran agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges by 40 percent and to continue to operate only about 6,000 centrifuges, in which uranium will be enriched to a low level of 3.5-5 percent, which can be used only for civil purposes and is insufficient for the production of nuclear weapons.

Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium. Iran has about eight tons of uranium enriched to a level of 3.5-5 percent. If this quantity were to be enriched to a high level of 90 percent, it could suffice for five or six atomic bombs. As part of the anticipated agreement, Iran would transfer most of its enriched uranium to Russia and in return receive nuclear fuel rods for the reactor in Bushehr. Iran would keep a token 350-500 kilograms of uranium enriched to a low level, from which it cannot produce nuclear weapons.

Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant (Reuters)

The duration of the agreement. One of the main issues in the talks is how long the agreement will be in effect, and how many years it will be until the international restrictions are lifted from the Iranian nuclear program and the country’s relations with the West are normalized. The Iranians at first demanded that the agreement be in effect for five to seven years, but now they agree to a minimum of 10 years. The Americans want the agreement to be in effect for 10 to 15 years and France is demanding a period of 15 to 20 years. Israel for its part is demanding a very long period – over 20 years. This subject is still in dispute between Iran and the major powers.

The international monitoring regime. The world powers are demanding that during the period of the agreement, Iran will be subject to a particularly strict monitoring regime, in which International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will have access to every suspicious site in Iran and even make surprise visits to various sites. The major powers also demand that cameras be installed at all of Iran’s nuclear sites to transmit a video broadcast in real time of what is happening in the facilities.

In the context of the agreement, Iran will also be required to sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which defines a series of restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program that will remain in effect even after the agreement expires. The Iranians have agreed to most of these demands and the debate is now focused on the issue of the surprise visits.

Lifting sanctions. This is the issue that particularly disturbs the Iranians because it imposes a heavy burden on the country’s economy. President Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif promised the voters that the negotiations with the United States would lead to a lifting of the sanctions and the rehabilitation of the economy. Therefore the Iranians are demanding that immediately upon the signing of the agreement, all the international sanctions against Iran will be lifted, such as the prohibition against purchasing Iranian oil or the prohibition against trade with banks in Iran.

The Iranians are also demanding that all UN Security Council resolutions that imposed tough additional sanctions on the regime in the past decade be revoked. The world powers refuse to accept the Iranian demand, claiming that lifting the sanctions will be gradual and be carried out in accordance with Iranian progress in implementing its obligations in the agreement. This point is perhaps the most crucial point of contention in the talks at present.

The heavy water reactor in Arak. A byproduct of the reactor - which is still not active - would be plutonium. Future products from the reactor could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, even if Iran does not have the necessary equipment. Iran agreed to redesign the reactor so that it will produce a smaller quantity of plutonium, minimizing its ability to pass the threshold.

The fortified uranium enrichment facility in Fordo. A few years ago Iran secretly built a uranium enrichment facility in the belly of the mountain in Fordo, near the city of Qom, which is sacred to Shi’ites. The fortified facility is impregnable to most of the bombs in the hands of Israel and the United States. The facility was exposed by the United States in 2009 as a result of cooperation with Israel and other countries. As part of the negotiations, Iran agreed to change the designation of the facility to make it suitable for research and development only, under international supervision.

A suspected uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, 156 km southwest of Tehran, is seen in this 2009 satellite photograph released by DigitalGlobe. (Reuters)

Nuclear R & D activity in Iran. One of the issues still in dispute between the sides, after being reported by Israel and France, touches on the question of whether Iran can continue to develop advanced centrifuges while the agreement is in effect. Israel and France have claimed that if Iran is permitted to do so, it will reach a capability whereby immediately after the agreement expires, it will have very advanced centrifuges enabling it to achieve a nuclear breakout within only three to four months. At this point Iran has refused the demand of the powers to restrict its R & D, and in return is demanding an increase in the number of centrifuges it will be allowed to continue operating.

The possible military aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. According to the IAEA, before 2003 Iran conducted a series of tests which are suspected of being related to the production of nuclear weapons. Iran carried out these tests in several clandestine military facilities from which the IAEA inspectors were barred. France and Israel are demanding full Iranian exposure regarding this suspicious activity as a condition for any agreement. The Iranians for their part deny having ever tested a military nuclear weapon. The United States is not focusing on this issue and believes that the agreement should prevent Iran from acquiring future capabilities instead of dealing with tests that took place in the past.

Why does the Israeli government object to the negotiations and claim that this is a “bad agreement”?

Netanyahu has dealt with the Iranian issue since his first day in politics, and warned of the possibility that the regime in Tehran would have nuclear weapons. Netanyahu believes that an agreement with Iran should lead to the total dismantling of the uranium enrichment infrastructure in Iran and prevent it from becoming a nuclear threshold state – in other words, to have capabilities that would enable it to achieve a nuclear breakout within a short time.

Netanyahu believes that the present agreement will not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold power and that it will therefore lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and push Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia into developing their own nuclear programs. Netanyahu also warns that a nuclear agreement with Iran will exacerbate Iran’s subversive activity throughout the Middle East, increase Iran’s ability to influence countries with a Shi’ite population and strengthening terror organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

In recent years Netanyahu has tried to convince other countries to threaten a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and even threatened himself that Israel would attack Iran. Netanyahu did not carry out his threats due to strong opposition to such a step by all the heads of the Israeli defense establishment. In addition, Netanyahu tried to convince other countries, and in particular the U.S. Congress in his speech there at the start of the month, to impose additional sanctions on Iran because he believes that it’s the only way Iran will give up its nuclear capabilities.

Above all, Netanyahu believes the nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers will give the Iranian regime international legitimacy and turn Iran into the leading power in the Middle East, at Israel’s expense.

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