Iran Agrees Nuclear Deal: Iran's Relations with the West Have Been Coloured over the Past Two Years by Fears over Its Nuclear Programme but Far from Backing Down on Its Nuclear Ambitions, the Iranian Government Is Now Hoping to Build Up to 20 New Reactors

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WHILE TEHRAN INSISTS THAT its intentions are solely restricted to constructing nuclear power plants, the United States is convinced Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. The truth is difficult to determine. But with so much freely available power sector feedstock at its disposal, in the form of some of the biggest gas fields in the world, it does seem strange that Tehran is prepared to put its relations with the international community under such strain to develop nuclear power.

To date, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no evidence Iran is developing nuclear weapons but the organisation remains concerned over the traces of enriched uranium it found at an Iranian installation in 2003. Tehran says the traces must have come from contaminated centrifuge components imported from Pakistan but long diplomatic negotiations have failed to reduce tensions with the West. However, a breakthrough was made at the end of May after talks between Iranian delegates and British, German and French officials, when Tehran agreed to suspend key elements of its nuclear programme and renewed its pledge not to seek to develop nuclear weapons.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "The Paris agreement ... sets out very clearly that the suspension of conversion and uranium enrichment processing continues until there is a long-term agreement under the Paris accord. It is now a matter for the Iranian government to decide whether what we outlined today, in outline, not in any sort of detail, is sufficient for them to continue with the Paris deal." A final decision will be put to the Iranian government later in the year.

The agreement triggered a slight warming in the US position. Washington has lifted its block on Iran joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and talks on membership are now underway. Tehran originally applied to join in 1996 but the US had vetoed its membership since then. However, it could take Iran many years to secure membership as a result of the lack of economic and trade freedom in the country.

An Iranian government spokesperson commented: "The Iranian Foreign Ministry welcomes this step. We believed from the beginning that our right to be accepted into the WTO was ignored for no reason. In the past months the Islamic Republic of Iran, in its negotiations with Europe and influential WTO countries, has stressed the need to recognise Iran's right to join this trade organisation." However, a final deal on Iran's nuclear intentions will be required if Iran is to gain admittance to the WTO and make further progress on normalising relations with the West.

Despite such progress, however, two factors have continued to feed fears over Iran's nuclear intentions. Firstly, the country's defence minister, Ali Shamkhani, conceded that the military has developed a new motor for the medium range Shahab 3 missile, which would give it a range of up to 2,000km, bringing Israel and many US bases in the region within reach. However, Shamkhani insists that solid fuel rather than nuclear technology is being used to propel the missile. He said: "Using solid fuel would be more durable and increase the range of the missile." The government also denies that it is trying to develop nuclear warheads that could be delivered by the new Shahab 3.

Tensions rose after German magazine Der Spiegel claimed Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf said Iran was "very anxious to have the bomb"; that is, to develop nuclear weapons. Pakistani officials later claimed the president had been misquoted. A spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry said: "It is not the business of other countries to comment in this regard. It is up to us to say what we are seeking and not seeking. We are insisting we are not seeking such weapons."

While construction work on the 2,600MW Bushehr nuclear reactor has proceeded almost painfully slowly, the Majlis has given the go-ahead for the construction of 20 new reactors. …