Academic journal article McNair Papers

Iran's Nuclear Program: Status, Risks, and Prospects

Academic journal article McNair Papers

Iran's Nuclear Program: Status, Risks, and Prospects

Article excerpt

the next several months may well decide whether Iran will develop a capability to make nuclear weapons--in particular, developing the wherewithal to produce separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU). The outcome depends critically on negotiations being carried out by great Britain, France, and Germany with Iran to establish a framework requiring Iran to suspend permanently "enrichment--and reprocessing--related activities"--the activities necessary to produce HEU, separate plutonium, and build an indigenous nuclear reactor. In return, Iran would receive a range of economic, political, and security benefits from the European Union (EU) and other nations. A recent decision by Iran to suspend temporarily its enrichment- and reprocessing-related activities now permits these negotiations on a permanent suspension to proceed.

The most advanced of Iran's sensitive nuclear projects involves gas centrifuges, sophisticated devices to enrich uranium. This project started 20 years ago and progressed in secret until late 2002. By the time Iran revealed this program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in early 2003, it had almost reached an industrial scale at the Natanz facility, near Kashan in central Iran. In the process, it had also violated its IAEA safeguards agreement multiple times.

Despite repeated attempts, Iran has convinced few that the purpose of its large nuclear program is purely peaceful. for example, Iran declared to the IAEA in 2003 that it began its gas centrifuge program in 1985 during its bloody war with Iraq. this decision is widely perceived as having been part of an effort to make HEU for nuclear weapons. Iran claimed that the only purpose of its centrifuge program was to make fuel for the German-supplied Bushehr power reactor--a claim that is highly dubious, given the reality that by 1985, Germany had suspended all work at the reactor. After the war with Iraq ended, Germany never resumed construction, and in 1995, Russia signed a contract to finish it. Yet throughout the decade, while the fate of the reactor at Bushehr was uncertain, Iran accelerated its gas centrifuge program. Although no one has produced a "smoking gun" proving that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, the timing, scope, and long secrecy of the program have led many nations to conclude that Iran either had or has one. In any case, once it finishes its uranium enrichment or reprocessing facilities, Iran could decide to obtain nuclear weapons and proceed quickly to produce nuclear explosive materials in these facilities. For these reasons, many nations believe Iran should be persuaded to abandon at least its enrichment- and reprocessing-related activities.

Background on Suspension

Soon after the IAEA focused on Iran in early 2003, the suspension of activities related to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing was viewed as being at the heart of any potential solution to the conflict over Iran's nuclear program. Although initial concern focused on Iran's secret nuclear programs and its violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), many believed that bringing Iran into compliance with the NPT was not sufficient to solve this crisis.

October 2003 Tehran Agreement

Because of the European union's relationship with Iran, Britain, France, and Germany, called the EU-3, took the lead in negotiating a suspension in Iran's uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. In October 2003, the British, French, and German foreign ministers and Hassan Rohani, secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council, reached an agreement requiring Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA to address and resolve outstanding issues, voluntarily suspend its activities related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing, and sign and start the ratification process of the IAEA advanced safeguards protocol. (2) In return, the EU-3 foreign ministers promised that their governments would recognize Iran's right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in accordance with the NPT and expressed their willingness to help resolve the situation with the IAEA board of governors and promote security and stability in the region. …

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