Overview of Iran’s nuclear programme
A brief introduction to the controversy surrounding Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and alleged nuclear weapons ambitions.
The history of Iran’s nuclear programme goes all the way back to the 1950s, when a programme was set up with the help and support of the United States. Despite Iran’s ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, and the newly instated Ayatollah’s alleged discontinuation of the nuclear programme on religious grounds after the revolution, Iran was increasingly suspected of being a potential proliferator after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. As Iran’s relations with both its neighbours and the West deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s, suspicion mounted. In 2002, the IAEA become aware of a number of clandestine nuclear facilities in Iran. As a result, Iran came under pressure to accept the Additional Protocol (AP) to the IAEA, which would permit short notice inspections of locations beyond those formally declared as nuclear sites. Iran signed the Protocol (but didn’t ratify) and also agreed to suspend all uranium enrichment. However, in September 2005, the IAEA reported that Iran had resumed enriching uranium, and that a number of issues relating to its nuclear programme remained unresolved. In February 2006, the IAEA subsequently chose to refer the case to the UN Security Council.
Iran has always maintained that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, and that it is economically prudent to widen the state’s industrial base through nuclear power – both to free up more oil and gas for export and to prepare for the day when its oil and gas reserves run out. Teheran further argues that the development of indigenous nuclear fuel cycle technology is necessary to avoid future dependence on foreign nuclear fuel. Besides the economic motivations, many Iranians, including in the political establishment, have developed a feeling of national pride connected to the prestige of mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. This all contributes to strong and widespread support for the nuclear programme among the Iranian public. It does not, however, provide an adequate explanation for the alleged violations of the safeguards agreement with the IAEA and the refusal to ratify the AP.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the international regime regulating nuclear weapons, explicitly provides all states parties with an “inalienable right” to the peaceful use of nuclear technology. This entitles Iran (as well as the 189 other states parties) to access international nuclear technology markets, including assistance from the IAEA, as long as it refrains from acquiring nuclear weapons. In fact, in addition to being the UN nuclear watchdog in charge of ensuring that no one develops nuclear weapons, the IAEA also works to “promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies”. This largely contradictive task of both preventing and promoting the spread of nuclear technology is a continuous predicament for the IAEA, and it also highlights one of the problematic aspects of the NPT. Another weakness of the NPT-regime is that it does not have a built-in mechanism of dispute settlement or arbitration. Non-compliance with the NPT or the safeguards agreement is instead dealt with on a case-by-case basis through the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council.
Since the IAEA referred Iran to the Security Council, the Council has adopted a series of resolutions (1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1889, 1929, 1984, 2049 2105 and 2159) calling on Teheran to cease uranium enrichment and to ratify the Additional Protocol. However, for the past decade there has been no clear consensus within the Security Council on the measures that should be taken to ensure that Iran complies with its obligations. Because of policy differences within the UN Security Council, the sanctions regime of the Security Council has been much narrower in scope than what the United States and European Union have put in place.
Despite sanctions, Iran continued its allegedly peaceful programme. The Iranian economy suffered, leading to inflation and a sharp drop in the value of the Rial and the oil production. Oil production, Iran’s largest source of revenue by far, fell to record lows. In 2013 Iran elected a new and more reformist President, who sought to continue the stalled negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme with the countries of the Security Council and Germany (P5+1). In early April 2013, the parties announced that they had agreed on a framework agreement. Iran has ostensibly agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and to stricter IAEA monitoring, in exchange for lifting the sanctions.
The bilateral relationship between Iran and the US has started to thaw. Crucially, the two states have common problems in Afghanistan and Iraq (Taliban and ISIL). But what happens next is nevertheless difficult to predict. The fact that Israel and certain factions of the US Congress remain skeptical about any deal with Iran suggests that the story of Iran’s nuclear programme is not over yet.