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Uranium, missiles and flip-flops: A brief history of the fissions and fusions of US-Iran relations over the years

The victory of Joseph Robinette Biden in the recently held US Presidential elections has thrown up new challenges for the United States to deal with Islamic Republic of Iran and its desperation to restart its nuclear weapon program. Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama’s Vice-President for eight years when US had successfully negotiated a nuclear framework with Iran, now has a different challenge altogether as the President of the United States.

Two events that have occurred recently have changed the equations between the two countries: Firstly, the increased sanctions against Iran by the Trump administration further emboldening the Islamic republic to secretly carry out its nuclear program and secondly, the recent killing of Iranian top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has complicated things for the incoming Biden administration. It is important to note that Biden had campaigned to end Trump’s aggressive confrontation with Iran and re-engage diplomatically.

Amidst massive political shift in the United States, Iran’s hardline parliament has recently given its final approval to a bill forcing President Hassan Rouhani to end international nuclear inspections unless the US lifts key sanctions by February. The new legislation also says that Iran will immediately take measures to start producing 20% enriched uranium for peaceful purposes and increase its stockpile of the fissile material, potentially reducing the time Iran needs to make preparations to acquire a weapon.

With both US and Iran experiencing massive political developments having considerable international ramifications, tensions are high in the Middle East region and major stakeholders in the Arab world are now hoping for renewed negotiations between Iran and the US to achieve a peaceful way out decade-long hostilities and convince Iran to give up its nuclear weapon program.

Lets try and understand how Iran’s quest for the ‘bomb’ began:

Iran’s quest for a bomb: How did it all start?

The story of Iran’s quest for a ‘nuclear bomb’ that dates back to the 1950s has an interesting story to it. The Shah of Iran, who was an ally of the United States then received technical assistance under the Atoms for Peace program, an initiative opened up by the then US President Dwight Eisenhower. ‘Atoms for Peace’ was a program under which nuclear research was opened to countries that had not previously possessed nuclear technology, but for peaceful purposes only. During the reign of Shah, Iran explored the nuclear option with active support from the United States and was also one of the first nations in the world to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, intending to expand its nuclear prowess.

Things changed in Iran after the 1979 revolution. By the time revolution started in Iran, the Shia country had developed an extensive capacity in nuclear technologies. The Islamic revolution in Iran, however, brought in many changes, as many of Iran’s nuclear talent fled the country as Islamic fundamentalism grew in strength exponentially. Another important fact for the downturn was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s open opposition to nuclear technology that almost resulted in the near disintegration of Iran’s nuclear program post-1979.

After the Islamic Revolution, in the late 1980s, Iran restarted its nuclear weapons program ‘AMAD project’. After the bloody wars with Iraq in the 80s, Iran began refocusing on nuclear technology acquisition. Iran signed long-term nuclear cooperation agreements with Pakistan, Russia and China in the late 80s and early 90s.

By around 90s, the US intelligence agencies being aware of the Iran’s nuclear weapon program, actively pressured potential suppliers to limit nuclear cooperation with Iran. Iran, aided by nuclear black market networks run by AQ Khan, began pursuing an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capability by developing necessary infrastructure.

Iran comes out in the open

In August 2002, the National Council of Resistance on Iran, a resistance group revealed that Iran has built nuclear facilities near Natanz and Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) woke up to the imminent dangers of Iran acquiring nuclear capability, adopted a resolution calling for Iran to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing related activities. 

A month later, Iran agreed to IAEA demands of inspections and signed a deal with European countries to suspend its uranium–enrichment activities. Even after inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran continued to proceed with nuclear developments despite international opposition from the US and other European countries.

The Islamic Republic of Iran also announced that it had achieved enriching and re-processing capabilties of the nuclear fuel for the first time. Iran had successfully enriched Uranium to about 3.5 percent at the Natanz pilot enrichment plant.

What is Nuclear enrichment?

To make nuclear bombs, the uranium ore mined from the earth needs to be enriched to either produce Uranium-235 or plutonium. The extracted ore is processed to get Uranium oxide, contains only about 1% uranium oxide. Uranium oxide contains two types of isotopes – Uranium-235 and Uranium-238. Uranium-235 is the element that is needed to make a bomb or fuel a nuclear power plant. 

Before the Uranium ores can be used in nuclear reactors or atomic bombs, it has to be enriched. Uranium oxide ores is processed through thousands of devices called ‘centrifuges’ to create Uranium-235. These ores can then be again re-processed in the nuclear reactors which transforms it into plutonium.

The Uranium used in nuclear reactors is enriched to about 4% Uranium-235. However, for building fuel for nuclear bombs, Uranium must be enriched to about 90%.

Iran’s nuclear move had not only upset the regional stability in the perennial battle grounds of Middle East, but also changed the strategic calculations of European powers in the region. Responding to nuclear maneuver by Iran, in 2006, economic sanctions were imposed on Iran by the United Nations, later followed by similar sanctions from the US and the European Union.

The economic sanctions targeted Iran’s oil business, weapons sales and financial transactions, that had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy. Iran, being one of the largest producers of crude oil, had to face enormous difficulties to sell its produce as no country was willing to do business with the Islamic Republic fearing a blow back from western powers. 

The economic sanctions on Iran and the subsequent economic downturn of Iran led to bitter confrontations between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world powers.

From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani days:

In 2009 elections, the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came back to power and continued talks with P5+1 – China, France, Germany, Russia the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany for a possible relaxation in exchange for halting its enrichment program. Interestingly, President Barack Obama had conducted extensive one-on-one talks with Iran’s top nuclear negotiators to finalise a deal to incentivise Iran to halt its nuclear weapon program in exchange for relaxation in sanctions.

A few months later, the P5+1 accused Iran of lying to them by constructing a secret, second uranium-enrichment facility, Fordow, in the mountains near the holy city of Qom. Following the breakdown in negotiations, Iran informed the IAEA that it would begin enriching some of its Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) to up to 20% Uranium-235. Four days later, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had produced 20% enriched uranium and had the ability to enrich it further if it chose to do so.

Tensions between the international community and Iran further rose after President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran intended to construct 10 additional uranium enrichment facilities. In retaliation, the UN Security Council adopted resolution expanding sanctions against Iran in an effort to tighten proliferation-related sanctions and banning Iran from carrying out further nuclear-capable ballistic missile tests.

Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, is elected president of Iran in 2013. After taking over as President, Rouhani asserted that Iran will maintain its nuclear program, but offered transparency in the process. In 2013, Iran and the P5+1 announced an interim agreement temporarily curbing Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for freeing some Iranian assets, setting the stage for a comprehensive nuclear accord.

Iran nuclear deal: JCOPA deal

After 20 months of intensive negotiations between the two sides, P5+1+ European Union and Iran reached a historic agreement and agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at Geneva. The Geneva agreement or JCPOA was an interim deal, before the actual nuclear deal framework, in which Iran agreed to roll back parts of its nuclear program. In return, the P5+1 agreed to ease some sanctions imposed on Iran.

The JCPOA limited Iran’s uranium enrichment programme until 2030 and contained stringent monitoring and transparency measures that will remain in place long after that date. The deal also limited the number of centrifuges Iran can run and restricted it to an older, slower model. Under the deal, Iran was barred from using heavy-water reactor to re-use nuclear fuel to enrich plutonium.

In 2016, the IAEA acknowledged that Iran had met its commitments under the nuclear deal, resulting in lifting most sanctions on Iran. Iran slowly re-entered the global banking system and began selling crude oil and natural gas in the international market.

Interstingly, the deal, even although welcomed by a most of the nations, was criticised by Israel. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, opposing the nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1, had said that the deal would “pave Iran’s path to the bomb.” However, the coming to power of President Donald Trump in United States in 2016 altered the equations, who had campaigned on a promise of ‘tearing up the deal’ for failing to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and actively supporting terror groups against the US in the regional conflicts.

Fallout of the deal

In a dramatic event, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a presentation in 2018 disclosing seizure of documents by Israeli intelligence alleging Iran’s secret atomic activities. Israel, which was averse to the JCPOA negotiations in the first place, had claimed that the documents proved that Iran was carrying out a secret nuclear weapons program which comprised five 10-kiloton warheads and ended in 2003. 

On 8 May 2018, President Trump announced that the United States will be withdrawing from implementing the JCPOA and begin to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Declaring that the deal was “defective at its core”, President Trump cited Iran’s alleged open support for terrorism and pursuit of ballistic missiles, as well as the Israeli intelligence revelations on Iran’s earlier nuclear pursuits, to justify the US withdrawal.

After the US withdrawal, Tehran said it would continue to uphold its commitments under the deal. In June 2018, Iran announced it would expand its enrichment infrastructure within the limits of the JCPOA. Even as Donald Trump threatened Iran with more economic and possible military retaliation, Iran has exceeded limits on uranium enrichment agreed to in the JCPOA.

After the US withdrawal, the remaining P4+1 parties (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) are taking steps to work around the coercive US measures and preserve the accord.

Meanwhile, US President-elect Joe Biden has expressed his readiness to restart negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal. However, it seems Iran is running out patience and vehemently opposed to playing this waiting game. It is interesting to see how the Biden administration maneuvers with the limited options it has, especially at a time when Iran has imposed a deadline for the US and also threatened to restart its weapon program.

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