Iran has cleared the biggest hurdle to creating a nuclear bomb: learning how to separate the explosive uranium-235 isotope from uranium ore using gas centrifuges spinning at supersonic speeds. Low levels of enrichment are used to make fuel for nuclear power plants. Highly enriched uranium is needed for bombs. While Iran has insisted for a decade that it’s not building weapons, the country’s history of deception about its nuclear projects led the United Nations to demand higher levels of accountability. The diplomatic stalemate was broken when Iran and world powers struck a temporary accord that sets limits on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in exchange for about $7 billion in relief from sanctions over six months from Jan. 20.
The deal will allow Iran to continue to produce limited amounts of low-enriched uranium for civilian power reactors. The country agreed to clear up allegations of past weapons work, which led to the trade sanctions that slashed oil exports and crippled its economy. In June, Hassan Rouhani was elected president on a pledge to end the economic isolation of Iran, which sits on the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which verifies that enrichment in countries including Brazil and South Africa is used strictly for peaceful purposes, has tracked Iran’s buildup of 5 percent and 20 percent-enriched uranium. The higher-grade material is the bigger concern, as it could be further purified at short notice into the 90 percent-enriched level used to make bombs. Under the November deal, Iran must commit to eliminate its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, improve cooperation with monitors and halt advanced centrifuge installation. It also pledged not to commission its Arak heavy water reactor, which, if it became operational, could produce plutonium and give the country a second path to nuclear weapons.
The accord is the first since Iran’s program came under global scrutiny in 2003 and marks a breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Iran 35 years after the Islamic revolution. The U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had planned to build 20 nuclear reactors with international help. Supply agreements were later revoked and the country’s eight-year war with Iraq slowed Iran’s nuclear work. Iranian statements and international contacts with Pakistani weapons scientists prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to warn in 1992 that the Persian Gulf country could develop a nuclear weapon. While Iran has reaffirmed its commitment to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the country questioned the legal basis of demands to suspend work. Before it made any concessions, Iran wanted what it calls its “right” to enrich uranium recognized. Few countries were prepared to agree to that during the reign of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used his presidential pulpit to threaten Israel with destruction.
Israel and critics in the U.S. Congress say Iran can’t be trusted and shouldn’t be permitted to make any fissile material that could be further enriched to fuel a nuclear weapon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the November agreement a “historic mistake.” Even as the deal relieves tensions, Israel has left open the possibility of military strikes. The conflict has also exposed concerns about the credibility of international treaties. While the IAEA strengthened its inspection regime in the 1990s after Iraq secretly reconstituted its nuclear program, the more stringent protocols are still voluntary. Countries can also renounce the treaty, as North Korea did. Skeptics aren’t satisfied by IAEA verification. They point to the example of Iran’s two main uranium enrichment plants – a hardened bunker in Natanz and a mountainside chamber in Fordo — that Iran acknowledged only after international pressure mounted. U.S. President Barack Obama offered reassurances, saying that diplomacy with Iran had “opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure.” He must contend with U.S. lawmakers, who have proceeded with plans to impose fresh sanctions even as the two sides work to conclude a comprehensive accord within six months.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg Visual Data map of Iran’s major nuclear facilities.
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace April 2013 report estimating the costs and risks of Iran’s nuclear program.
- Federation of American Scientists overview of Iranian nuclear facilities and video showing how uranium enrichment works.
- Bloomberg News timeline about Iran’s history of deception about its nuclear program.