Talks Put Iran’s Nuclear Program in the Spotlight: Q&A

Nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran are scheduled to resume on Nov. 20 amid controversy about the merits of the prospective deal and opposition from Israel. Here are questions and answers about the talks:

Q: What’s the objective of the Geneva negotiations?

A: The U.S. and other world powers want to ensure that Iran can’t develop a nuclear weapon. Iran wants relief from the international sanctions that have devastated its economy. A first-step agreement, the subject of the negotiations resuming this week, is intended to prevent Iran from further advancing toward a nuclear-weapons capability for a limited time -- perhaps six months -- while the parties try to negotiate a comprehensive deal.

Q: Could Iran get as much as $20 billion in sanctions relief from the deal being discussed?

A: That’s what critics of the deal in Congress and Israel say. U.S. officials say the value is less than half that from limited sanctions relief that would involve petrochemicals, autos, gold and civilian aircraft parts as well as access to about $3 billion in frozen assets.

Q: Would countries be able to buy more Iranian oil if the agreement is reached?

A: No. The core international sanctions on oil exports and financial transactions would remain until there is a comprehensive deal, according to U.S. officials, who asked not to be named discussing the details of the negotiations.

Q: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called this “an exceedingly bad deal” in an interview aired yesterday on CNN. What are his points?

A: Netanyahu said Iran should be forced to abandon all enrichment of uranium -- as well as surrender some of the stockpiles of uranium it has already enriched -- so it won’t have the fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu also said Iran is being offered too much sanctions relief for an initial deal. Israel doesn’t trust Iran to cooperate in subsequent negotiations and is concerned that the sanctions regime will begin to unravel, easing the pressure on Iran to make concessions.

Q: What are Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium?

A: The greatest level of concern among other nations is uranium enriched to 19.75 percent, which is a substantial part of the way to weapons-grade material. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported last week that Iran has 196 kilograms (432 pounds) of such medium-enriched uranium, far more than Iran needs for its current production of medical isotopes.

Q: How much uranium is needed to make a nuclear weapon?

A: About 225 kilograms of 19.75 percent-enriched uranium, further purified to 90 percent, could yield 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium to fuel a single nuclear weapon, according to physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. Iran also has uranium enriched to less than 5 percent, usable for fueling a nuclear reactor, which could be further enriched to weapons-grade -- though that would take longer.

Timing is important because of international concern that Iran could “break out” from international monitoring and produce nuclear weapons before the U.S. or Israel would act militarily to prevent it. As a result, Netanyahu warned at the United Nations in September 2012 that his “red line” for military action is when Iran has enough medium-enriched uranium for a weapon.

Q: Is curbing uranium enrichment the only demand?

A: No. The U.S. and other world powers want tougher international monitoring to ensure that Iran doesn’t cheat, and they demand that Iran abandon construction of a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak. The IAEA reported last week that Iran has slowed construction work there.

Q. Why is the Arak reactor a concern?

A. That type of reactor produces a plutonium byproduct, which with additional processing could open a second route to producing fuel for a nuclear weapon. Once operational, it may be effectively immune from a military strike because destroying it would spew radioactive materials.

Q: How long has Iran’s nuclear program been in dispute?

A: The IAEA issued its first report on Iran’s nuclear program in June 2003, after an opposition group produced satellite images of a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. That fueled suspicions by the U.S., Israel and other nations that Iran is seeking to acquire at least the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

Q: The new Iranian government sounds more moderate. Is there a real change in attitude?

A: It’s too soon to know. President Barack Obama said last week that the Geneva talks, if successful, will “provide time and space for us to test, over a certain period of months, whether or not they are prepared to actually resolve this issue to the satisfaction of the international community, making us confident that in fact they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.”

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