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Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program

The announcement on 21 October 2003 of an agreement between Iran on the one hand and Britain, France and Germany on the other, is an important and welcome step in resolving the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program.

Executive Summary

The announcement on 21 October 2003 of an agreement between Iran on the one hand and Britain, France and Germany on the other, is an important and welcome step in resolving the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program. But it would be wrong to assume that it ends it. The challenge now is to use the breathing space provided by the agreement to tackle the questions – about its implementation, the future of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and Iran’s own security concerns – that, for the time being, it has deferred.

The evidence of Iran’s putative military program is mixed but disturbing, and by no means to the U.S. alone. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and European countries that have maintained close ties to Tehran have echoed Washington’s views. Iran did not disclose the existence of several nuclear facilities. When it finally did declare these facilities, it under-declared, downplaying what turned out to be extensive and sophisticated plants. It failed to report the importation from China of natural uranium over ten years ago. Most disturbing, there are indications that it introduced enriched uranium into a nuclear site without first notifying the IAEA.

Concerns about Iran’s capacity are matched by concerns about its intentions. While none of the above actions necessarily is a violation of Iran’s obligations, and while all would be consistent with a purely peaceful enterprise, Tehran’s pattern of behaviour is cause for unease. In many instances, Iran simply failed to explain its actions. When it did, those explanations were inconsistent or shifting. The IAEA has documented examples of lack of cooperation and candour. Iranian officials have placed hurdles in the path of nuclear inspectors and, in some cases, denied access. Its economic justifications for developing a nuclear energy program, while not implausible, are not fully convincing either.

Tension over Iran’s nuclear program is further aggravated by deeply-entrenched mistrust between Tehran and Washington. The U.S., alarmed at Iran’s support for groups engaged in terrorist acts and hostility to the Arab-Israeli peace process and persuaded that it is determined to develop a bomb, has grave reservations about allowing Tehran to develop any nuclear program at all. Iran believes it has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and is determined to be treated fairly as a member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Powerful circles within the country, concerned about increasing encirclement by hostile or potentially hostile countries, fearful that the U.S. intends to change its regime by force, and deeply marked by the experience of its war with Iraq, when Iran was virtually abandoned by the international community, do not appear willing to forsake the possibility of a military nuclear program. Prospects for a durable deal on the nuclear issue are complicated by divisions within the U.S. administration and the Iranian regime alike that hinder clear-cut decision-making.

Ultimately, the nuclear problem will remain an issue of contention between Washington and Tehran at least until they are in a position to strike a grand bargain that addresses their wider and more fundamental dispute. But it would be foolhardy to bank on such an outcome, and in particular on the remote possibility of a change in regime in Iran.[fn]See ICG Middle East Briefing, Iran: Discontent and Disarray, 15 October 2003.Hide Footnote  A nuclear-armed Iran could encourage similar efforts by neighbours, from Egypt to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and deal a deadly blow to the entire NPT regime. The combination of a bomb and Iran’s newly developed longer-range missile, the Shahab-3, could be perceived by Israel as a threat necessitating a military response. Conversely, a U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive strike to forestall development of a bomb could provoke deadly retaliation by Tehran in a variety of asymmetric or non-conventional ways. Moreover, should such a strike not wholly wipe out the program (as is likely), Tehran would remain with a wounded capacity to develop a bomb and a greatly enhanced determination to do so.

For these reasons, the initiative of the three EU countries should be embraced by the international community, including the U.S. On paper, the 21 October agreement signals Iran’s acceptance of the IAEA’s core demands. According to the joint statement it issued with the three EU foreign ministers, Iran will answer all the IAEA’s outstanding questions and clarify remaining gaps, discrepancies or inconsistencies in its previous explanations; sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol and commence ratification procedures; and suspend all uranium enrichment and processing activities.

Iran’s positive decision will avoid a collision with the international community and referral of the matter to the United Nations Security Council in the short run. It shows that Europe’s policy coupling pressure and engagement can produce results. But in order for the agreement to be more than a short-lived reprieve, it needs to be vigorously followed up and strengthened through the following:

  • Immediate and unconditional implementation by Iran of the steps to which it has agreed. Iran will be judged on deeds, not on words. That means, in particular, quickly providing the full transparency it promised and ensuring accelerated ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol.
  • Indefinite suspension of all uranium enrichment by Iran or, at a minimum, its resumption only under rigorous and intrusive international monitoring. Iran’s decision to suspend all uranium enrichment is a very important element of the 21 October deal. But it also is the most fragile. Iran made clear both before and after the agreement that it reserves the right to enrich uranium and has pointedly refused to specify how long its suspension would last. This issue needs to be nailed down lest it unravel the entire agreement. Ideally, Iran’s peaceful nuclear program would not include indigenous enrichment, but if Iran is otherwise in compliance with NPT, including Additional Protocol, requirements, it will be difficult to make that case. The key is to remain focused on the ultimate goal: preventing Iran from possessing an unfettered capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. At a minimum, therefore, Iran should state that while it reserves its right to enrich uranium, it will not exercise that right without agreeing to measures – such as intrusive, permanent international monitoring and perhaps joint Iranian/international management of its enrichment facilities – beyond those demanded by the NPT and Additional Protocol.
  • Pending establishment of a solid track record of transparent behaviour, a halt by Iran of any effort to build a heavy water reactor and a pledge not to put any such reactor into operation without reaching agreement with the international community on appropriate arrangements. While there is nothing in the NPT that requires such a step, there is much in Iran’s heretofore evasive behaviour that warrants it. Absent the requisite confidence that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons program, a decision to proceed with its declared intent to build a heavy water reactor would have to be strongly resisted by the international community.

If Iran responds satisfactorily, along the lines indicated, the international community should respect its right to develop a peaceful nuclear program and provide it with the necessary technology and materials. It would be helpful at the same time to develop a set of confidence-building measures – such as a U.S. commitment not to use force against Iran and the establishment of a regional security forum – to reassure Iran about its own security concerns and to encourage it to become a fully participating, responsible international player. In all these respects it will be important to develop and maintain a strong international consensus, in particular between the U.S., EU and Russia, which will require adjustments in the positions of all parties.

Amman/Brussels, 27 October 2003

U.S. President Trump and Iranian President Rouhani address the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fourth session, 24 and 25 September 2019. Flickr/The White House, UNMedia/United Nations, CRISISGROUP

Iran Briefing Note #15

Iran Briefing Notes, of which this is the last of a series of 15 that began on 20 June 2019, highlight and provide context for major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East. 

Events of Note

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates. 

19 September: UAE signs on to U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct.

20 September: U.S. sanctions Iran’s central bank, national development fund.

20 September: U.S. announces troop deployments to Saudi Arabia.

23 September: Joint UK/France/Germany statement says “Iran bears responsibility” for 14 September Aramco attack.

24 September: U.S. embassy in Baghdad issues security alert warning of “heightened tensions in the region” a day after rockets were launched toward Green Zone.

24 September: President Donald Trump tells UN General Assembly that “as long as Iran’s menacing behaviour continues, sanctions will not be lifted; they will be tightened”.

25 September: JCPOA ministerial meeting takes place in New York.

25 September: In UN General Assembly address, President Hassan Rouhani tells U.S. to “stop the sanctions so as to open the way for the start of negotiations”.  

25 September: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces “new action to disentangle the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the Iranian economy”; new sanctions designations.

25 September: President Trump issues a proclamation “to restrict and suspend the entry into the U.S., as immigrants or non-immigrants, of senior government officials of Iran, and their immediate family members”.

26 September: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei contends that the Europeans “cannot be trusted at all, as they have betrayed all their commitments”.

27 September: Stena Bulk announces that Stena Impero, detained by Iran in July, "has now left Iranian waters". 

Ships in the Night

French President Emmanuel Macron on 24 September asserted that “the conditions … for a rapid return to negotiations have been created”. “It is now up to the Iranians and the U.S. to seize these conditions and work together to relaunch momentum”, he added.

Why it matters: Presidents Rouhani and Trump spent much of the week within a few New York city blocks from each other, but Iran and the U.S. remained poles apart on a diplomatic breakthrough. Despite efforts by President Macron and others to facilitate a direct and unprecedented meeting between the two leaders, the core conundrum, apparent for some time, remained unresolved: Tehran expects a financial reprieve before engaging in discussions that could lead to a meeting between the two presidents, while President Trump wants a meeting with his Iranian counterpart as the first step toward eventual sanctions relief. So long as neither side is willing to budge, their respective strategies – in Iran’s case, flexing its muscles on the nuclear and regional fronts; in Washington’s, the application of maximum economic coercion – remain a recipe for escalating tension. Yet the non-occurrence of a tête-a-tête ought not discourage fresh attempts to fashion a tactical de-escalation.


In remarks after chairing a 25 September JCPOA ministerial meeting, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini stated that “there is a will to try and preserve the deal”, but also acknowledged that “it is increasingly difficult to do it”.

Why it matters: Iran’s incremental breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal, and Europe’s limited capacity to provide the economic benefits the agreement was meant to deliver, are sorely testing its core bargain. The most recent EU-Iran trade data illustrates the challenge in offsetting the impact of unilateral U.S. sanctions: for the period from January to July 2019, Iran’s exports collapsed by almost 94 per cent compared to last year; total trade was a quarter of 2018 levels. Furthermore, while the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) have thus far generally managed to keep the nuclear portfolio distinct from their concerns on other aspects of Iranian regional behaviour, the two sides traded barbs over Iranian culpability in the 14 September Aramco attack, which could portend a further straining of the thread by which the JCPOA still hangs.

Programming Note

This briefing note series was conceived and launched in June as a supplement to Crisis Group’s coverage and analysis of U.S.-Iran tensions. What was originally envisioned as a temporary endeavour has, owing to the rapidity and significance of developments on the regional and nuclear fronts, continued over fifteen editions. This is the final instalment. Yet we will continue to track developments on a daily basis through the Trigger List platform, as well as longer-form Crisis Group publications, and will introduce new formats as events dictate.

What to Watch

7-8 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on cybersecurity in South Korea.

10-11 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on human rights in the U.S.

21-22 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on maritime and aviation security in Bahrain.

24-25 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on energy security in Poland.

4 November: 40th anniversary of the U.S. embassy hostage crisis.

5 November: Iran’s next announced deadline for further reducing its JCPOA commitments.

8 November: Next quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program.

14-15 November: Warsaw Process working group meeting on missile proliferation in Romania.

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates.