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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

Israeli PM Netanyahu presents imagery of an Iranian "secret nuclear site" in Jerusalem on 9 September. Prime Minister of Israel

Iran Briefing Note #13

Iran Briefing Notes highlight and provide context for the previous week’s major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks developments on key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East.

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

Events of Note

6 September: National Security Advisor John Bolton shares imagery of Adrian Darya 1 off Syrian coast, adds “Iran’s not getting any sanctions relief until stops lying and spreading terror”.
7 September: Iran detains towboat and 12 Filipino crew on suspicion of fuel smuggling.

7 September: Iranian nuclear agency briefs details of “third step” JCPOA breaches, including the activation of advanced centrifuges.

8 September: Acting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general in Tehran for meetings with senior Iranian officials.

8 September: Iran’s foreign ministry indicates that “the Adrian Darya oil tanker finally docked on the Mediterranean coast and unloaded its cargo”.

8 September: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo estimates that Iran’s “GDP will shrink by as much as 12 or 14 per cent this year”.

9 September: Hizbollah claims to down and retrieve Israeli drone.

9 September: Airstrikes reportedly hit “Iran-backed militias” in Al-Bukamal on Syria’s border with Iraq.

9 September: Israeli military says “a number of rockets were fired from Syria toward Israel… all failing to hit Israeli territory”.

9 September: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that Iran “conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons” at a secret site, Abadeh; Foreign Minister Zarif hits back saying that “the possessor of real nukes cries wolf”.

10 September: Drone strike reported against Iraqi paramilitary weapons facility in Anbar province.

10 September: Secretary of State Pompeo contends Iran’s “lack of cooperation with IAEA raises questions about possible undeclared nuclear material or activities”.

10 September: President Donald Trump announces departure of John Bolton as U.S. national security adviser.

10 September: U.S. Treasury announces sanctions designations against “fifteen leaders, individuals and entities affiliated with terror groups”, including from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods force and Hamas.

September Surprise

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 9 September claimed to expose a “nuclear weapons development site” near Abadeh and called for “pressure, pressure and more pressure” against Iran.

Why it matters: Netanyahu’s disclosure, based on Iranian archives exfiltrated by Israeli intelligence last year, left some key details unaddressed: namely, what sorts of experiments Iran had conducted and when. But it underscored the recent prioritisation of Iran’s nuclear activities as the most pressing issue for Israel’s military and intelligence services. The timing of the announcement, just days before Israelis head to the polls on 17 September, led Netanyahu’s political rivals to cry foul; his office insisted the disclosure was appropriate given parallel developments in Vienna (see below). Expect Netanyahu to throw more surprises, particularly if, as Israeli officials have reportedly concluded, the prospects for some kind of U.S.-Iran diplomatic breakthrough increase.

Once More into the Breach

A spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) on 7 September confirmed that “we have started lifting limitations on our research and development imposed by the [nuclear] deal”, including the activation of advanced centrifuges.

Why it matters: Iran’s third step in reducing its compliance with the JCPOA furthers its staggered breaches to add urgency without emergency vis-à-vis European efforts aimed at countering the economic toll of U.S. sanctions; a 60-day clock is already running toward the next rollback. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on 8 September asserted that “the channels for dialogue are still open… [but] Iran must give up such actions”. Meanwhile, the IAEA’s Acting Director General, Cornel Feruta, on 9 September told the IAEA Board of Governors that in Tehran the previous day he “stressed the need for Iran to respond promptly to Agency questions related to the completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations”. “Time”, he added, “is of the essence”.

Signed, Sealed… Delivered.

Iran’s diplomatic spokesperson on 8 September announced that the Adrian Darya 1, which was released from detention by Gibraltar last month after Tehran provided “written assurance” that the crude oil cargo would not go to a recipient blacklisted under EU sanctions, had “unloaded its cargo” at an unnamed Mediterranean destination.

Why it matters: Following a commando operation, a seizure, a U.S. warrant, a release, a renaming, a sanctions designation, a failed financial inducement and a sighting off the Syrian coast, the 2.1m barrels aboard the Iranian tanker have apparently found a home. But while Tehran trumpeted the sale “despite all the malicious attempts” to block it, there will almost certainly be consequences: the UK – one of Iran’s three European JCPOA interlocutors – on 10 September protested that “Iran has shown complete disregard for its own assurances” and plans to pursue the matter at the UN. The setback is also unlikely to deter continued U.S. efforts to disrupt Iran’s evasion of its unilateral sanctions, leaving the hatch open to future rounds of intrigue on the high seas.

Exit John Bolton

President Donald Trump on 10 September announced that he had “informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House”, adding that “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions”.

Why it matters: In the hours before President Trump announced his sacking, National Security Advisor John Bolton fired off two tweets. The first contended that “two weeks from the UN General Assembly, you can be sure Iran is working overtime on deception”, while the second declared that “we stand strong against regimes that sponsor terror”. As the White House debates whether and how to respond to French proposals to de-escalate tensions ahead of the General Assembly, the departure of perhaps the most hardline voice on Iran inside the administration could move the needle toward U.S. acceptance of limited sanctions relief, which Trump has been considering and which Bolton opposed, in return for Iran returning to compliance with the nuclear accord and agreeing to enter into negotiations over a broader deal. Some reduction in sanctions was one of Iran’s prerequisites for a meeting between Trump and President Rouhani on the margins of the General Assembly. A package deal would still need to be agreed, and Tehran appears very leery of such an encounter. But Bolton’s departure could mean more flexibility on the U.S. part, and greater confidence on Iran’s.

What to Watch

12 September: Prime Minister Netanyahu in Sochi for meeting with President Putin.

16 September: President Rouhani in Ankara for Syria summit with Presidents Erdoğan and Putin.

17 September: Elections in Israel.

17-30 September: UN General Assembly, which Iran has announced Rouhani will attend; JCPOA Joint Commission meeting on the sidelines.

22 September: 39th anniversary of start of Iran-Iraq war.

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

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