The Iran Project

Examining the status of Iran’s nuclear program and talks

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, widely seen as a pragmatist, played a key role in Iran’s voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment in 2004, which Western powers responded to by asking for more concessions from Iran.

Negotiators in Iran’s protracted nuclear dispute reported “substantive and forward looking negotiations” on Wednesday and said they would reconvene Nov. 7 to 8 for further talks. The following covers some questions about Iran’s nuclear program.

Q. What is the current status of Iran’s nuclear program?

A. Iran’s ability to refine uranium, the fuel for peaceful nuclear energy and weapons, has grown significantly, according to the most recent inspection reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear-monitoring arm of the United Nations. Since last February, Iran has roughly quintupled, to more than 1,000, the advanced centrifuges at its main nuclear facility in the central city of Natanz. Iran also appears to have equipped a formerly secret subterranean facility known as Fordo, near the holy city of Qum, with 3,000 older-model centrifuges

According to the most recent I.A.E.A. report, Iran has accumulated 185.8 kilograms, or about 410 pounds, of uranium enriched to about 20 percent purity, which is considered a short technical step away from refinement to bomb-grade material. Experts differ on the amount of 20 percent uranium Iran would need to make a bomb. But Israel, which has said it would regard a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, has dropped numerous warnings that Iran should not exceed 240 kilograms, or 529 pounds.

Nonproliferation experts have also expressed concern over Iran’s construction of a thermal heavy-water research reactor in Arak, about 200 miles southwest of Tehran, because it could be a source of plutonium, another fuel for a weapon.

While Iran has promised more transparency in its nuclear program and repeatedly asserted its peaceful nature, the I.A.E.A. has expressed concern about unanswered questions over some aspects. The most prominent is Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to visit Parchin, a highly restricted military site just south of Tehran suspected of having been the site of experiments, years ago, in testing triggers for nuclear weapons.

Two days of discussions between Iran and six world powers ended on Wednesday. They were the first talks on Iran’s nuclear program since Hassan Rouhani’s election as president.

Q. What was accomplished in the latest round of talks?

A. No breakthroughs were reported, but for the first time, Iran and the group of six major powers seeking to curtail the Iranian program — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — described the discussions as frank and detailed. TheIranians proposed what they called a compromise that would put unspecified limits on the program in exchange for an acknowledgment that the country has a legal right to enrich its own uranium. In addition, the Iranians want an early end to the economic sanctions imposed by Western nations, most notably constraints on Iran’s banking and oil industries. The major powers described Iran’s proposal as “an important contribution,” suggesting that they would respond with a counterproposal.

Aides to Hassan Rouhani, the country’s new president, have said Iran wants an agreement in six months.

Q. Why is Iran so insistent on an easing of the economic sanctions, which it used to routinely belittle as meaningless and ineffective?

A. Aides and supporters of Mr. Rouhani, who took office in August, have publicly expressed concern at what they called the economic disaster created by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose eight-year tenure was punctuated by the defiance of Western pressure. Under Mr. Ahmadinejad, the sanctions grew increasingly onerous, most notably Iran’s expulsion from a global electronic banking system, a European oil embargo, and American threats to punish Iran’s oil customers. Taken together, those halved the country’s oil exports, severely weakened its currency and caused soaring inflation and unemployment. By some assessments, Iran’s government has access to only about $20 billion, a fraction of what Mr. Ahmadinejad had claimed. Iran has lost virtually all ability to transfer and borrow money internationally.

The pressure on Mr. Rouhani to take immediate steps to fix the economy is enormous and explains his wish to reach a deal before Iran runs out of money. At the same time, supporters of the sanctions argue that their success is precisely what has made Mr. Rouhani appear more accommodating, so the sanctions should not be eased before a final agreement is reached.

Q. Why are critics of Iran — Israel in particular — so suspicious of Iran’s motives?

A. A main underlying reason is what they call Iran’s past deceptions, its reluctance to show I.A.E.A. inspectors everything they want to see and its successful ability to engage in prolonged negotiations with no end result — all the while increasing the number of centrifuges spinning uranium. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has been the most vocal critic and has accused Mr. Rouhani of essentially being no different in substance on the nuclear issue than his predecessor.

Iranian officials point out that their country is a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which Israel is not, and that Israel has its own undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Arms Control Association, a nonproliferation advocacy group based in Washington, has estimated that Israel has 100 to 200 nuclear warheads.

Q. How much time would Iran need to achieve “breakout capacity,” the ability to quickly construct a nuclear weapon if it chose?

A. Nonproliferation experts differ on the amount of time, but many agree that Iran’s major challenge would be to purify enough uranium to bomb-grade level — above 90 percent — undetected by I.A.E.A. inspectors, to make a dash for a bomb before its adversaries could take pre-emptive action. The Institute for Science and International Security, a nonproliferation monitoring group based in Washington that has been highly skeptical of Iran’s peaceful claims, has said the country’s centrifuges theoretically could produce enough bomb-grade uranium to achieve so-called breakout capacity by the middle of 2014.

By The New York Times 


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