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Author Topic: Q&A: Iran and the nuclear issue [article]  (Read 1809 times)


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« on: 27 September 2009, 13:08:00 »


Iran is defying Security Council resolutions ordering it to suspend the enrichment of uranium.
On 25 September President Obama accused Iran of building a secret second uranium enrichment plant. Iran said it was a pilot plant.
What is known about the second enrichment plant?

President Obama said the plant was near the city of Qom. He said its size and scope was "inconsistent" with a peaceful nuclear programme, probably meaning that it was too small to enrich enough uranium for fuel but large enough to enrich sufficient for a bomb. It is estimated to have space for 3000 centrifuges and is said to be in mountainous terrain. It is thought to have been under Western surveillance for several years.

The president demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be allowed access. Beyond that, he repeated the demand that Iran comply with Security Council resolutions while also reiterating that if Iran was cooperative, it would get assistance from the US and the West.

What has Iran said?

President Ahmadinejad said: "We have no secrecy." He said the facility was open for inspection by the IAEA and was 18 months away from completion. Iran acknowledged the plant in a letter to the IAEA four days before Mr Obama's announcement. It told the IAEA that the project was a pilot and would enrich uranium only to low levels.

Did Iran violate IAEA rules in not declaring this plant earlier?

President Ahmadinejad said it was being built in conformity with IAEA rules and that Iran had given much more notice of it than required.

However, there is a dispute between Iran and the IAEA over the notice that has to be given before a nuclear facility is made operational. Iran says that, under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, it need only declare a facility 180 days before nuclear material is inserted into it and that in this case it had given about a year's notice.

However, the IAEA says that in 2003, after the main enrichment plant at Natanz was discovered, Iran agreed on what's called a Subsidiary Arrangement to its safeguards agreement, under which it would inform the IAEA of any new facility at the preliminary design stage. Iran later repudiated this arrangement, saying that it had not been ratified by its parliament but the IAEA says that so such unilateral repudiation is allowed.

So Western government argue that Iran did violate the rules.

What could the plant be for?

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator implied that it was a back-up plant when he said that Iran had decided, because of threats, to do what was "necessary to preserve and continue our nuclear activities." It could therefore be a secondary plant in case the main enrichment facility at Natanz is attacked. There are also fears that it could be a place to enrich uranium to the higher level needed for a nuclear bomb.

Why is Iran refusing to obey the Security Council resolutions?

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a signatory state has the right to enrich uranium to be used as fuel for civil nuclear power. Such states have to remain under inspection from the IAEA. Iran is under such inspection. However, only those signatory states with nuclear weapons at the time of the treaty in 1968 are allowed to enrich to the much higher level needed for a nuclear weapon.

Iran says it is simply doing what it is allowed to do under the treaty and intends only to enrich to the level needed for nuclear power station fuel. It blames the Security Council resolutions on political pressure from the US and its allies. It argues that it needs nuclear power and wants to control the whole process itself...

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stressed that Iran will not yield to international pressure: "The Iranian nation will not succumb to bullying, invasion and the violation of its rights," he has said.

What does Iran say about developing nuclear weapons?

It says it will not break its obligations under the NPT and will not use the technology to make a nuclear bomb.

On 18 September 2009, President Ahmadinejad told NBC News: "We don't need nuclear weapons... it's not a part of our programmes and plans."

He said that nuclear-armed states should themselves give up their nuclear weapons.

Shortly afterwards Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is reported to have issued a fatwa some time ago against nuclear weapons said: "We fundamentally reject nuclear weapons."

Why has the Security Council ordered Iran to stop enrichment?

Because the technology used to enrich uranium for use as fuel for nuclear power can also be used to enrich the uranium to the higher level needed to produce a nuclear explosion. There are fears that Iran is at least acquiring the know-how so that one day it has the option of going for a bomb. Iran hid an enrichment programme for 18 years, so the Council says that until Iran's peaceful intentions can be fully established, it should stop enrichment and certain other nuclear activities. The Council's order is obligatory and supersedes other rights.

What precisely does the Security Council and the IAEA want Iran to do?

It wants Iran to stop all enrichment activities, including the preparation of uranium ore, the installation of the centrifuges in which a gas from the ore is spun to separate the richer parts, and the insertion of the gas into the centrifuges. It also has to suspend its work on heavy water projects, notably the construction of a heavy water reactor. Such a reactor could produce plutonium, an alternative to uranium for a nuclear device.

The IAEA has also called on Iran to ratify and implement an additional protocol allowing more extensive inspections as a way of establishing confidence.

What does the IAEA say about Iran?

The IAEA has Iran's Natanz fuel enrichment plant under its surveillance and in presenting his latest report in September 2009 the IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said: "Since my last report, the Agency has continued to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran. Iran has cooperated with the Agency in improving safeguards measures at the Fuel Enrichment Plant and in providing the required access to the Iran Nuclear Research Reactor (IR-40) at Arak for purposes of design information verification.

"On all other issues relevant to Iran's nuclear programme, however, there is stalemate. Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities or its work on heavy water related projects as required by the Security Council, nor has Iran implemented the Additional Protocol. Likewise, Iran has not cooperated with the Agency in connection with the remaining issues, detailed fully and completely in the Agency's reports, which need to be clarified in order to exclude the possibility of there being military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme. The IAEA also reports that Iran is not cooperating with its request for an answer to questions about possible studies on nuclear warheads carried out in the past."

These past studies - which Iran calls fabrications - have caused concern in that Iran appears to have examined how to fashion a nuclear warhead.

What about a reported secret IAEA document on Iran's work?

This was reported by the Associated Press on 18 September 2009. The document is said to state that IAEA experts believe that Iran has "sufficient information" to make a nuclear device and has worked on a warhead that could be carried on a missile. When it is supposed to have done so is not clear.

This reported assessment goes beyond anything in published IAEA reports on Iran but in a statement the agency said it had "no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapons programme in Iran."

President Obama offered an "extended hand" to Iran. What happened to that?

President Obama said: "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." He proposed that talks take place between Iran and the so-called P5 +1, that is the five permanent members of the Security Council - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - plus Germany.

On 9 September 2009, Iran handed what appears to be its reply - a five page letter called "Cooperation for Peace, Justice and Progress". The letter offers global talks on a range of international issues, including global nuclear disarmament, but does not mention Iran's own nuclear work. President Ahmadinejad had said earlier that discussion of the Iranian nuclear issue was "finished" and that he would never negotiate on "the Iranian nation's obvious rights."

Talks were later scheduled for 1 October.

President Obama has said there will have to be an assessment of the Iranian position by the end of the year, the implication being that further sanctions would be considered if no progress was made.

What new sanctions are possible?

Russia and China are reluctant to agree to new Security Council sanctions, so a coalition of countries, including the EU, might take action themselves. This could include stopping the export to Iran of refined petroleum products. Despite its oil wealth, Iran cannot produce enough such products itself. There might also be a ban on investment in Iranian liquefied natural gas.

Incentives are being offered to Iran. What are these?

The US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany say that if Iran suspends uranium enrichment, then talks can start about a long-term agreement. On offer is recognition of Iran's right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and the treatment of Iran in "the same manner" as other states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran would get help with developing nuclear power stations and be guaranteed fuel for them. It would also be offered trade concessions, including the possible lifting of US sanctions, which prevent it for example from buying new civilian aircraft and parts.

What sanctions have been imposed on Iran?

The US has imposed restrictions since the taking of American hostages in 1979, leading to a total trade embargo in 1995. In addition the UN has imposed wider sanctions.

Security Council Resolution 1737, passed in December 2006, mandates all UN member states "to prevent the supply, sale or transfer... of all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology which could contribute to Iran's enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy water-related activities or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems".

In March 2007, the Council passed resolution 1747. This seeks to tighten the squeeze on Iran's nuclear and missile programmes by preventing dealings with the state Bank Sepah and 28 named people and organisations, many connected to the elite Revolutionary Guard. Member states have been told to exercise restraint in and to report the travel of individuals connected to these programmes.

Imports of arms from Iran are banned and member states are told to exercise restraint in selling major arms systems to Iran. Loans are supposed to be limited to humanitarian and development purposes. Resolution 1803 of March 2008 extends asset restrictions and travel bans on more Iranian individuals said to be involved in nuclear work and on more Iranian companies. It bans the sale to Iran of so-called dual-use items - items which can have either a military or civilian purpose - as well as calling on governments to withdraw financial backing from companies trading with Iran, to inspect cargo going into and out of the country, and to monitor the activities of two Iranian banks.

What does the US intelligence assessment say about Iran?

The National Intelligence Estimate plays down any early threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It assesses "with high confidence" that Iran did have a nuclear weapons programme until 2003, but this was discovered and Iran stopped it. The NIE adds: "We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." The assessment admits that Iran appears "less determined" to develop nuclear weapons than US intelligence had previously thought. It says that the earliest date by which Iran could make a nuclear weapon would be late 2009 but that this is "very unlikely".

What are the chances of an attack on Iran?

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu constantly stresses what he sees as a potential existential threat from Iran. Israel has reportedly carried out a major air force exercise, seen as practice for a raid on Iran. It is sceptical that diplomatic means will force Iran to stop enrichment and does not want to let Iran develop even a theoretical capacity to make a nuclear bomb.

So the possibility of an attack, by Israel at least, remains.

Does everyone accept the NIE report?

No. Israel does not. The then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said on 12 February 2008 that Israel thought Iran was aiming to create "a capacity for non-conventional weapons." The present prime minister Mr Netanyahu takes the same view.

And in London on 5 March 2008, a senior British diplomat said: "Many of us were surprised by how emphatic the writers [of the NIE] were... I haven't seen any intelligence that gives me even medium confidence that these programmes haven't resumed."

Even the Director of US National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, appeared to backtrack on 28 February 2008, in evidence to the Senate Armed Forces Committee. In this evidence, he said that Iran had probably halted warhead design and weaponisation, but pointed out that Iran's continued enrichment of uranium meant that it was continuing with "the most difficult challenge in nuclear production." He said: "We remain concerned about Iran's intentions... Tehran at a minimum is keeping the option open to develop nuclear weapons."

What other pressure has there been on Iran?

On 17 October 2007, the US designated part of the Revolutionary Guard as a "supporter of terrorism" and the Guard as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction for its alleged work on ballistic missiles. The US imposed further sanctions on the Guards' commercial activities and on several Iranian banks. The EU has agreed to freeze assets of Iran's largest bank, Bank Melli, and to extend visa bans to more Iranians involved in nuclear and missile development.

Is it not too late now to stop Iran from acquiring enrichment technology?

Iran thinks so and has said so. Its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has called this a "great victory". According to Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, events have overtaken the current strategy and he thinks that Iran should now be allowed to undertake limited enrichment but under strict supervision. This approach has been rejected by the US and its supporters.

How soon could Iran make a nuclear bomb?

Experts believe that Iran could enrich enough uranium for a bomb within a few months. However, it has apparently not mastered the technology of making a nuclear warhead. In theory Iran could leave the NPT with three months notice and it would then be free to do what it wanted. However, by doing that it would signal its intentions and leave itself open to attack. If it tried to divert material for a bomb in secret and was found out, it would lay itself open to the same risk.

Mohamed ElBaradei has said that the threat of Iran developing a bomb has been "hyped."

Doesn't the Non-Aligned Movement support Iran?

The NAM, representing 120 nations, issued a statement in July 2008 supporting Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear power. Iran said this reflected international support for its position. The statement did not directly criticise UN sanctions against Iran, though it said that any issues should be dealt within the IAEA. It also appeared to accept that there are some problems remaining when it said: "Diplomacy and dialogue through peaceful means must continue to find a comprehensive and long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear issue."

Don't existing nuclear powers have obligations to get rid of their weapons under the NPT?

Article VI commits them to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament". The nuclear powers claim they have done this by reducing their warheads, but critics say they have not really moved towards nuclear disarmament. Critics also argue that the US and UK have broken the treaty by transferring nuclear technology from one to another. The US and UK say that this is not affected by the NPT.

Doesn't Israel have a nuclear bomb?

Yes. Israel, however, is not a party to the NPT, so is not obliged to report to it. Neither are India or Pakistan, both of which have developed nuclear weapons. North Korea has left the treaty and has announced that it has acquired a nuclear weapons capacity.
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