Iranian Nuclear Talks: Final Deadline Looming
Iran and the major world powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) have less than two weeks to come to a deal on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. As talks continue in Vienna, here’s your guide to everything you need to know about why the United States doesn’t want Iran to have nukes, whether or not a deal will be worked out, and what options remain if talks fail.
How long has Iran had a nuclear program?
Iran has had a nuclear program in some form since the 1950s. Oddly enough, the United States helped Iran lay the foundation for their programs with President Eisenhower’s Atoms For Peace initiative. Atoms For Peace exported nuclear materials, including highly enriched uranium. This program was merely for developing peaceful uses for nuclear energy around the globe. Eisenhower did not intend to develop a nuclear weapons system in Iran.
Iran’s nuclear energy program was supported by the United States in some capacity until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran was then left without international support and continued to develop its nuclear program.
Iran has always insisted that its program is merely for energy, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the leaders of many Western nations have accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons.
Is Iran allowed to have nuclear weapons?
If Iran is making nuclear weapons, and most signs point to this being true, then it would be violating international law. Iran is a signatory, along with every country but North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, and the South Sudan, to the The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This treaty holds signatory nations to three main points:
- The signatory nation must not create nuclear weapons.
- Signatory nations must disarm themselves of all nuclear weapons.
- All signatory nations have the right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
It is important to note that the NPT labels the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China as nuclear-weapons states. This means that they do not have to disarm. They only have to negotiate in good faith to work toward disarmament.
Iran often cites point three in its defense, while critics argue that the country is violating points one and two.
Here is a NATO overview of the NPT:
Why does the United States not want Iran to have nukes?
There are few reasons the United States does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. The main reason is that the United States and Iran have not been on good terms in the past few decades.
In 1953, the CIA was involved in overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government and replacing it with the Shah, a monarch who was friendly to the interests of the United States. The Iranian people remembered this when they overthrew this government during the Islamic Revolution. This, plus the fact that the United States took in the Shah after his exile from Iran, is why revolutionaries held diplomats hostage at the American embassy in Iran for 444 days. Relations have been cold ever since. This video provides a more in-depth summary of U.S.-Iran relations:
There’s another big reason the United States does not want Iran to have nukes: Iran is geographically close to Israel, a close American ally. The Iranian government does not like Israel, and the Israeli government does not like Iran. For emphasis, these two countries really do not like each other. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one of the worst kept secrets in international politics, and letting its adversary also have nuclear weapons is a recipe for trouble.
A third concern is that Iran could spark a domino effect of sorts in the region. If Iran has nukes, then Saudi Arabia will want nukes, which will motivate another Middle Eastern country after another to get nukes until the Middle East, a rather unstable region, is covered in warheads.
How has America tried to stop Iran?
For now, the United States, and many other countries, has used economic sanctions to make Iran stop its nuclear problem. According to the State Department, these sanctions target the Iranian sectors of finance, transportation, shipping, energy, and more.
Why is Iran willing to talk now?
There are two reasons that Iran is willing to come to an agreement with the world’s powers.
First, the sanctions worked. The economic punishments vastly increased the average Iranian’s cost of living and increased Iran’s inflation rate to a staggering 40 percent. This can be mostly attributed to the American and European embargoes on Iranian oil. In 2012, when the sanction took effect in Europe, Iran’s exports dropped from 2.5 million barrels per day (bbl/d) to 1.53 bbl/d. The Rial (Iran’s currency) also collapsed, dropping by 80 percent between 2011 and 2012.
Second, Iran’s current President, Hassan Rouhani, is much more reasonable than the last one. You might remember former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the crazy guy who said he wanted to wipe Israel “off the map” and that there were no gay people in Iran. This was not a man who would be willing to negotiate with America. Rouhani, on the other hand, ran as a reformer and campaigned on working with the West to ease the sanctions that devastated Iran’s economy.
The President is not the most powerful actor in Iranian. That distinction goes to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Still, the fact that Khamenei allowed Rouhani to run and win shows that he is willing to negotiate.
What has already been agreed upon?
In November 2013, Iran and six world powers, including the United States, came to an interim agreement. Iran halted parts of its nuclear program and in return Western nations eased some of the sanctions. This was a six-month deal that halted progress at every nuclear facility in Iran, and also prevented the building additional facilities. The idea was that a more comprehensive deal would come about in six months.
Here is an ABC News report on how this deal played out in Iran and the United States:
There is debate over whether or not this deal was a good idea. Watch CNN’s Crossfire discuss the issue. The introduction is obnoxious, but the rhetorical arguments are an accurate representation of both sides of the issue:
Six months will be up on July 20 of this year. That means Iran and the world powers have less than two weeks to come to a comprehensive agreement. While the option to extend the deadline is on the table, American diplomats have stated that they are unlikely to support such an extension.
What is still left to agree upon?
The main sticking point for a comprehensive deal is the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain. Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges. Western powers would like to see that number reduced to the low thousands, while Iran would like to someday have 50,000 centrifuges.
Centrifuges are not the only problem that negotiators will face over the next two weeks, however. While Iran has accepted tougher inspection requirements and limits on production of enriched uranium, the country does not want its ballistic missile system to be on the table. It also wants more sanctions to be removed and is not interested in dismantling nuclear facilities.
Iran will resume nuclear production and the world powers will resume crippling sanctions if the two sides cannot resolve these differences.
What should the United States do if talks fail?
Continuing sanctions without any chance of an agreement would be foolish. In 2003, Iran approached the Bush administration under crippling sanctions to discuss a deal. Bush passed, believing that the sanctions would just lead to the collapse of the regime. Iran had 164 centrifuges at that time, which has increased by more than 11,000 percent to its current cache of 19,000.
Sanctions alone will not deter Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. If talks do not work, military force seems to be the only option left.
Should the United States bomb Iran?
This debate is best personified by Matthew Kroenig and Colin H. Kahl, two contributors to Foreign Affairs. Watch them debate the issue here:
For those of you who do not have an hour of free time, here is a summary of their arguments:
Advocates of a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities argue that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable for America and its allies. A nuke would give Iran too much leverage in the region. Worse, Israel and Iran would be at constant odds without the safeguards that prevented nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. Kroenig claims that military action in Iran could be contained to just nuclear sites, involve few civilian casualties, and inspire little retaliation. As long as America assures Iran that it is only attacking nuclear facilities, Iran will react calmly.
Kahl argues that a surgical strike would be a disaster and that the United States should merely contain Iran as a nuclear power. Even if the strike succeeds, which is not a given, Kahl envisions a massive retaliation from Iran that includes closing the Strait of Hormuz, attacking American military forces in the Gulf, and providing lethal assistance to terrorist groups that the West is currently fighting throughout the region. Closing the Strait of Hormuz alone would send a shockwave through global markets, but Iranian attacks against American troops would be devastating. Plus, given how unstable the region is, there’s no telling what kind of violence this could cause in other Middle Eastern nations.
Even worse, Kahl does not believe that a military strike would deter Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. Such a strike would only set the program back by a few years, and has the potential to rally Iranians around rebuilding. It’s not as if America can remove the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons from the Iranian people.
Iran and the West have until July 20 to come to an agreement. If diplomats fail, Iran will continue to develop its nuclear program and the Western world will continue to cripple the country’s economy with strong sanctions.
On July 18, negotiators in Vienna agreed to extend the deadline by four months to November 24, 2014. Negotiators also agreed to extend the terms of the stop-gap agreement. Iran will still halt its nuclear program and the United States will continue to suspend sanctions. Iran and the world powers have made some progress but they are still struggling to agree on how large the country’s nuclear program should be.