Iran’s Nuclear Program

Uranium lede

Iran has cleared the biggest hurdle to creating a nuclear bomb: learning to make the fissile material that fuels the massive blast. At Iranian facilities, centrifuges spinning at supersonic speeds separate the explosive uranium-235 isotope from uranium ore. The machines refine the metal to low enrichment levels to make fuel for nuclear power plants. They can also make higher-grade material for bombs. While Iran has insisted for a decade that it’s not building weapons, the country’s history of deception has led the United Nations to demand more accountability. After years of threats and acrimony, Iran and world powers agreed in November 2013 to a temporary accord setting limits on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for about $7 billion in relief from sanctions. The deal required diplomats to continue talks to reach a broader, permanent agreement, even as opponents of the plan in both Iran and the U.S. threaten to derail the process.

The Situation

Negotiators reached an impasse over the number of centrifuges Iran would be able to keep and how fast sanctions would be lifted. The talks were extended for a second time in November and a July 2015 deadline for a permanent deal was set. Iran agreed to maintain caps on the amount of material it produces during the negotiations. It will also work to settle allegations of past weapons work, which led to the trade sanctions that crippled its economy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 on a pledge to end the economic isolation of the country, which sits on the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with verifying that enrichment is used strictly for peaceful purposes, has tracked Iran’s build-up of 5-percent and 20 percent-enriched uranium. The higher-grade material, which is the bigger concern because it could be further purified into weapons grade at short notice, has been eliminated as promised under the temporary deal. Iran also agreed to improve cooperation with monitors and halt advanced centrifuge installation. It stopped work on its Arak heavy water reactor, which, if it became operational, could produce plutonium and give the country a second path to nuclear weapons.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency
Source: International Atomic Energy Agency

The Background

The temporary accord is the first since Iran’s program came under global scrutiny in 2003 and marked a breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Iran almost 36 years after the Islamic Revolution. The U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had planned to build 20 nuclear power reactors with international help. Supply agreements were later revoked and the country’s eight-year war with Iraq slowed Iran’s nuclear work. Iranian statements and international contacts with Pakistani weapons scientists prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to warn in 1992 that the Persian Gulf country could develop a nuclear weapon. While Iran has reaffirmed its commitment to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the country questioned the legal basis of demands to suspend work.  Before it made any concessions, Iran wanted what it calls its “right” to enrich uranium recognized. Few countries were prepared to agree to that during the reign of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used his presidential pulpit to threaten Israel with destruction.

The Argument

Israel and critics in the U.S. Congress say Iran can’t be trusted and shouldn’t be permitted to make any fissile material. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the temporary agreement with Iran a “historic mistake” and Israel has left open the possibility of military strikes. Diplomats fear that if the talks on a permanent agreement fail, regional rivals might push for their own nuclear capability. The conflict has also exposed concerns about the credibility of international treaties. While the IAEA strengthened its inspection regime in the 1990s after Iraq secretly rebuilt its nuclear program, the more stringent protocols are still voluntary. Countries can also renounce the treaty, as North Korea did. Skeptics aren’t satisfied by IAEA verification. They point to the example of Iran’s two main uranium enrichment plants – a hardened bunker in Natanz and a mountainside chamber in Fordo — that Iran acknowledged only after they were exposed by people outside the country. While U.S. President Barack Obama offers assurances that diplomacy will pave the way for international stability, he must contend with U.S. lawmakers, who have threatened to impose fresh sanctions on Iran.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg News published a layman’s guide to the Iran talks, a timeline about the country’s history of deception and a map of major nuclear facilities.
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace April 2013 report estimating the costs and risks of Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Federation of American Scientists overview of Iranian nuclear facilities and video showing how uranium enrichment works.
  • The Economist special report on Iran from November 2014.
  • The Arms Controls Association website has fact sheets and briefing papers about the talks.


First Published Oct. 14, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at