Middle East

Q&A: Iran nuclear issue

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, file image
Image caption President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has spoken out against nuclear weapons

Iran's defiance of Security Council resolutions ordering it to suspend all enrichment of uranium has led to international criticism, and resulted in sanctions on Tehran.

Why has the Security Council ordered Iran to stop enrichment?

Because the technology used to enrich uranium to the low level needed for nuclear power can also be used to enrich it to the higher level needed for 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 does the Security Council 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.

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

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 inspection, though not under the strictest rules allowed because it will not agree to them. 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 power station fuel or other peaceful purposes. 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 told the UN on 3 May 2010 that nuclear weapons were "a fire against humanity". 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." He repeated this in February 2010.

How quickly could Iran build a nuclear bomb?

The CIA chief Leon Panetta said in June 2010 that it could take two years. However, this would depend on Iran first taking the decision to make a nuclear device and Iran says it will not do so.

What sanctions has the UN imposed on Iran?

The UN has imposed four sets of sanctions.

Security Council Resolution 1737, passed in December 2006, mandated 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 sought 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 were told to exercise restraint in and to report the travel of individuals connected to these programmes.

Imports of arms from Iran were banned and member states were 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 extended asset restrictions and travel bans on more Iranian individuals said to be involved in nuclear work and on more Iranian companies. It banned 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.

On 9 June 2010, the Security Council passed Resolution 1929, its fourth round of sanctions. These included a ban on Iranian investment in nuclear-sensitive areas, a ban on the sale to Iran of major arms systems, a ban on ballistic missile technology connected to nuclear weapons, a system of sea and air cargo inspections, tighter restrictions on Iranian international finance and restrictions on travel and assets for Iranian organisations, among them businesses run by the Revolutionary Guard.

What about additional sanctions by the US and EU?

The US has had restrictions on trade with Iran since the taking of American hostages in 1979 and imposed a full embargo in 1995.

Following the passage of Resolution 1929 in June 2010, the US additionally targeted Iranian finances and shipping linked to the nuclear and missile industries and banned dealings with the head of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian defence minister.

In June 2010, the US Congress passed legislation which would prevent those companies that do significant business in Iran's energy sector from trading in the US. This is aimed at squeezing Iran's oil and gas industry and especially the import of finished petroleum products.

In July 2010, the EU approved its own further measures which includes a ban on investment in Iran's petroleum and gas sector, restrictions on Iranian shipping and air cargo in EU territory, further financial restrictions on banks and insurance and visa bans and assets freezes aimed at the Revolutionary Guard, which is involved in nuclear and missile work.

What do the latest IAEA reports on Iran say?

In February 2010, the IAEA made a stronger report than before, reflecting perhaps the influence of its new director general Yukiya Amano, a Japanese lawyer and diplomat. It said that Iran's refusal to cooperate and answer questions "raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."

This was tougher language than before because it mentions the possibility of "current" activities not just past ones.

Iran says that the evidence on which these claims are based was forged.

In May, the IAEA repeated that the agency confirmed that Iran had not diverted declared material but had not cooperation fully and that questions remained about possible military dimensions to its programme.

In September, the IAEA reported that Iran had banned two inspectors and was therefore hampering the inspection process. Iran's nuclear facilities remained under IAEA inspection, though.

What about an offer to Iran about a settlement?

Western governments led by the US have offered a deal with Iran - it would have to suspend enrichment and in return would get many sanctions lifted and would be given help with a civil nuclear power system, including a guarantee of fuel. Talks on this have stalled. In the meantime Iran continues to enrich most of its uranium to the low level needed for power station fuel and some to a higher level required for a research reactor it has.

How does the nuclear plant at Bushehr fit in?

This reactor was started in the 1970s under the Shah but then put on hold until recently when the Russians finished it. The Russians will provide the fuel and will take away the spent fuel which could potentially be used to make a plutonium-based nuclear bomb.

Bushehr is technically separate from the issue of enrichment. However, the US says that because Russia is providing the fuel, Iran does not need its own enrichment programme. Iran says that the reactor shows that it does have a civil nuclear power plan and that it needs to develop enrichment to serve this in the longer term.

What about fuel for the Tehran research reactor?

This issue concerns a small research reactor in Tehran making medical isotopes, installed by the Americans many years ago. This is running low on fuel which has previously been provided from abroad.

The US, Russia and France proposed taking Iran's stock of low-enriched (3.5%) uranium out of the country and return it as higher-enriched (20%) fuel rods. The idea was to get the low-enriched stock abroad and prevent it from being potentially used for a nuclear device.

After months of uncertainty, President Ahmadinejad appeared to approve the original idea but later ordered his nuclear scientists to enrich the uranium further anyway, at one of the Natanz plants which is under UN monitoring.

On 17 May 2010 it was announced in Tehran that, after talks with Turkey and Brazil, Iran had agreed to ship low-enriched uranium to Turkey. However, Iran also said it would continue to enrich other uranium to 20%. The deal has been rejected.

Why should it matter if Iran does the further enrichment?

Because, it is argued, it would give Iran more expertise in further enriching uranium. The Western fear is that it is positioning itself to make a nuclear device, which requires a high degree of enrichment, about 90%, although 20% enrichment could produce a crude device. Western experts believe that Iran cannot by itself make the fuel rods needed for the Tehran reactor, so the purpose of this 20% enrichment is being questioned. Iran disputes this and says it simply needs the fuel.

Didn't Iran ask for more fuel from abroad for its Tehran reactor?

Yes, last year. Iran wanted a similar arrangement to the one it had with Argentina. However last October it agreed in principle to the swap deal. Western governments argue that simply providing Iran with more fuel would not solve the underlying problem of continuing enrichment. Iran still says that if given fuel by someone else for its research reactor, it would not need to enrich to 20% itself.

President Obama offered an "extended hand" to Iran last year. 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."

President Obama had said there would have to be an assessment of the Iranian position at the end of 2009. An assessment was done in January and was not positive.

What are the chances of an attack on Iran?

The chairman of the US joint chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen has stressed the instability that would result from an attack on Iran, while acknowledging at the same time that the US has plans for all options.

The US seems to be holding off, in the hope that even if Iran continues to develop its nuclear expertise, it will not try to build a bomb.

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.

However, Israel appears to be prepared to wait to see what unfolds in the diplomatic process.

What about Iran's secret enrichment plant at Qom?

The IAEA argues that Iran's new enrichment plant near Qom, revealed last year, should have been declared much earlier and is demanding that construction stops. Iran revealed the plant only days before President Obama accused it of developing a secret enrichment facility which the president suggested might have a military use. Iran says it was on time with its declaration - there is a dispute about its obligations to the IAEA - and is constructing the plant - in a mountain - in order to safeguard its technology from any attack.

The IAEA has inspected the plant and says that it will have room to house 3,000 centrifuges.

A US intelligence assessment was issued on Iran. What did it say?

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".

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."

In January 2010, it emerged that an updated NIE on Iran is being prepared.

What has the IAEA said about Iran in the past?

In September 2009, the then IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview that there was "no credible evidence" about an Iranian weapons attempt. He said: "I do not think based on what we see that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons programme."

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."

On 4 October, the New York Times also reported on the unpublished IAEA document and earlier the Institute for Science and International Security published what it said were excerpts.

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 highly-enriched uranium for a bomb within a few months. However a US general said in April 2010 that Iran could still take several years after that to make a device.

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.

On 18 September 2009, the IAEA called on Israel to join the NPT and open its nuclear facilities to inspection. The resolution said that the IAEA "Expresses concern about the Israeli nuclear capabilities, and calls upon Israel to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards... "

Israel refuses to join the NPT or allow inspections. It is reckoned to have up to 400 warheads but refuses to confirm or deny this.

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