The Conflict Surrounding Iran's Nuclear Programme

January 20, 2016

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

In signing the Vienna agreement of 14 July 2015, the E3+3 countries and Iran reached consensus on a long-term settlement following more than 12 years of contention over Iran’s nuclear programme. There had been major doubts about the peaceful nature of this programme since 2002. On 16 January 2016, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had fulfilled its most important obligations under the Vienna agreement. As a result, the E3+3 countries lifted their economic and financial sanctions against Iran. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of a “historic success for diplomacy”.

On 16 January 2016, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano confirmed that Iran had fulfilled its obligations under the Vienna agreement. “Relations between Iran and the IAEA now enter a new phase. It is an important day for the international community,” Amano said. More than two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges have been dismantled, the enriched uranium has been removed from the country and the core of the plutonium reactor in Arak has been destroyed. On the basis of this confirmation, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) lifted the economic and financial sanctions they had imposed on Iran over the course of the nuclear dispute.

Vienna agreement

Prior to this, on 14 July 2015, the E3+3 countries (China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom [UK], Russia and the US) and Iran had agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. The agreement includes technical restrictions and control mechanisms, which will ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will serve exclusively peaceful purposes and cannot be used to develop nuclear weapons. In return, the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran since 2006 will be gradually lifted.

The key elements of the agreement are as follows:

  • In the next 15 years, Iran will only enrich uranium in the Natanz facility and restrict this enrichment to 3.67 per cent. The country’s low-enriched uranium stockpile will be limited to 300 kilograms during this period.
  • Iran will convert the Arak heavy-water reactor so that it can no longer be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
  • More than two‑thirds of Iran’s centrifuges will be mothballed and placed under the supervision of the IAEA. Ninety-five per cent of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile will be removed from the country or destroyed, and stocks will be strictly restricted for 15 years.
  • Everything that has been agreed will be fully monitored. Agreement was reached on a robust mechanism that guarantees the IAEA access wherever necessary. This will apply for up to 25 years, which goes significantly further than the IAEA’s general rules.

As a first step towards implementing the agreement, the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2231 on 20 July 2015. In return for Iran’s implementation of the technical restrictions placed on its nuclear programme, the current sanctions against the country will be lifted in several stages. The UN’s “snap-back” mechanism is an important component of the agreement. This is an uncomplicated process through which UN sanctions that have been eased can be swiftly reimposed should the Government in Tehran breach the agreement. To this end, Resolution 2231 includes a simplified procedure that does not require a Security Council resolution should Iran fail to adhere to the agreement.

On 16 January 2016, after Iran had carried out the agreed measures to discontinue its nuclear programme and these steps had been confirmed by the IAEA, the UN and the EU lifted the nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions it had imposed on the country. The US relaxed its extraterritorial sanctions. Iran is now able to export oil and gas again, and will be granted access to its frozen export revenue. The country can also use international financial channels. However, the US’ bilateral embargo against Iran remains largely in force, with the exception of food, carpets, aircraft and foreign subsidiaries of US companies. US measures imposed against Iran as a result of the country’s support for terrorism, human rights violations and money laundering, which also affect companies outside the US, also remain in force, as do the arms embargo and trade restrictions on goods for Iran’s missile programme. In the future, trade in nuclear technology will be monitored via an international procurement channel.

E3 and E3+3 negotiations with Iran

In 2002, there were grounds for suspecting that Iran was carrying out a clandestine nuclear programme on a military scale and contravening conditions imposed by the IAEA. As part of the E3 with France and the UK, Germany has been endeavouring to resolve the dispute by diplomatic means since 2003. Following talks with the E3, Iran signed the additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. This granted IAEA inspectors extensive inspection and access rights. In 2004, Iran signed the Paris agreement, in which it agreed to temporarily halt its enrichment activities. Two years later, the new President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced that these activities would be restarted. The US, Russia and China joined the E3 negotiating group that year, after the EU had become involved in the process as coordinator. The group thus became the E3/EU+3, and still exists in this form.

Following repeated calls for cooperation and transparency, the IAEA submitted the case to the UN Security Council in February 2006, which took action, initially in the form of a presidential statement in March 2006, and subsequently by adopting six resolutions (July 2006, No. 1696; December 2006, No. 1737; March 2007, No. 1747; March 2008, No. 1803; September 2008, No. 1835; June 2010, No. 1929). These resolutions addressed the IAEA’s demands – particularly the calls to suspend enrichment, reprocessing and activities involving heavy water, and to implement the additional protocol – and made them binding under international law. At the same time, measures including sanctions on trade in sensitive nuclear-related goods and technology and in the financial sector, as well as visa bans, asset freezes and ultimately an arms embargo, were agreed.

Fordow underground enrichment plant began operating in 2009; uranium enrichment of up to 20 per cent started in 2010; and a further IAEA report containing information on a possible military scale of Iran’s nuclear programme was published in 2011. The US and the EU tightened their sanctions several times during this period. Germany and its international E3+3 partners pursued a “dual approach”. On the one hand, Iran was offered comprehensive cooperation should it comply with the international community on the question of its nuclear programme. On the other hand, the aim of the sanctions was to persuade Iran to yield on the nuclear issue.

The E3+3 talks underwent a fundamental change in 2013 following the election of President Rouhani. As early as 24 November 2013, the E3+3 and Iran agreed in Geneva on a first step towards resolving the nuclear dispute. Under the Joint Plan of Action, which was extended several times, it was possible to halt the development of Iran’s nuclear programme and to reverse some aspects of it. In return, the EU and the US suspended sanctions in certain specific areas. Also in 2013, the IAEA and Iran agreed in Tehran on a Joint Statement on a Framework for Cooperation.

The Joint Plan of Action’s entry into force on 20 January 2014 opened up the possibility for negotiations on a comprehensive solution in the nuclear dossier. On 2 April 2015, the E3+3 and Iran reached consensus in Lausanne on key parameters for a comprehensive agreement. It was agreed that Iran would subject its nuclear programme to an extensive system of limitations and to far-reaching transparency measures for up to 25 years. In return, UN, EU and US sanctions would gradually be eased. 

This was the basis for the Vienna agreement, which was reached on 14 July 2015. The breakthrough for the Vienna agreement came after over two weeks of intense negotiations. The Foreign Ministers of the US, UK, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran convened in Vienna from 28 June 2015 to negotiate an agreement on the basis of the Joint Plan of Action and the basic political agreement reached in Lausanne in April. The EU was represented by Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who coordinated the talks.

Prior to that, the IAEA had agreed a roadmap with Iran on 11 July 2015 aimed at resolving all outstanding questions on Iran’s nuclear programme during the coming months.