Iran's nuclear program is one of the most polarizing issues in one of the world's most volatile regions. While American and European officials believe Tehran is planning to build nuclear weapons, Iran's leadership says that its goal in developing a nuclear program is to generate electricity without dipping into the oil supply it prefers to sell abroad, and to provide fuel for medical reactors.
Top American military officials said in April 2010 that Iran could produce bomb-grade fuel for at least one nuclear weapon within a year, but would most likely need two to five years to manufacture a workable atomic bomb. International inspectors said in May that Iran has now produced a stockpile of nuclear fuel that experts say would be enough, with further enrichment, to make two nuclear weapons.
President Obama spent 2009 trying to engage Iran diplomatically. Tehran initially accepted but then rejected an offer for an interim solution under which it would ship some uranium out of the country for enrichment. In June 2010, after months of lobbying by the Obama administration and Europe, the United Nations Security council voted to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran, the fourth.
By September, there were strong indications that Iran was beginning to feel pain — largely from additional sanctions imposed by the United States and European and Asian nations over the summer. But global nuclear inspectors reported at the same time that the country has dug in its heels, refusing to provide inspectors with the information and access they need to determine whether the real purpose of Tehran’s program is to produce weapons.
In October, administration officials were preparing a new offer for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, but the conditions on Tehran would be even more onerous than a deal that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected last year. The talks began in December. There was no progress at the initial meeting, but the fact that the talks were taking place at all was seen as a positive step.
There continue to be questions about how well the program is faring: in August 2010, the Obama administration persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials. Administration officials said they believe the assessment has dimmed the prospect that Israel would pre-emptively strike against the country’s nuclear facilities within the next year, as Israeli officials have suggested in thinly veiled threats. In addition, analysts concluded that a computer virus-- the so-called Stuxnet worm-- suspected of being aimed at Iran’s nuclear program had destroyed one-fifth of its nuclear centrifuges.
In early January 2011, the departing chief of Israel’s intelligence agency said that Iran would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon before 2015 because of “measures that have been deployed against them.” American officials have also suggested that technical complications may have slowed Iran, which was once seen as being only a year or two away from a bomb. But the single biggest factor was seen as being Stuxnet, which analysts describe as likely the product of an Israeli-U.S. collaboration. They described it as the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed.
Iran's Nuclear History
Iran's first nuclear program began in the 1960s under the shah. It made little progress, and was abandoned after the 1979 revolution, which brought to power the hard-line Islamic regime. In the mid-1990s, a new effort began, raising suspicions in Washington and elsewhere. Iran insisted that it was living up to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but in 2002, an exile group obtained documents revealing a clandestine program. Faced with the likelihood of international sanctions, the government of Mohammad Khatami agreed in 2003 to suspend work on uranium enrichment and allow a stepped-up level of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Association while continuing negotiations with Britain, France and Germany.
In August 2005, Mr. Khatami, a relative moderate, was succeeded as president by Mr. Ahmadinejad, a hard-line conservative. The following January, Iran announced that it would resume enrichment work, leading the three European nations to break off their long-running talks. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to enrich uranium, but the atomic energy association called for the program to be halted until questions about the earlier, secret program were resolved.
The Bush Response
The United Nations Security Council voted in December 2006 to impose sanctions on Iran for failing to heed calls for a suspension. In Washington, administration hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, were reported to favor consideration of more aggressive measures, including possible air strikes, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed for more diplomacy.
President George W. Bush sided with Ms. Rice, but declared that the United States would not negotiate directly with Iran until it suspended the nuclear research program. Months of inconclusive talks about talks followed.
The situation was muddied in December 2007 when American intelligence agencies issued a new National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that the weapons portion of the Iranian nuclear program remained on hold. That document said that Iran would probably be able to produce a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015, while cautioning that there was no evidence that the Iranian government had decided to do so, contradicting the assessment made in 2005. The estimates given by American military officials in April 2010 are roughly in line with the 2007 estimate. But in June, in the run up to a Security Council vote on sanctions, American officials made clear to their diplomatic counterparts that they now think that Iran has revived elements of its program to design nuclear weapons that the 2007 assessment concluded had gone dormant.
The Role of Israel
In 2008, President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran's main nuclear complex and told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran's suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to senior American and foreign officials.
The White House denied Israel's request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran's major nuclear complex at Natanz, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily. But the tense exchanges also prompted the White House to step up intelligence-sharing with Israel and brief Israeli officials on new American efforts to subtly sabotage Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
Iran's announcement in February, 2010 that it would begin enriching its stockpile of uranium drew a furious response from Israel, which has said it would regard an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told European diplomats that the sanctions needed to progress quickly.
Obama and Negotiations
Mr. Obama first made waves with his views on Iran policy in 2007, when he said during a Democratic debate that he would, as president, be willing to meet without preconditions with Iran's leaders, and that the notion of not talking to one's foes was "ridiculous."
Since becoming president, Mr. Obama has pursued diplomacy, but his stance has become steadily more confrontational.
On Sept. 9, 2009, it was revealed that American intelligence agencies had concluded that Iran had created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon. But new intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that the country has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb.
On Sept. 25, Mr. Obama, along with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, revealed the existence of the secret underground plant. American officials said they had been tracking the project for years, but that the president decided to make public the American findings after Iran discovered that the secrecy surrounding the project had been breached.
The next week, talks were held between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — as well as Germany, and led by the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. At the talks, Iran agreed in principle to export most of its enriched uranium for processing, a step that would have bought more time for negotiations by reducing the amount of potential bomb-making material in Iran’s hands for up to a year.
The news raised a tumult in Iran, with conservative politicians arguing that the West could not be trusted to return the uranium. Shortly after the accord was announced, Iran began raising objections and backtracking. On Oct. 29 it told the U.N.'s chief nuclear inspector that it was rejecting the deal.
New Push, New Questions
On Feb. 18, 2010, the United Nations’ nuclear inspectors declared for the first time that they had extensive evidence of “past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran’s military to develop a nuclear warhead, an unusually strongly worded conclusion likely to accelerate Iran’s confrontation with the United States and other Western countries.
The report, the first under the new director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, also concluded that the nation's weapons-related activity apparently continued “beyond 2004.”
Following the agency's announcement, Russia said that it was "very alarmed" by Iran's unwillingness to cooperate with the I.A.E.A. And in late March, a Russian official disclosed that Russian and Chinese envoys had pressed Iran’s government to accept a United Nations plan on uranium enrichment during meetings in Tehran earlier in the month but that Iran had refused, leaving “less and less room for diplomatic maneuvering.”
Questions of Iran's sincerity were again raised by its announcement on May 17 of an agreement negotiated by Turkey and Brazil that could offer a short-term solution to its ongoing nuclear standoff with the West, or prove to be a tactic aimed at derailing efforts to bring new sanctions against Tehran.
The deal calls for Iran to ship 2,640 pounds of low enriched uranium to Turkey, where it would be stored. In exchange, after one year, Iran would have the right to receive about 265 pounds of material enriched to 20 percent from Russia and France.
The terms mirrored a deal with the West last October that had fallen apart when Iran backtracked, but by May 2010 the material to be shipped represented a far smaller portion of its enriched uranium.
The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that a deal had been struck with other major powers, including Russia and China, to impose new sanctions on Iran, a sharp repudiation of the agreement between Iran and Turkey.
A Fourth Round of Sanctions
On June 9, the United Nations Security Council leveled its fourth round of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, but the measures did little to overcome widespread doubts that they — or even the additional steps pledged by American and European officials — would accomplish the Council’s longstanding goal: halting Iran’s production of nuclear fuel.
The new resolution, hailed by President Obama as delivering “the toughest sanctions ever faced by the Iranian government,” took months to negotiate and major concessions by American officials, but still failed to carry the symbolic weight of a unanimous decision. Twelve of the 15 nations on the Council voted for the measure, while Turkey and Brazil voted against it and Lebanon abstained.
After the Obama administration imposed additional sanctions on more than a dozen Iranian companies and individuals with links to the country’s nuclear and missile programs, the European Union followed suit with what it called “inevitable” new measures against Tehran.
The main thrust of the sanctions is against military purchases, trade and financial transactions carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls the nuclear program and has taken a more central role in running the country and the economy.
The United States had sought broader measures against Iran’s banks, insurance industry and other trade, but China and Russia were adamant that the sanctions not affect Iran’s day-to-day economy.
In late November, a trove of diplomatic documents obtained by Wikileaks offered new insight showed deep concern among Iran's Arab neighbors over its nuclear program and revealed that American officials believe Tehran has obtained advanced missiles from North Korea that could let it strike at Western European capitals and Moscow. It also provided a detailed look at how President Obama had assembled support for tough sanctions that had eluded President George W. Bush.
New Round of Talks
In December, Iranian representatives met in Geneva with Western diplomats for a new round of talks. These adjourned with no progress. But a second round was scheduled, and Western officials began preparing new, tougher sanctions in the hope of pushing Iran to its "pain threshold'' to win an agreement to suspend nuclear enrichment while negotiations continue.
By increasing the economic pressure, White House officials said, they hope to raise the cost to the Iranian leadership of letting the talks drag on. But it is possible, some concede, that the Iranians could react by pulling out of the discussions.
Washington’s options are limited. Many European nations are reluctant to support the one step — limiting Iran’s oil exports — that many believe would hurt the regime the most because a true embargo would ripple through the world economy. The White House has been reluctant to impose curbs on the delivery of refined petroleum to Iran, fearing that gasoline shortages would make Iranian civilians more angry at the West than at their own government.
The current sanctions, imposed by the Security Council in the spring and embellished by the United States, some European nations, Japan and Australia, are making it increasingly difficult for Iranian businesses and the government to conduct banking operations around the world, to get insurance for shipping lines and to refuel airliners at some airports in Europe.
But these sanctions had yet to persuade Iran’s leadership to heed the Security Council’s demands that the country stop enriching uranium and answer a series of questions from international nuclear inspectors.
In January 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that international sanctions had slowed Iran’s nuclear program, and the restrictions seem to have disrupted sectors of the economy, particularly banking and export-related industries.
But intelligence officials have pointed to significant problems within Iran's program. Also in January, the retired leader of Israel's intelligence agency said Iran could not develop a bomb before 2015, an assessment most American officials agreed with. The biggest single factor seems to have been a computer virus-- the so-called Stuxnet worm-- that is believed to have destroyed one-fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges.
Stuxnet turned up in industrial programs around the world in mid-2009. But experts dissecting it soon determined that it had been precisely calibrated in a way that would send nuclear centrifuges wildly out of control, adding to suspicions that it was meant to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
It appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms.
After its spread, intelligence officials began to talk of setbacks in Iran's program that could delay the day it is able to produce a nuclear weapon (a goal Iran denies having).
In January 2011, the retiring chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton separately announced that they believed Iran’s efforts had been set back by several years. Mrs. Clinton cited American-led sanctions, which have hurt Iran’s ability to buy components and do business around the world.
The gruff Mr. Dagan, whose organization has been accused by Iran of being behind the deaths of several Iranian scientists, told the Israeli Knesset that Iran had run into technological difficulties that could delay a bomb until 2015. That represented a sharp reversal from Israel’s long-held argument that Iran was on the cusp of success.
Many mysteries remain, chief among them, exactly who constructed a computer worm that appears to have several authors on several continents. But the digital trail is littered with intriguing bits of evidence, many of which suggest that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program.