History of Iranian nuclear program and nuclear talks

Timeline: Iranian nuclear program and talks

1950: Iran has an expressed interest in the research and development of nuclear technology as early as the 1950s—a period when the country began receiving assistance from the United States Atom for Peace program. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah or King of Iran, had spearheaded the development of technologies related to the Iranian nuclear program.

As a backgrounder, the Atom for Peace program was an initiative of the American government aimed at distributing nuclear technology, materials, and knowledge to countries with less advanced research and development. The first nuclear reactor of Iran was built under this program.

1967: The Tehran Nuclear Research Center was established. Under the Atom for Peace program, the centre received the Tehran Research Reactor—a 5-megawatt pool-type nuclear research reactor fuelled by highly enriched uranium.

1968: Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon or NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. Iran ratified the NPT in 1970 and although it positioned itself as a non-nuclear weapon state, the country reiterated that the Shah may have had nuclear weapons ambitions.

1973: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi unveiled an ambitious plan to install a 23,000MWe of nuclear power in Iran by the end of the century. The Shah established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and tasked this newly founded government arm to oversee the implementation of the plan.

1976: Iran spent $1 billion for a 10 percent stake in a uranium enrichment plant in France and a 15 percent stake in a uranium mine in Rossing, Namimbia. The country also signed a $700 million contract to purchase uranium yellowcake from South Africa.

For the next five years, Iran entered several contracts with foreign suppliers intended to bolster the development of Iranian nuclear program. In addition, the country also invested heavily in education and training of personnel who would become nuclear specialists. By1979, Iran already had an impressive baseline capability in nuclear technologies.

1979:   The Iranian Revolution created socio-political instability, leading to the disposal of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Furthermore, Iranian nuclear specialists fled the country in the wake of the revolution. The leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini initially opposed nuclear technology. These socio-political issues stalled the development of the Iranian nuclear program.

The aftermath of the Iranian Revolution resulted in U.S. cutting off the supply of highly enriched uranium. This subsequently rendered the Tehran Research Reactor inoperable for years. Furthermore, the Iranian nuclear program disintegrated further. Works on several projects initiated under the Shah were halted, including the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant.

1980: From 1980 to 1988, Iran engaged in a costly war with Iraq. This further halted the development of the nuclear program of Iran. However, in 1984, Khomeini reconsidered nuclear program, thus expressing an interest in the development of the nuclear capability of the country. He began seeking assistance from international partners to complete the construction of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant.

1987: Beginning 1987, Iran signed agreements with the National Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina to convert the Tehran Nuclear Research Center from highly enriched uranium fuel to 19.75% low-enriched uranium. These agreements were also intended to supply low-enriched uranium to the country. Iran also signed a cooperation with Pakistan in 1987. The scope of the agreement included the training of Iranian personnel.

In 1990, the country signed an agreement with China. The Chinese government agreed to provide Iran with a 27KW miniature neutron source reactor and two 300MW Qinshan power reactors.

Around late 1980s, U.S. intelligence agencies have began suspecting Iran of developing nuclear weapons within its nuclear program, particularly by using its civilian nuclear development program as a cover for clandestine weapons development. This has since prompted the U.S. government to actively pressure potential suppliers to limit cooperation and agreements with the Iranian government.

In addition, this allegation resulted in China refusing to provide Iran with the two 300MW Qinshan power reactors and another research reactor suitable for plutonium development. U.S. was also successful in blocking the Iran-Argentina agreement for uranium enrichment and heavy water production facilities.

1992: Iran and Russia signed a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement. In 1995, Russia agreed to complete the construction of Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. The Russian government also secretly offered to supply Iran with a large research reactor, a fuel fabrication facility, and a centrifuge power plant.

U.S. President Bill Clinton expressed concerns about the covert negotiations between Iran and Russia, as well as the apparent nuclear technology transfer from the Russians. Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin eventually agreed to scale back the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement.

2002: The Paris-based Iranian dissident group National Council of Resistance of Iran publicly announced the existence of two undeclared nuclear facilities—one is a heavy-water production facility in Arak and the other one is a enrichment facility in Natanz. The group also revealed the names of various individuals and front companies involved in the construction and operation of the facilities.

2003: Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in February acknowledged the existence of the facilities while also arguing that his government had undertaken small-scale enrichment experiments to produce low-enriched uranium for energy generation.

A series of inspection visits from the International Atomic Energy Agency transpired within the year. Iran promised to submit to inspections. The first one was in the Natanz site conducted in late February and the second one was in May conducted in the Kalaye Electric Company but Iran disallowed inspectors to take samples. An IAEA report published in June concluded that Iran failed to meet the obligations under the international agreement.

In response to the IAEA report, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France—collectively known as EU-3—initiated in June a joint diplomatic effort aimed at addressing the nuclear policy issue of Iran. The United States refused to join in this joint effort. Due to the threat of referral to the UN Security Council, the Iranian government reached an agreement with EU-3. The Tehran Declaration was conceived an Iran agreed to cooperate fully with the IAEA and suspend all uranium enrichment activities.

2004: As a product of the continued diplomatic effort between EU-3 and Iran, the Paris Agreement was conceived in November. Under this, Iran agreed to temporarily suspend enrichment and conversion activities, including the manufacturing, installation, testing, and operation of centrifuges until it reached a mutually beneficial long-term diplomatic agreement with EU-3.

In early November 2004, the US Central Intelligence Agency received documents from a source containing information that Iran was modifying the nose cone of its Shahab-3 missile to carry a nuclear warhead. The Iranian government dismissed these documents as forgeries.

It should also be noted that in early 2004, the IAEA discovered that Iran had hid from inspectors the blueprints of advanced P-2 centrifuge and a document that contained information regarding uranium hemisphere casting. The IAEA urged Iran to be more cooperative and to answer questions about the origins of its centrifuge technology. Subsequently, the Iranian government admitted for the first time it had secretly acquired P-1 centrifuges through foreign intermediary in 1987 and that it had imported P-2 centrifuge blueprints in 1994.

2005: In August, hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran. As a strong supported of the Iranian nuclear program, he accused Iranian negotiators who were part of the Paris Agreement of treason.

From September to October, the diplomatic relationship between Iran and the EU-3 along with the agreements fell apart. The talks over the proposed Long Term Agreement from EU-3 broke down as well. The Iranian government felt that the proposal was heavy on demands, light on incentives, did not incorporate proposals of Iran, and violated the Paris Agreement. President Ahmadinejad gave a speech at the United Nations pronouncing and arguing that his country has the right to develop a nuclear program.

2006: Iran in February announced it ended its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol and will soon resume uranium enrichment. As a response, the IAEA voted to report Iran to the UN Security Council. After which, Iran notified IAEA that it would resume enrichment of uranium.

President Ahmadinejad further announced in April that it has joined the group of countries with established nuclear technology but clarified that is purely intended for power generation.

The EU-3 joined China, Russia, and the United States to form the P5+1—another joint diplomatic effort aimed at addressing the nuclear policy issue of Iran—in June. The term P5+1 refers to the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council plus Germany, a key trading partner of Iran.

The UN Security Council passed for the first time in July Resolution 1696 demanding Iran to stop activities relating to the enrichment and processing of uranium, banning the international transfer of nuclear missile technologies to Iran, and freezing the foreign assets of 12 individuals and 10 organisations involved with the Iranian nuclear program. President Ahmadinejad ignored the resolution.

From 2006 to 2010, UN has passed a total of six resolution while also imposing gradual sanctions on Iran—Resolution 1696 in July 2006, Resolution 1737 in December 2006, Resolution 1747 in March 2007, Resolution 1803 in March 2008, Resolution 1835 in September 2008, and Resolution 1929 in June 2010.

2008: Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief of European Union, met with Manouchehr Mottaki, Foreign Minister of Iran, and Saeed Jalili, an Iranian top nuclear negotiator, in Tehran to deliver a new incentives package from P5+1 that included economic incentives, access to light water reactor technology, and a guaranteed nuclear fuel supply. This incentives package would be offered in exchange for terminating the enrichment effort of Iran. However, President Ahmadinejad announced just days before the deadline that his country would continue with the earlier planned nuclear program. The UN Security Council responded by passing Resolution 1835.

2009: Iran disclosed to IAEA that it was building a second pilot enrichment facility. However, US President Barack Obama publicly revealed an already existing underground enrichment facility in Fordow, near the city of Qom. The American government began talking seriously about conducting possible air strikes against Iran. Israel threatens to take nuclear action.

Negotiations between Iran and P5+1 began resuming in October. The Iranian government was seeking a replacement for uranium fuel because its supply of 19.75% low-enriched uranium would soon run out by the end of 2009. P5+1 initially agreed to this, granted that Iran would send 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium to Russia and another third country for further enrichment. However, the Iranian government changed its mind and instead proposed that the fuel exchanges should be done in phases. The IAEA and the U.S. rejected this proposal, thus marking the breakdown in negotiations.

Following the failing negotiations, Iran informed IAEA that it would begin enriching some of its low-enriched uranium to up to 20%. President Ahmadinejad subsequently announced that the country has the capacity to enrich further if it chose to do so. France, Russia, and the United States sent a letter to the IAEA expressing their commitment to the fuel swap agreement and their resolve to ensure that the deal would be implemented in full.

Tensions further increased when President Ahmadinejad announced in late 2009 that had a plan of constructing 10 additional uranium enrichment facilities. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced that the country had identified close to 20 sites for these facilities. Furthermore, the organisation stated that the construction of the two facilities would immediately begin within the year.

It should also be noted that in November 2009, the IAEA voted to reprimand Iran for secretly building an underground uranium enrichment facility in Fordow, thus urging the country to clarify the original purpose of the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, halt its construction, confirm that there are no more underground facilities, and comply with the resolutions from the UN Security Council.

2010: Iran informed IAEA in February through writing that it was still seeking to purchase the required fuel supply for the Tehran Research Reactor from the international market. Furthermore, it expressed that it was willing to exchange low-enriched uranium for fuel assemblies. The Iranian government wanted IAEA to convey the message to the P5+1. Despite this, negotiations failed to restart.

Under UN Resolution 1929 passed in June, a set of sanctions was approved that would affect the investments of Iran in nuclear-related activities, including companies and front organisations that secretly operate for the Iranian nuclear program.

Brazil and Turkey acted as negotiation broker—particularly brokering a new nuclear fuel swap proposal. In May, Brazil, Turkey, and Iran issued a joint statement that expressed the willingness of the Iranian government to export half of its low-enriched uranium stock to the Turkish government as part of building confidence and trust and in return for 120kg of 20% enriched uranium for use in its medical research reactor. The P5+1 however refused to accept this offer because it was too late.

Talks between Iran and P5+1 resumed from October to December. These series of negotiations broke after Iran insisted for the lifting of all economic sanctions as a precondition for substantive discussions.

2011: In July, Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, proposed a phased or gradual approach to addressing the issue concerning the Iranian nuclear program. The proposal had five stages including limiting the enrichment activities of Iran to one site, capping enrichment levels, and suspending enrichment activities for three months, among others. In exchange, the P5+1 would life the sanctions, particularly at each stage. Iran agreed to the plan but the U.S., U.K., and France did not accept the idea of lifting sanctions at an early stage. The proposal never took off since then.

The IAEA in November released a report. For the first time, the organisation came up with a complete and single overview of all evidences pointing to the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. The report revealed that Iran has been carrying out activities relating to the development of a nuclear-related explosive device, building and maintaining underground pathways for the production of nuclear materials, and acquiring documents and information relating to nuclear development.

There was a plan to pass a new resolution and sanctions from the UN Security Council following the IAEA report but China and Russia opposed these. Nonetheless, U.S. and the European Union launched several unprecedented unilateral measure. To be specific, the American government considered the Iranian Government and all financial institutions as entities concerned with money laundering activities. This designation warned financial institutions around the world that dong business with Iran entailed significant risks. The U.S. Congress further enacted the Menendez-Kirk amendment in December that required the U.S. President to sanction the Central Bank of Iran and other foreign financial institutions and central banks for processing transactions related to oil and petroleum products on behalf of the Iranian government and companies.

2012: Several attempts to resolve the issue related to the Iranian nuclear program were carried out. These include visits in February and March to inspect sites in Iran that alleged to harbour facilities that develop nuclear weaponries. During an IAEA meeting in September, U.S. envoy accused Iran of demolishing facilities that were up for inspection.

In addition, in March and June, Iran presented a five-point proposal before the P5+1. The proposal included the recognition of the right of Iran to enrich uranium, relief of sanctions in return for Iranian cooperation, cooperation in nuclear energy and safety, possibility of capping enrichment by 20%, and other non-nuclear issues. Despite the series of talks that transpire, in addition to the constructive vibe of the discussions, no agreement was achieved.

US President Barack Obama signed in August into law the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act—a law that expanded the economic sanctions against Iran. The European Union also imposed tighter sanctions against Iran, thus prohibiting the import, financing, insurance, and brokering of Iranian natural gas, as well as banning the provision on ship-building, flagging, and classification of Iranina ships; and sale of graphite, aluminium, and steel.

2013: The U.S. held a series of talks with Iranian officials beginning March. These talks were kept from other members of the P5+1.

In June, Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran. He was regarded as more pragmatic and cooperative than Ahmadinejad. President Obama made a phone call to President Rouhani—the first contact between top leaders of US and Iran since 1975. Accordingly, the phone call as well as an earlier meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranina Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif marked an improving relationship and cooperation between the two countries.

Iran and P5+1 reached an interim agreement called the Joint Plan of Action. This resulted in limiting the Iranian nuclear program, ceasing the production at the Arak heavy-water reactor, and depleting the stockpile of medium-enriched uranium of Iran. In exchange, sanctions against Iran were partially lifted and assets were unfrozen.