Marty Harris, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security
The Iranian nuclear program became a central issue for the
international community following the disclosure of two previously
unreported nuclear facilities in August 2002. The two
facilities—a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy
water reactor at Arak—both have possible nuclear weapons
The negotiations between Iran and key Western countries which
began in August 2002 have failed to produce a long-term solution.
Following negotiations with the so-called
‘EU-3’—France, Germany and the UK—in
October 2003, Iran agreed to suspend all uranium enrichment
activity. In return, the EU-3 acknowledged Iran’s
‘nuclear rights’ and promised to supply Iran with
modern technology once it had provided sufficient assurances to the
international community regarding the nature of its nuclear
The suspension of enrichment activity lasted until
June 2005, when, after the election of President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, Iran resumed uranium enrichment.
At about the same time the EU-3 offered Iran a final package of
‘benefits’ in return for a permanent cessation of
uranium enrichment and other activities associated with possible
nuclear weapon applications. In addition to unpublished economic
and political incentives, Iran was to be provided with a guaranteed
supply of nuclear fuel and assurances of ‘non
aggression’ from the EU (but not the US). Iran rejected this
offer, with an Iranian nuclear official calling it ‘very
insulting and humiliating’.
The US and the EU-3 then made moves to have the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refer Iran to the United Nations
Security Council (UNSC) for possible sanctions.
The IAEA, which had postponed judgement on Iran’s nuclear
program while that country was negotiating with the EU-3, ruled in
September 2005 that Iran’s activities constituted ‘non
compliance’ with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the
associated Safeguards Agreement. In February 2006 the IAEA voted in
favour of referring Iran to the UNSC, and Security Council
sanctions were applied under Resolution 1737 (2006), and passed on
27 December 2006.
Since December 2006 the UNSC has imposed a further three rounds
of sanctions on Iran, which focus on restricting the sale of
dual-use nuclear or military equipment to Iran, and travel and
financial sanctions against designated persons/entities engaged in
the nuclear program.
In September 2009 Iran informed the IAEA of a second uranium
enrichment facility under construction near the city of Qom. The
US, Britain and France issued a joint statement arguing that the
disclosure of the previously secret facility ‘deepens a
growing concern’ about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran
claimed, however, that it was not required to inform the IAEA of
new facilities until six months before nuclear fuel is introduced.
The IAEA, for its part, stated that ‘Iran’s delay in
submitting such information to the Agency does not contribute to
the building of confidence’.
Soon after this revelation, Iran attended negotiations with the
‘P5+1’—representatives from the permanent members
of the UNSC plus the IAEA. Following the talks, the IAEA provided
Iran with a draft deal that would see Iran ship the majority of its
low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment, with the
fuel then being returned to Iran for use in medical research and
cancer treatment. Iran proposed changes to the draft agreement,
which were rejected by the P5+1, and the deal seemingly went
Lastly, on 21 August 2010 Russian engineers began to load fuel
into the Bushehr nuclear reactor in southern Iran. As Bushehr
builds capacity it will become the country’s first
large-scale nuclear reactor. Russia, which built the plant, will
supply the low-enriched uranium fuel and remove the spent reactor
fuel for reprocessing. As such, the proliferation threat posed by
the reactor may be limited. Still, in the context of heightened
tension over the Iranian nuclear program, developments at Bushehr
will be watched closely.
Successive Australian governments have voiced their opposition
to the Iranian nuclear program since secret facilities were
disclosed in 2002.
Australia implements all four sets of UNSC sanctions on Iran. In
addition, since October 2008, Australia has progressively applied a
set of autonomous sanctions on the nuclear industry in Iran which
go further than the UNSC sanctions. These autonomous sanctions
currently include, above and beyond the UNSC sanctions:
- travel and financial restrictions on approximately 33
individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear or ballistic missile
- targeted financial sanctions on approximately 118 entities with
links to Iran’s nuclear or ballistic missile program
- restrictions on Australian firms conducting business with
proliferation-sensitive sectors in Iran (such as uranium mining;
also includes some oil and gas sector entities), and
- prohibitions on the sale of certain—mostly military or
dual-use use—goods and services to Iran.
Further, the Australian Government introduced the Autonomous
Sanctions Bill 2010 into parliament on 26 May 2010. This piece of
legislation would give the Government greater flexibility in the
range of autonomous measures Australia could impose on countries
When the House of Representatives was dissolved on 19 July 2010,
the Bill was still before the House of Representatives. Considering
that both major parties indicated support for it, the Bill may be
reintroduced soon after parliament returns.
In addition, the parliament may also be required to respond to
other developments concerning the Iranian nuclear program, such as
further international sanctions or a military strike on
Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Library publications and key documents
PK Kerr, Iran’s nuclear program:
Status, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research
Service, 29 December 2009, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RL34544.pdf
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,
Australian autonomous sanctions: Iran, (n.d.),
Explanatory Memorandum, Autonomous Sanctions