The Iranian nuclear program

Marty Harris, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section

Background

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 applications.

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 program.

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 In addition to unpublished economic and political incentives, Iran was to be provided with a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel and assurances of ‘non aggression’ from the EU (but not the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.

Recent developments

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 nowhere.

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.

Main Iranian nuclear facilities - Text version

Main Iranian nuclear facilities map

Australia’s involvement

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 program
  • 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 like Iran.

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.), http://www.dfat.gov.au/un/unsc_sanctions/iran_autonomous_sanctions.html

Explanatory Memorandum, Autonomous Sanctions Bill 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/ems/r4366_ems_22ae9018-5ad3-4c9d-bc9b-c9de4dc3e9fe/upload_pdf/343087.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

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