Q&A on Iran, nukes

The UN nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on 28 April that Iran had not complied with a Security Council demand that it suspend uranium enrichment. The US, UK and France have proposed a new Security Council resolution ordering Iran to comply. The BBC News website looks at the issues involved.

What is Iran supposed to do?

It is supposed to suspend all enrichment, to reconsider plans for a heavy water reactor, implement and ratify a previous agreement to allow extra inspections and generally cooperate more.

What has it done instead?

It announced on 11 April that it had enriched uranium and is refusing to back down.

This was the first time that Iran had announced that it had enriched uranium, which is a key step in making both nuclear power and a nuclear bomb. Therefore it is significant technically.

Iran says the enrichment is to 3.5% which is sufficient for nuclear power fuel and not high enough for a nuclear bomb, which it says it is not making.

What will the Security Council do now?

The US, Britain and France have proposed a formal Security Council resolution demanding Iranian compliance. This would be under Chapter VII, the so-called enforcement section of the UN Charter, which could open the way for sanctions if Iran refused. The draft threatens further “measures” which means sanctions, though that would need a separate decision.

Will this resolution pass?

Not certain because Russia and China, which both have vetoes in the Security Council, are doubtful. They do not want an escalation of tension, though they also argue that Iran should comply.

Why not sanctions at once?

Because too many countries on the Security Council oppose them. China and Russia are against at the moment.

What is Iran’s position?

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a country has the right to enrich its own fuel for civil nuclear power, under IAEA inspection.

Iran says it is simply doing what it allowed to do. It argues that it needs nuclear power and wants to control the whole process itself. It says it will not use the technology to make a nuclear bomb.

How soon could Iran build a bomb if it decided to do so?

Estimates from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London vary from between about three to five years up to about 15 years, depending on Iran’s abilities and intentions. But first it would have to take the decision to go down that path. That would mean enriching uranium much more highly than it says it has done so far.

Why is the West so worried?

Western powers fear that Iran secretly wants to develop either a nuclear bomb or the ability to make one, even if it has not decided to build one right now. So they want Iran to stop any enrichment. The same technology used for producing fuel for nuclear power can be used for producing fuel for a nuclear explosion.

The West says that Iran cannot be trusted because it hid an enrichment programme for 18 years.

Would the US attack Iran?

The US says it wants a peaceful solution. An attack would not only risk Iranian retaliation, it would be hard to justify legally. The US is said to have plans but it has plans for many contingencies and it has not taken a decision.

What is the background to this?

The IAEA reported in 2003 that Iran had hidden a uranium enrichment programme for 18 years, and the current dispute dates back to then.

Western members of the IAEA called on Iran to commit itself to stopping all enrichment activities permanently, but it has refused to do so and now says it has abandoned a temporary ban as well. So these countries want Iran reported to the Security Council under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the grounds that its past behaviour broke the treaty and it cannot now be trusted.

Iran says it is now in compliance with the treaty and that it should be allowed, under inspection, to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes since the treaty allows countries to do this.

Does Iran intend to build nuclear weapons?

Iran says its policy is “Yes” to enrichment but “No” to nuclear weapons. A fatwa against nuclear weapons has been issued by the Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The sceptics argue that Iran has no need to make its own nuclear fuel as this can be provided by others, so they conclude that Iran must be intending one day to make a bomb.

One other possibility is that Iran wants to develop the capability but has left a decision on whether actually to build a nuclear weapon for the future.

Could Iran leave the NPT?

Yes. Article X gives a member state the right to declare that “extraordinary events” have “jeopardised the supreme interests of the State.” It can then give three months notice to quit. That would leave it free to do what it wanted.

And, in fact, on 7 May, its parliament threatened to force the government to withdraw if the standoff was not resolved “peacefully”.

What about fears for regional conflict?

There are fears of a broader, possibly military, crisis. The US has said publicly that it will not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons. President Bush has said that he wants diplomacy to solve this, but that nothing is ruled out.

There have been press reports that Israel, which bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981, has begun the planning for a possible raid. But like the US, Israel says that diplomacy is the priority.

Do not existing nuclear powers have obligations to get rid of their weapons under the NPT?

Article VI commits them to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The nuclear powers claim they have done this by reducing their warheads but critics say they have not really moved towards nuclear disarmament.

Critics also argue that the US and UK have broken the treaty by transferring nuclear technology from one to another. The US and UK say that this is not affected by the NPT.

Does not Israel have a nuclear bomb?

Yes. Israel however is not a party to the NPT, so is not obliged to report to it. Neither are India or Pakistan, both of which have developed nuclear weapons. North Korea has left the treaty and has announced that it has acquired a nuclear weapon capacity.

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