The Iranian Nuclear Talks: A Primer

by Derek Davison

Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, China and Russia plus Germany) are meeting for a third round of negotiations on April 8-9 in Vienna as part of an attempt to reach a final nuclear deal by their self-set July deadline. LobeLog has been charting these talks extensively, especially since the start of talks that led to the November 24, 2013 Joint Plan of Action, but for those who are just beginning to follow this issue or need a refresher, let’s examine some of the details around Iran’s nuclear program and the ongoing international efforts to reach an agreement over its future size and scope.

What are the current talks about?

At stake is the future of Iran’s nuclear program within international nonproliferation safeguards, and the easing or total removal of economic sanctions that have been levied against Iran by the United States, European Union and the United Nations.

Who are the main players?

You can’t spell “Iranian nuclear program” without “Iran,” so we should probably start with them. Iran’s negotiating team is led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who reports to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The final say on foreign policy decisions rests with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and both Rouhani and Zarif must ensure that any deal will be met with Khamenei’s approval.

The Iranians are negotiating with a coalition of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) and Germany, which is typically called the P5+1, but is sometimes also called the E3+3 (the three EU members plus the US, Russia, China). The P5+1’s point person for the talks is Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, but the foreign secretaries of the six nations will also have to sign-off on a final deal. The internal cohesion of the P5+1 has been crucial in maintaining sanctions against Iran, and will be tested given the tensions that now exist between Russia and the US/EU over Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.

Other key players that are not directly involved in the talks include Israel, which claims it’s deeply concerned about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, and Saudi Arabia, which considers a sanctions-free Iran to be a potential rival for regional hegemony, and is worried about what it sees as a major shift in US foreign policy away from Saudi interests.

When did the talks start?

Iran has been negotiating on and off with the European Union (specifically the UK, France, and Germany) and on related but separate issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 2003 under then Presidents Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13). In 2006, the talks were widened to include the US, Russia, and China, though the US refused to fully participate until Iran met certain pre-conditions like an indefinite halt to its uranium enrichment program.

The current round of talks began after Rouhani’s election as president in June 2013; he had run promising to increase the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in order to convince the P5+1 to draw down its sanctions regime. Iran and the P5+1 met in Geneva in early November, and an interim agreement (with a term of 6 months plus the possibility of renewal), the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), was announced on November 24. Under the terms of the JPA, Iran agreed to substantially slow down its nuclear activity in exchange for partial sanctions relief, and a plan was made for future talks toward a long-term resolution. The JPA went into effect on January 20 of this year, and the first round of talks on a long-term deal between the principal negotiators took place in Vienna from February 18-20, with the second round taking place from March 17-20. See this timeline of diplomatic efforts related to Iran’s nuclear program for more details.

What are the key issues to be negotiated?

Brookings Institution arms control expert Robert Einhorn, who served as Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently issued a report outlining the remaining challenges in the talks, and highlighting the two biggest. First and most important is the level of uranium enrichment that Iran will be allowed to undertake. “Light water” nuclear reactors (which use water as coolant and to mediate the nuclear reaction) for civilian use need to be fueled with low enriched uranium (LEU), which is uranium that has been modified via centrifuge so that around 5% of its weight is made up of the more radioactive Uranium-235 isotope (less than 1% of naturally occurring uranium is U-235, the rest is the less radioactive U-238). Nuclear weapons require highly enriched uranium, where 85% or more of the uranium is U-235 (uranium enriched below 20% is considered LEU, anything above that is HEU). In order to reduce Iran’s ability to produce HEU, Einhorn says a deal must limit Iran to 2000-6000 centrifuges, which is far below the 10,000 it currently operates and even farther below the 19,000 Iran says it plans to operate once all its centrifuges are in place. The ideal solution from a non-proliferation standpoint would be for Iran to completely give up its enrichment program, but the Iranians have been consistent in saying that they will not do so under any circumstances, and the US has conceded that Iran will continue to enrich uranium under a comprehensive deal.

The other major challenge is the status of a proposed “heavy water” reactor at Arak (around 150 miles southwest of Tehran), which uses deuterium oxide as coolant and mediator rather than water. Iran claims that it plans to use Arak to produce medical isotopes, but because heavy water reactors produce large amounts of plutonium (an alternative to HEU for weapons making) as byproduct, there are fears that Arak could be used to produce fuel for weapons (though Iran denies this and has pledged not to build the kind of facilities that would be necessary to reprocess that plutonium for weapons use). There are ways to modify Arak’s design to produce substantially less plutonium, and some kind of modification will likely be necessary in a final deal.

How did Iran come to have a nuclear program in the first place?

Iran began developing a nuclear program in the 1950s with American assistance, under President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. This was an effort to head off the possibility of nuclear proliferation by offering American research, infrastructure, and expertise to countries that were interested in developing nuclear programs for peaceful use. Iran signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, which obliges it not to pursue nuclear weapons. After Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, an American ally, was removed from power by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, all cooperation between Iran and the United States on nuclear power was halted. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Iran’s new leader after the revolution, showed little interest in the nuclear program, but it did continue. Today, Iran’s primary nuclear facilities include a civilian power plant at Bushehr, four medical reactors at Isfahan, a research reactor at Tehran, and uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow. See this timeline of the Iranian nuclear program for additional details.

So the Iranians are trying to develop nuclear weapons, right?

Well, not so fast. In the 1970s, American intelligence agencies believed that the Shah was interested in developing nuclear weapons, but the revolution interrupted those plans and limited Iran’s access to foreign expertise and material. Iran restarted its nuclear program with the help of a Pakistani scientist named Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold uranium enrichment technology to several countries in the late 1980s. The consensus of the American intelligence community seems to be that Iran stopped any direct nuclear weapons program in 2003. Since then, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei (Khomeini’s successor) has issued a religious declaration (fatwa) saying that the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam. The former chief of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, has also repeatedly said there is “no credible evidence” that Iran has resumed pursuing nuclear weapons and the US intelligence community continues to rule that while Iran is moving towards developing a nuclear weapons capability, it has not yet decided to do so, which is why diplomacy, which can impact Iran’s decision-making process, is so important.

I notice that you didn’t just say “no” there.

Okay, you got me there. Former director ElBaradei’s statements notwithstanding, the IAEA has also consistently said that it does not have enough evidence to rule out the possibility that Iran has been pursuing a weapon. Additionally, while Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly denied that Iran seeks a nuclear weapon, he has also said that, should it choose to pursue one, “no power could stop us.” Ultimately, though, what the P5+1 are worried about is Iran’s “breakout capacity,” which is the time it would take Iran to build a weapon if it decided to pursue one. Elements of a final deal that put limits on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and permit intrusive inspections of Iranian nuclear sites would ideally leave Iran with a breakout capacity of at least 6 months, preferably closer to 12.

What are the chances that the talks will succeed?

Any of the remaining obstacles to a comprehensive deal could prove insurmountable, particularly over the issue of how much uranium enrichment Iran will carry out. Khamenei and US President Barack Obama have both previously expressed pessimistic sentiments about the potential for success. However, both Iranian and American officials have recently sounded more optimistic.

Why are the talks important?

A negotiated settlement that allows Iran a limited enrichment capacity with significant inspections and verification requirements is, as Einhorn writes, “not ideal, but better than the alternatives.” If these talks fail, there will be a push for tougher sanctions on Iran, but it is unclear how much more pressure sanctions can bring to bear, and it is even less clear that the P5+1 will hold together to implement tougher sanctions. If harsher sanctions don’t, or can’t, work then limited military action against Iran’s nuclear sites could follow, though experts have explained why that’s the least favorable option. Such an act would end all possibility of negotiations and likely push the Iranians to kick nuclear inspectors out of the country and race toward building a weapon. Even if limited strikes could temporarily slow Iran’s progress toward a weapon in the event that it actually chose to make one, they cannot eliminate the related technical knowledge and expertise that Iran has developed.

These talks will also have longer term implications, particularly in terms of setting a precedent for future such agreements and in terms of Iran’s ability to incorporate itself into the wider international community.

*This post was revised on April 10 to correct presidential terms.

Representatives of Iran and the P5+1 are photographed at the signing ceremony of the Joint Plan of Action, the interim nuclear agreement that was reached in Geneva, Switzerland on November 24, 2013. Credit: Credit: ISNA/Mona Hoobehfekr

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. A Primer, good in itself for what it says, but left out, is the constant background B.S. of the Neocon/AIPAC/Netanyahoo rants, threats, etc , that have been going on in the hopes of scuttling the talks and instead taking military action, bombing the facilities, but looking at the present situation in the M.E. the results of military actions already taken, such an act toward Iran, would perhaps unleash such destructive damage/death/civilian casualties, (look at the present results of just overthrowing the leaders since the beginning of the 21st century, along with the enormous debt the U.S. has incurred.

    This is a wake up call that needs a final solution, a peaceful one that leaves Iran whole, normalizing relations so the World can tackle the bigger problems it faces. There is another potential time bomb waiting to go off, that being the Israeli situation. Israel will have to give up its Nuclear WMDs, and become a good neighbor. To do otherwise, is like putting a band aid on a festering boil, instead treating it with medicine. After all, leaving the “Bull in the China Shop”, invites the “Bull” destroying all the merchandise.

  2. Many people may believe that by tightening the sanctions already in place for Iran chance of “success” of these negotiations will increase. The question to ask here pertains to the essence of “negotiations”, by its term, it would mean a give and take and not just a one sided winner takes all. Given that many none logical factors come into play in any negotiations, such as personalities, pride, prejudices, fears, etc., one cannot always believe that a series of rational sensibilities will prevail. That out of a compromise a binding resolution could surface. The rather modest allowances given to Iran for the six months negotiation period, in return for their commitments for this durations, does not seem to bode well for a balanced approach to a negotiation table to the lay person, added to this, the “noise” being heard from certain politicians and the relative strength or lack thereof of the administration in dealings they have had with the Congress on Iran, seems to have further boldened and energize those opposed to any deal with Iran. Despite this rather bleak outlook, the hope is to see men of goodwill to overcome the obstacles and succeed in their mission, the current UN nominee from IRI notwithstanding.

  3. There are ALL SORTS of problems with this narrative.

    For one thing, Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. In 2003, the negotiations were undertaken by Khatami. What this auhor leave out — and so does the “timeline” he links to — is the entire EU “empty box in pretty wrapping” affair which is the subject of Peter Oborne’s book. Also left out is the fact that the Iranian negotiations were always stymied by the US “zero enrichment demand” but instead the author promotes the false narrative that it was Iran’s election Rouhani that allowed the current negotiations to happen, rather that the US giving the zero enrichment demand. And also left out is the fact that Iran approached AQ Khan only after the US interfered with numerous legal Iranian nuclear contracts, in violation of Iran’s rights as recognized by the NPT. And also left out is the fact that the allegatiosn against Iran turned out to be largely from Israel. The author pretends that the IAEA somehow endorsed the NIE’s conclusion that Iran had a nuclear program prior to 2003 — whereas ElBaradei was explicitly clear that the IAEA had no evidence that Iran EVER had a nuclear weapons program. And finally this piece misrepresents the Additiona Protocol issue — the IAEA does not verify the exclusively peaceful nature of ANY country’s nuclear program unless the Additiona Protocol is in force, and in that Iran is no different than Argentina Brazil Egypt and many other nations — except that Iran not only voluntarily implemented the AP but exceeded it for more than 3 years with no evidenceo of any nukes found. The author is missing the entire point as he has not read Gareth Porter’s book: the nuclear issue was always just a pretext for regime change. It was never about trying to “prevent breakout” — 40 nations already have breakout capability, meaning that Iran has joined 1 out of 4 nations on the planet.

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