Nuclear Timeline

The stumbling blocks in the way of a final Iran nuclear agreement are not as big as they seem.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano. (photo credit: LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano.
DON’T BE overly surprised if talks with Iran about its nuclear program are extended beyond the final end of the June 2015 deadline.
This round of negotiations was supposed to be the last one and to result in a final deal that would meaningfully curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for partial and gradual lifting of the economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But gaps between the two sides – Iran and the P 5+1 group of the US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany – still exist in some key areas.
American and European officials say that the likelihood of reaching an agreement is “50-50.” Both sides have walked a long way and at stake are the prestige of two administrations and two presidents, Barack Obama of the US and Hassan Rouhani of Iran. Thus, it is in their personal and national interests to eventually clinch a deal. The sooner the better.
To understand the chances of a deal, there is a need for a brief history of Iran’s nuclear program and the response of the international community. This covers 13 years and is dotted with deceits, lies, cover-ups, evasiveness, military threats, sabotage, assassinations, agreements and their breaching by Iran in order to enhance its military nuclear capabilities and become a nuclear threshold state.
August 2002:
An Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is a front for the militant Mujahedeen- e-Khalq (People’s Army) releases details about the construction of a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium at Arak and a uranium enrichment facility with centrifuges at Natanz. The information reportedly originated in the Israeli intelligence community and was forwarded to the Iranian opposition group in order to launder it and protect sources. The information increased international fears that Iran was conspiring to build nuclear weapons under the pretext of a “civilian project.”
February 2003: Following an international outcry and with the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition looming in the background, Iranian president Muhammad Khatami acknowledges the existence of the Natanz facility and agrees that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit the site and other facilities.
June 2003: The IAEA report concludes that Iran has violated its international nuclear obligations and agreements.
October 2003: Following the IAEA report, the UK, Germany and France (the EU-3) launch a joint diplomatic effort to address Iran’s nuclear policy. The US refuses to be involved in the talks.
October 2003:
Under threat of referral to the UN Security Council, Iran reaches an agreement with the EU-3 known as the “Tehran Declaration.” Iran agrees to suspend all uranium enrichment. The US backed the agreement from the outset.
August 2005: Hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran, abandoned the agreement and restarted Iran’s uranium enrichment activity and construction of the Natanz reactor.
June 2006: The IAEA declares Iran a “noncompliant” state. China, the US and Russia join the UK, Germany and France to form the P5+1 group to deal with the growing fear that Iran is on its way to producing its first nuclear bomb.
December 2006-2010: The UN Security Council passes six resolutions demanding that Iran stop its uranium enrichment and other related activities and imposes sanctions against Iranian individuals and companies linked to the nuclear and missile programs.
2007: The CIA publishes its “National Intelligence Estimate” stating that already in 2003, Iran had ceased work on the nuclear military program. The estimate is not accepted by Israeli intelligence, which claims that Iran never stopped its clandestine and covert nuclear military research.
2007-2011: According to foreign reports, Israel’s intelligence community led by the Mossad initiates systematic covert operations aimed at creating physical and psychological havoc. The measures include an assassination campaign against Iranian scientists and sabotage of equipment and facilities. Israel’s efforts were supplemented by a joint venture with the CIA, in which the two espionage agencies wrote a code for a malicious virus called Stuxnet, which was planted in computers operating the centrifuges in Natanz. Onethird of the centrifuges were damaged.
September 2009: Based on intelligence from the US, Britain, Israel and other Western nations, Obama, reveals the existence of a small, heavily fortified, underground enrichment facility in Fordow, near the Iranian city of Qom. The size of the facility enhances suspicions that it was solely built for a military program. The US began talking seriously about air strikes against Iran, and Israel, too, threatened military action.
2009-2011: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak lead a devious and effective psychological campaign, issuing threats to attack Iran unless the international community tightened sanctions against the Islamic Republic. In order to make those threats credible, the Israel Air Force conducts a series of exercises simulating military strikes against Iran. Netanyahu and Barak conceal even from their own military and intelligence chiefs the fact that they don’t really plan to attack Iran. Chief of Staff General Gabi Ashkenazi and head of Mossad Meir Dagan fall into the trap and, believing that Netanyahu and Barak are dead serious, mobilize the media and others within the government to torpedo the supposed war plans.
A perfect camouflage is created. The US, the international community and even most Israelis including cabinet ministers and military chiefs, not to mention Iran, begin to believe that an Israeli attack is imminent unless… 2010-2013: Netanyahu and Barak achieve their goal. Many states willingly or out of fear that the US would punish them, rush to impose crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil and petrochemical production and exports. Shipping and insurance are also targeted, and the SWIFT international electronic clearing system cuts ties with Iranian banks blacklisted by the EU. Over $100 billion in Iranian financial deposits are frozen in banks around the world.
Spring 2013: The crippling sanctions take their toll and Iran’s economy suffers a major blow. On top of frozen assets abroad, Iran has lost $160 billion in revenues. Inflation and unemployment rise, the local currency sinks and the psycho-economic effect on the public grows. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, despite pressure from hard-liners and especially the Revolutionary Guards, who profit from the sanctions regime, decides to change course. He green-lights the replacement of the hard-liner Ahmadinejad, whose two disastrous terms are followed by the more moderate Rouhani.
From one perspective, the change in heart in Tehran can be described as “surrender.”
But there is another parallel reason for its readiness to sit down, talk and negotiate – Iran has reached its long-term goal. The Islamic Republic has managed to master most aspects of the nuclear process and has become a nuclear threshold state.
November 2013: Iran and the P5+1 reach an interim agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action. The agreement limits Iran’s nuclear program. Production at the Arak reactor ceases, its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium is significantly decreased and Tehran agrees to enrich uranium up to 5 percent. Insignificant sanctions against Iran are partially lifted. Still, two deadlines for a comprehensive agreement are not met.
April 2015: Iran and the P5+1 announce a framework deal for 10 years. Iran will not be allowed to enrich uranium over 5 percent, will have to dismantle 75 percent of its 19,000 centrifuges in Natanz, will have to remove fissile materials from Fordow and dismantle essential elements of the Arak reactor, so it won’t be able to produce plutonium.
The removed equipment will be put under strict IAEA inspection, which will install seals and cameras directly linked to its headquarters in Vienna. Also, Iran will be deprived of producing advanced centrifuges and will agree to an intrusive inspection regime by the IAEA, including in suspected military sites. In return, all the sanctions will be gradually lifted.
Iran also must allow IAEA teams to debrief key scientists suspected of involvement in its past activities in weaponization as well as to provide information about it.
Behind the scenes, the P5+1 members reach an important understanding that if during the 10 year period when the agreement is in place Iran violates all or some of the obligations, the UN Security Council will convene and the sanctions will be reinstated.
This understanding is accepted by both Russia and China.
In return for the self-imposed limitations on the nuclear program, the sanctions against Iran will be lifted gradually. Sanctions will be removed after “Phase 1.” This is the time when Iran will finish dismantling its nuclear facilities. Iran tells the P5+1 that the work will take up to three months. American and European officials estimate that it will take longer, probably six months.
In recent weeks, however, Iran has begun to employ doublespeak. While in the talks the Iranian negotiators, led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, agree to most of the clauses in the draft agreement, upon returning home they make different statements.
For example, they declare that the sanctions will be lifted from “Day 1” – i.e. the first day after the agreement is signed and not after “Phase 1.” Another emerging difference is statements by Supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Rouhani and a non-binding resolution by the Iranian parliament (Majlis) that military sites are off limits. Such statements seem to contradict what was already agreed upon in the talks and make the task of reaching an agreement very difficult.
However, the differences are not as big as they seem. It’s a matter of parallel narratives used by the two sides. With linguistic creativity, they can be bridged and resolved.
What really stands as stumbling blocks on the road to an agreement are only cosmetic arguments in the nature of public relations, face savers and, above all, domestic considerations by the two sides of how to sell the deal back at home and seemingly emerge victorious and not defeated.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman