In the summer of 2002 an Iranian opposition group thought to have been fed intelligence by Western spy agencies revealed the existence of a secret uranium enrichment facility outside the central Iranian town of Natanz. It was the beginning of a long, rancorous, and so far intractable battle of wills between a revolutionary state seemingly determined to acquire the expertise necessary to build a nuclear bomb and an international coalition, led by the United States and including other nuclear weapons states, that has been trying to prevent this from happening.
In 2009 it came to light that Iran had developed another secret centrifuge facility, this one deep underground, at the desert site of Fordow, and two years later the United Nations’ nuclear-monitoring body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), disclosed that it had received “credible” information that Iran had “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” that these activities had until recently happened “under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.” All the while, the Iranians continued to build a heavy water reactor at Arak—whose existence had also been revealed in 2002—which could when completed make enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons a year.
Iran has insisted all along that its program is geared only to the generation of electricity and medical isotopes, and for several years it expanded its cascades of centrifuges in order to enrich uranium. The country was punished with sabotage, the murder of several of its nuclear scientists, and sanctions on its oil industry and financial institutions that brought its economy to the brink of ruin. Seeking to forestall further escalation, possibly in the form of an Israeli military attack, in November 2013 Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany (the so-called P5+1), met in Geneva and declared a truce. Under the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPA), the Iranians promised to advance no further in developing their enrichment capabilities, while the P5+1 announced a moratorium on new sanctions and unfroze some Iranian assets that had been held in overseas banks.
That the truce still stands is easy enough to explain; neither Iran nor the P5+1 has anything to gain from going back to the potentially disastrous status quo ante. But the Joint Plan of Action was conceived as a first step to a comprehensive agreement that would be reached within eight months, with the IAEA certifying Iran’s nuclear program as exclusively peaceful, after which the complicated range of sanctions already imposed by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union would be either relaxed or repealed. But nothing like this has happened.
In July 2014 the JPA…
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