( Shared By Tahir Mahmood)
The United States and five other world powers reached a deal with Iran over its controversial nuclear program Sunday. The agreement sets stringent limits on Iran’s nuclear activities; in exchange, the country will get about $6 billion in unfrozen foreign assets and relief from sanctions. Some people think it’s a good deal, some think it’s bad deal, but everyone agrees it’s a big deal.
For people who have not been following every twist and turn of the Iranian nuclear dispute, which is just about everyone, this story can get overwhelming. There are the decades of history leading up to it, deeply contentious diplomacy by several countries that want very different things and, of course, the nuclear science of what Iran can and cannot actually build. It can be a lot to keep straight, not least because some of the most important details are disputed.
Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive or definitive account of this very complicated story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.
1. What is Iran’s nuclear program?
This question is the entire conflict. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful, but a lot of countries worry that they’re cover for a nuclear weapons program. The dispute, on the most basic level, is over what sort of nuclear program Iran gets to have — if any at all — and what happens if it defies the world’s demands.
Iran has been developing nuclear fuel and technology for years, which it says is just for power plants and scientific research. They’ve got a few big facilities, some of which are out in the open and some of which are hidden away in underground bunkers. The program, and this is where it gets controversial, includes some stuff that would be awfully useful if Iran wanted to go a step beyond a peaceful program and develop a nuclear bomb.
2. So is Iran building a nuclear bomb or not?
It’s not clear. The United States and several other countries believe that Iran is trying to develop the technology and fissile material necessary to build a nuclear weapon. There’s an important distinction here: Western intelligence agencies have not concluded that Iran has decided to definitely build a bomb. Rather, they’ve reported lots of signs — secret facilities, weapons-related research programs — that suggest that Iran is trying to develop the technology and materials necessary to build a nuclear bomb very quickly. This is called “breakout capability,” as in Iran would have the ability to quickly “break out” into a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog hasn’t definitively concluded that Iran is doing this, but it has reported some very worrying signs and says it can’t state confidently that the program is peaceful. Iran has also dodged inspections and built secret facilities, which is not exactly reassuring anybody.
The world is so worried about Iran’s nuclear intentions that, starting in 2006, even China and Russia joined with the rest of the United Nations Security Council — a small, powerful body of world powers — in ordering Iran to “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development.” Iran has not complied, insisting that its program is a point of national prestige and independence. It’s been punished severely with economic sanctions, including on its vast oil and gas industry.
The unresolved conflict over Iran’s nuclear program has left the once-wealthy country increasingly impoverished, harming especially its large middle class. It’s also bad for European economies, which are losing out on all the business they’d do with this large, resource-rich country. It’s terrified Iran’s neighbors, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are worried what Iran would do with a nuclear weapon. And it’s been a major part — but far from the only part — of Iran’s long-standing tension with the West, especially the United States, in which war is a remote but real possibility.
3. Wow, Iran’s nuclear program is causing some major problems, especially for them. Why do they insist on it?