IAEA inspectors at Natanz nuclear power plant earlier this year
It all seems so simple: Iran’s aggressive expansion of its – officially – civilian nuclear programme has brought it within months of being able to enrich enough uranium to make an atomic bomb. The world has punished the Islamic republic with sanctions and now nobody is happy. So, as per an agreement last November called the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the world’s big powers (the five members of the UN security council plus Germany, or P5+1) want to reduce Iran’s bomb making potential – the so-called breakout time – in return for sanctions relief.
Briefly put: the P5+1 want Iran’s breakout time to go from under 6 months to at least 12. Iran wants to export its oil and use the world’s banking system. And there the simplicity ends.
Beyond the stated goals is a fiendishly complex jigsaw of negotiating positions, all complicated by questions of transparency and trust. Below is an outline of some of the technical terms that may help to understand what is being discussed. Read more
I never had much time for the Greenham Common women. As a mildly reactionary student of the 1980s, I regarded them – and their protest camp outside a British nuclear-weapons base – as silly and misguided. After all, decades of experience taught that nuclear deterrence worked.
Simply by coming to the World Economic Forum, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is sending a message. He is the first Iranian president to have spoken in Davos for a decade. In a public speech at the forum and in private meetings with journalists, the president has sought to present a smiling and conciliatory face.
Certainly his personal style is a marked contrast to that of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, his predecessor. While Ahmadi-Nejad was all staring eyes and confrontation, Rouhani has a ready laugh and listens carefully to questions. Read more
♦ Philip Stephens argues that the best hope of preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran is to persuade Tehran that its strategic interests are otherwise.
♦ Rural Ireland is struggling to bounce back, even as cities such as Dublin and Cork start to grow again.
♦ Thomas Erdbrink at the the New York Times looks at how Fars news agency, once a defender of Ahmedi-Nejad and an influential conservative voice recently, reported on the translation of Hassan Rouhani’s comments about the Holocaust.
♦ The University of Alabama has ranked the states of America by some unsavoury categories, and set up a map showing which states are worst for binge-drinking and bestiality.
♦ Aidan Hartley speaks to two friends about how they survived events at Westgate mall.
♦ Wired magazine takes a tour through Github’s new hacker heaven. Read more
Hassan Rohani ( ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian voters rejected the hardline candidates in last weekend’s presidential election in favour of Hassan Rohani, a 65-year-old reformist-backed cleric.
Known as the “diplomat sheikh”, he is a former nuclear negotiator and convinced the regime to suspend uranium enrichment between 2003-2005. He has also served in Iran’s parliament and the security council.
Rohani “believes in the same pragmatic policies as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who has been in alliance with reformist forces in recent years”, wrote Najmeh Bozorgmeh, the FT’s Tehran correspondent. “Mr Rafsanjani’s backing for his campaign, and that of reformist leaders, was crucial to his victory.”
Is war with North Korea imminent?
In the last two weeks, tension on the Korean peninsula has risen dramatically, as North Korea has threatened to target US territories in the Pacific and blocked South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex in the North. In this week’s podcast, John Aglionby is joined by Geoff Dyer, diplomatic correspondent and Jamil Anderlini, Beijing bureau chief, to discuss whether Kim Jong-eun’s escalating rhetoric is purely sabre-rattling or if we should be worried about his threats.
A video grab from North Korean TV on March 20 shows Kim Jong-eun overseeing a live fire military drill (North Korean TV/AFP/Getty)
Taking weeks of shrill rhetoric and threats to a fresh high on Tuesday, North Korea announced plans to restart a shuttered plutonium reactor and increase production of enriched uranium. So did we just move one step closer to nuclear armageddon? Here’s a reading list of comment and analysis to help gauge the hazard level.
- Our own Gideon Rachman argues that there is still “an unfortunate tendency in the west” to treat North Korea as a bit of a joke. “In reality, the Pyongyang regime is about as unfunny as it gets.” He warns that the US and South Korea are responding to North Korea as if it is a rational adversary – “but the unsettling reality is that we cannot be sure.”
- What do North Korea’s air defenses look like? Foreign Policy has the answer. (Spoiler: they look quite old, as they’re largely from the 60s, 70s and 80s).
The thing about MAD is that it requires both sides to be sane. Ever since the onset of the nuclear age, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, has kept the peace. The calculation that, ultimately, no rational political leadership would risk millions of deaths in their own nation has seen the world through some perilous moments – from the Cuba missile crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Talks in Almaty on February 27 (AFP/Getty Images)
The latest meeting between Iran and world powers to try and resolve the dilemma over the Iranian nuclear programme is over. And once again, a shaft of light has emerged that will lead some to hope that military action over the Iranian programme might be averted.
After two days of talks in the freezing city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, Iran has told the US and five other world powers that it is prepared to hold a couple more meetings in March and April to try to resolve international concerns that it wants a nuclear bomb.
That said, few will want to overplay the significance of this move. Here are three reasons why many western diplomats will be cautious. Read more
The golden stuff (AFP/Getty)
It must rank as one of the most thankless jobs in diplomacy. Just how do you draw up incentives for Iran to rein in its nuclear programme?
Talks have lumbered on, in one incarnation or another, for a decade now. Efforts to win over Tehran have been encumbered by mutual suspicion, political sensitivities (there is always the charge of appeasement) and sheer force of law.
Many of the sanctions the Islamic Republic most objects to are already on the statute book, whether as UN Resolutions, EU agreements or US law. No wonder it is difficult to come up with a compelling offer; few countries can change their laws by fiat.
On Monday, Tehran attacked one of the latest ideas seemingly floated by the world’s major powers – the notion the US could roll back recently imposed sanctions on gold sales to Iran.
The idea may have been designed to help Western allies – notably Turkey –as much as to alleviate Iran’s economic isolation. Last year Ankara became the world’s leading gold exporter to Iran, whether directly or through entrepôts such as the UAE. Demand from the Islamic Republic helped Turkey’s overall exports of the metal reach levels of $1.5bn-$2bn some months.
The trade has various explanations – chief of which is that bank transactions with Iran have become ever more problematic, particularly in the wake of measures affecting Swift, a group that facilitates electronic funds transfers. Against this backdrop, Tehran started taking payment for its oil and gas exports to Ankara in Turkish Lira – instead of via bank transfer – and using the money to buy gold it then ships home. Read more
South Koreans burn pictures of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-eun after Pyongyang's nuclear test. (AP)
North Korea’s decision to conduct its third underground nuclear test will come as no surprise to governments around the world. Pyongyang has been making clear for some weeks that it planned a nuclear test at a “higher level” than its previous two in 2006 and 2009. Its decision to press ahead has already triggered widespread condemnation from the US and its allies. Now that the test has taken place, diplomats and nuclear experts will be asking four key questions about the nuclear explosion.
First, have the North Korans managed to developed a device that they can place on top of a long-range missile?
North Korea stated that the test used “a small and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously”. This will prompt fears that Pyongyang has managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, in order to place it on top of a long range ballistic missile. Read more
Tajrish Bazaar in Tehran (Getty)
Whenever there has been talk of bombing Iran’s nuclear programme, the hawks have been urged to “give time for sanctions to work”. This appeal always had a slightly desperate sound since, for the past decade, there has been precious little sign that international pressure was capable of making the Iranian government re-think. But, finally, things may be changing.
Following the EU’s oil sanctions and America’s financial sanctions — as well as the various UN packages — the Iranian economy really seems to be buckling. Yesterday saw angry demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, amidst more or less open infighting among the top leadership. The official inflation rate in Iran is only 23.5 per cent. But this article argues convincingly that Iran is already suffering from hyper-inflation. Read more
In this photo from April 2010, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is shown unveiling a sample of the third generation centrifuge for uranium enrichment (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency into Iran’s nuclear programme has left observers somewhat perplexed over Tehran’s intentions.
There was a certain amount of worrying news in the report that will heighten concern that the stand-off will end in military confrontation. But there was also some reassuring detail about Iran’s actions that probably needs to be highlighted more clearly than it has been.
The big headline from the report (the worrying news, if you like) was that Iran has significantly increased the number of centrifuge machines which can be used to manufacture more highly enriched uranium – so-called 20 per cent uranium – at its heavily protected facility at Fordow, near Qom. This 20 per cent concentration worries the west because it is close to the weapons grade concentration of uranium needed to produce bomb. Read more
Mitt Romney in Israel (Getty)
Mitt Romney has caused something of a stir over recent days with comments that he and his campaign team have made about Iran. On a visit to Israel he and his aides said two things on the Iranian nuclear weapons programme that have left politicians and commentators wondering how he would act on this issue if elected.
First there was a comment made in Jerusalem by Dan Senor, Mr Romney’s senior foreign policy aide, who suggested that his boss supports a unilateral military strike on Iran by Israel. “If Israel has to take action on its own,” Mr Senor said in a briefing, “the governor would respect that decision.” Read more
When Iran proposed a few weeks back that a meeting with world powers to discuss its nuclear programme should take place in Baghdad, US and British diplomats were not exactly thrilled by the idea. Read more
Catherine Ashton arrives at a press conference on April 14 in Istanbul. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has long endured a mixed press in Britain for the way she handles her considerable portfolio.
But it would be wrong not to note the genuine plaudits she received from a number of diplomats over the weekend for the way she managed Saturday’s talks between Iran and world powers in Istanbul.
As co-ordinator of the six powers which negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme (the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China), Ashton has a difficult role.
These six countries have long had differing views over how to treat Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Read more