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The Nuclear Negotiations - What Are They All About?

06/07/2015 11:16 BST | Updated 05/07/2016 10:59 BST

The official deal between Iran and the P5+1 (China, Russia, France, UK, US and Germany) was supposed to be signed on the 30th June. Now the deadline has been extended to the 7th July.

The crux of the nuclear negotiations is that the P5+1 countries want to curb Iran's nuclear programme, although Iran insists its nuclear work is peaceful. In return some of the international sanctions currently crippling Iran's economy will be lifted, providing much needed relief.

The main component of a nuclear agreement is to extend Iran's breakout capacity. This is the period of time that is needed for a country to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon. Increasing the breakout capacity would mean 'extra time' to dissuade other countries from following suit and developing nuclear weapons, and engaging in an arms race of sorts. Essentially, the international community fear that if Iran is left with the freedom to develop a nuclear weapon, countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey will quickly follow suit. In fact Saudi Arabia has made its plans to obtain nukes, crystal clear to America, should Iran be left to its own devices.

Opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the centre for nuclear co-operation, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) hopes that more diplomatic means for resolving disagreements can be encouraged in the volatile Middle East. Iran, and Saudi Arabia are amongst the 93 states that have signed the Non Proliferation Treaty meaning they have classed themselves as 'non-nuclear-weapon states who agree never to acquire nuclear weapons'. Nuclear weapon states (NWT's- the big 5 America, UK, Russia, China and France) want to keep it that way. The Middle East region is unstable enough without considering nuclear activities, and as the US grapples for control, there is a genuine concern that Iran needs to be tamed in order to set a precedent, and prevent a downward spiral of chaos.

On the topic of the non proliferation treaty it's worth briefly mentioning that the 5 nuclear weapons states are also obligated to liquidate their nuclear stockpiles with the view to complete disarmament. So far none of them have made any efforts to do so. Certain countries, India, Pakistan, and Israel for example, have not even signed the treaty, arguing that it is not in their vested interested to do so.

The framework deal agreed in Switzerland in April (which Obama wants to form the crux of the final deal) can be summarized as followed. In order for the sanctions on Iran to be lifted, and for them to be allowed to return to the global economy, they must comply with the following.

  • Iranian nuclear and military sites will be subject to regular IAEA checks.
  • Iran will not be allowed the newest model centrifuges.
  • The number of centrifuges in Iran will be reduced.
  • The heavy water reactor in Arak will be subject to a re-design. In its current state, the reactor produces a vast amount of spent fuel. Theoretically further processing of this fuel could involve the extraction of weapons-grade plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.
  • Stockpiled uranium will be sent to Russia to be turned into fuel rods, meaning its not possible to process it into bomb material. Iranian negotiators are unhappy with aspects of this proposal.

Why hasn't a deal been reached so far?

In short, thus far, neither party has been happy with the deal on the table. American officials have argued that the Iranians are being difficult and uncooperative. On the other hand Iranian officials think that the demands of the P5+1 are unreasonable, and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei insists that a fair deal involves the US immediately lifting sanctions once a deal is reached.

Things are looking up however, as John Kerry talked of significant progress, and Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif recently posted a YouTube video stating that progress was being made, just two days before the 7th July deadline. He hinted that traditional US methods such as using ''coercion and pressure [would] never lead to lasting solutions, but to more conflict, and further hostility'' and said that an agreement was in sight providing the US are reasonable. We will know shortly whether this amicable talk reflects progress, or just sweet-talking from both sides.

Despite the looming deadline, it looks unlikely that a formal signing of a deal will happen this Tuesday. The more likely scenario is that a tentative agreement will be decided on, which will then be put to the Iranian Parliament and US senate. This is likely to be a fairly lengthy process, with Obama facing Republican resistance in the senate. There would also need to be considerable checks by the IAEA on Iran's nuclear sites to check that they are keeping to their end of the agreement. Only then could a finalized deal be signed. These marathon nuclear talks have a lot further to go 'til completion, but the decision reached on Tuesday will be a significant stepping stone.