Iran's controversial nuclear programme traces its origins back to the 1950s, when the programme was launched under the ambit of the Atoms for Peace programme. Western countries, primarily the United Sates played a key role in the establishment and subsequent growth of the programme. In 1970, Iran ratified the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls for the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and is the foremost document for nuclear disarmament in the world. In addition to this, Tehran concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1974. Things took a turn during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which toppled the Shah of Iran.

The change in the regime altered Iran's relations with western powers. Consequentially, most international nuclear support was withdrawn. In 1981, Iranian governmental officials concluded that the country's nuclear development should continue. Reports to the IAEA included that a site at Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre (ENTEC) would act "as the centre for the transfer and development of nuclear technology, as well as contribute to the formation of local expertise and manpower needed to sustain a very ambitious programme in the field of nuclear power reactor technology and fuel cycle technology."

Several attempts by the IAEA and other countries, notably China, to assist Iran's nuclear programme were hindered by the United States. During the Iran-Iraq war, the two Bushehr reactors were damaged by multiple Iraqi air strikes and work on the nuclear programme came to a standstill.

Need for an Agreement

The IAEA first investigated into Iran's programme after reports of clandestine nuclear operations in the country. The investigations confirmed the presence of nuclear site that had been established without the knowledge of the IAEA. Despite having ratified the NPT, Iran had no legal obligation to inform the IAEA of the sites since the Treaty provides a 180-day period to do so.

Since the establishment of the new regime in 1979, the United States has been openly hostile towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its nuclear programme. Over the years, the United States has imposed several sanctions on Iran, which has subsequently led to the virtual non-existence of diplomatic relations between the two nations. Iran is also not a voting member of the World Trade Organization, or SAARC. This isolation of Iran has done more damage than good. Owing to the absence of relations with the international community, Iran is not at the receiving end of any reprimands. It does not feel obligated to fulfill the requests of the international community since it virtually has no relations with it. Economic sanctions become the only manner in which any action can be taken against the nation. This leads to further isolation of the country from the international community, which consequentially makes the Iranian government the sole authority on all forms of life within the nation. On the one hand, the western community views this tactic as a measure to cripple the Iranian economy by making it impossible for the country to depend on any international support. On the other hand, this practice has only made the Iranian government's resolve to become self-sufficient, that much stronger.

The Iranian government has, over the years maintained a staunch defensive line with regards to its nuclear programme. The Iranians believe that concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation are pre-textual, and any suspension of enrichment is simply intended to ultimately deprive Iran of the right to have an independent nuclear technology. Iran says that its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology has been the subject of "the most extensive and intensive campaign of denial, obstruction, intervention and misinformation" and that the international community has been subject to "bias, politicised and exaggerated information" on the Iranian nuclear programme and activities.

U.S. policy toward Tehran, which has included toughening of sanctions as well as offers of engagement and greater economic cooperation, has so far failed to persuade Tehran to halt uranium enrichment. Experts in the field see no incentives for Iran to discontinue its nuclear programme. There are limits to what sanctions can ultimately do to alter the Iranian behaviour, largely because the country has access to oil revenue that lessens the impact, and because Iran has now become accustomed to coping with sanctions. In this situation, a comprehensive agreement that attempts to meet both parties halfway seems like the only solution.

Motivations behind the Agreement

Iran has a long-running nuclear programme that has been under the scanner for a long time. Although enriching Uranium is Iran's right under the Non Proliferation Treaty, the dubious nature of its undeclared nuclear facilities and its resistance to monitoring by the IAEA has brought about international scepticism. We have seen that although international sanctions blocked Iran's access to trade, financial markets and limited oil and gas sales, the Iranian government was keen on responding to the sanctions by taking up an approach towards self-sustenance, at the core of which lay the nuclear programme. However, recent trajectories in the political setup of the country have paved way for a new approach by the government.

After the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has decided that the economic pain and isolation is damaging the domestic and popular balance. Rouhani's government is seeking to make a compromise on the nuclear programme to guarantee IAEA access and monitoring of all of Iran's facilities in exchange for the rollback of sanctions and reintegration of Iran into the global economy. Iran's motivations are economic and strategic. With a young, restive population, the Iranian government cannot afford to be economically marginalised. For the US, resolving the nuclear standoff has been a central focus of the Obama administration. The Iranian nuclear programme had quite quickly become an issue of widespread public interest throughout the United States. A poll conducted in September 2012 by Basswood Research for The Foreign Policy Initiative revealed that Iran was cited as the most dangerous threat to American national security interests, with 45.1% of respondents choosing Iran. In addition, 62% of Americans favoured preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, even if this required the use of military force, as opposed to avoiding a conflict and accepting the prospects of Iranian nuclear weapons. Naturally, this became an important issue during the Presidential elections, which were held in November 2012. Once elected, the Obama administration sought to make definitive headway on the issue.

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