The Rocky Road of Nuclear Diplomacy With Iran

By Olli Heinonen

It soon will be a decade since the West—initially the EU-3 of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, later joined by China, Russia, and the United States to form the P5+1—embarked on a diplomatic process in 2003 to find a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

In spite of these efforts, Iran continues to raise its uranium enrichment to higher levels, increase its stockpile of fissile material, and remain opaque over the military-related aspects of its nuclear program. These issues will continue to be a fundamental part of the discussions.

Iran’s increasing enrichment capacity, together with its reported possession of a crude design of a nuclear weapon, shows that Iran is positioning itself as a virtual or latent nuclear-weapon state. Given the risks involved for a potential breakout from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a more intrusive and timely inspection system, as well as Iran’s agreement to implement an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would be required.

Recently, Iran’s monthly production of low-enriched (3.5 percent uranium-235) uranium hexafluoride (UF6) at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, with its newly installed centrifuges, has increased to 220 kilograms of UF6 today. By the end of this year, Iran could have a cumulative inventory of 7.5 metric tons of low-enriched UF6. With further enrichment, that would be enough for half a dozen nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Iran has also produced about 150 kilograms of UF6 enriched to 20 percent. The installation and commissioning of additional cascades at the Fordow enrichment plant indicates that, by the end of this year, the inventory of 20 percent-enriched UF6 could be as high as 300 kilograms—an amount sufficient, with additional enrichment, for more than one nuclear weapon. By further enriching the 20 percent-enriched uranium at Fordow, Iran could turn it into nuclear weapons components in a couple of months. This time could even be shorter depending on factors such as whether the Natanz plant also is used to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU).

The IAEA might be able to detect those changes at locations it inspects, but would the international community be able to react in time? In the international arena, a couple of months is extremely short, increasing the risk of military action, which in itself may slow down but not end the program.

An additional uncertainty stems from Iran’s past statements that it plans to build additional enrichment plants. Tehran’s history of concealment, alongside its actions to distribute its nuclear activities at different locations and harden its facilities, adds to already serious concerns. That is why Iran has been subjected to unprecedented sanctions in recent months. At first, the sanctions targeted Iran’s nuclear program directly, but they increasingly are focusing on other sectors to intensify the pressure. One example is the oil embargo that went into effect at the end of June.

Time does not favor any of the countries involved if they are seeking a negotiated solution. For Iran, it is internally more and more difficult to find an acceptable solution to the nuclear dilemma as it digs itself deeper into its own rhetoric that the price is never too high to achieve its nuclear ends. The P5+1 sees that, with the passage of time, Iran is closing the gap to a nuclear breakout capability.

Yet, a potential solution is in sight and still to be grasped. The involved parties already have charted the rough outlines of a long-term deal, comprising efforts by Iran to undertake practical steps to ensure that its nuclear program cannot be used for nuclear weapons and to give the international community confidence that this is the case. In return, Iran would receive cooperation with the West in a number of areas. These could include, as part of a comprehensive package, addressing Iran’s nuclear power needs, giving assurances of nuclear fuel supply, providing fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor to produce radioisotopes for medical and industrial purposes, replacing that reactor with a modern civilian reactor, and providing assistance in nuclear safety and security.

In this context, it is unhelpful and underhanded that Iran, in its recent statements amid ongoing diplomacy, has further clouded the broth by broadcasting its intention to build nuclear-powered submarines. Such submarines often use HEU, but there are also reactor designs with lower enrichments. It is unlikely that there will be any external takers to provide fuel for this apparent new need Iran has announced. Iran then probably will cite the lack of foreign fuel suppliers as further justification for continuing on its uranium-enrichment path.

The road of negotiations after Moscow will continue to be rocky, but it is crucial to keep diplomacy on track. This means focusing on the overall goal that would address the proliferation concern of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, instead of becoming bogged down in the process itself. ACT

Olli Heinonen has been a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government since 2010. Prior to that, he served for 27 years at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, including five years as deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards.