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Crafting a Well-Rounded Nuclear Deal With Iran
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George Perkovich

A final nuclear deal with Iran should meet the underlying objective of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions since 2006: “the establishment of international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”[1]

A final agreement could be codified and endorsed through a new resolution, which need not include all of the specific instrumental elements of past resolutions—for example, suspension of all uranium enrichment—if the council determines that the overall objective has been met. As the resolutions acknowledge, to be durable, such an agreement also must satisfy Iran’s interest in having a purely peaceful nuclear program free from sanctions.

The devilish challenge will be in the details. History will inform each party’s requirements. The six-country group that has been negotiating with Iran, the so-called P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), will remember that Iran secretly had, at least until 2003, what appeared to be a dedicated, multifaceted program to acquire capabilities to produce nuclear weapons. Iran still has not cooperated fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to clarify these activities and continues to expand sensitive fuel-cycle capabilities beyond any plausible civilian requirement. Iranian leaders, for their part, remember numerous episodes that reflect a U.S. determination to hasten an end to their regime.

The United States and its negotiating partners seem to have reached a general understanding regarding key components that should be included in a satisfactory deal. Iran must significantly constrain its activities related to uranium enrichment, revise plans to build a heavy-water reactor, resolve outstanding questions with the IAEA about Tehran’s past activities, and implement an additional protocol, which would strengthen and broaden the IAEA’s ability to carry out inspections in the country, and a modified version of Code 3.1 of its safeguards subsidiary arrangement, which would require Iran to provide design information as soon as decisions are made to construct a nuclear facility. The combination of these measures would help the IAEA conclude over time that there are no undeclared nuclear activities in Iran and that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.

This article highlights four measures that are considered less frequently but would help resolve the Iran crisis and prevent or redress similar crises in the future. It then suggests an initiative that competing factions in Washington should take to buttress confidence that the United States seriously seeks a diplomatic outcome.

Constraints on enrichment-related activities. The first issue pertains to the scale and character of enrichment-related activities. Negotiations thus far have established that if Iran is going to continue enriching uranium with international assent, the enrichment level must not exceed 5 percent. Thus, the more open question is the scale of enrichment, which involves the throughput capacity of the centrifuges.

Media reports suggest that the United States will pursue what is essentially a proliferation breakout criterion in limiting enrichment in Iran. As the Institute for Science and International Security has detailed, the aim would be to limit the quantity and quality of Iran’s centrifuges so that Iran’s enrichment would not exceed 3,600 separative work units per year.[2] This translates to less than 4,000 of its current-generation centrifuges, known as IR-1, or 900 of its next-generation IR-2 machines, which are under development.

A nonproliferation breakout criterion, however, overlooks important considerations. The strategic purpose of the negotiations is to affirm Iran’s commitment, restated in a November interim agreement with the P5+1, “that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” To validate this commitment, Iran should agree to conform its nuclear program to the logic of a plausible economic development strategy rather than to the logic of nuclear weapons hedging.

Iran could manifest its peaceful intentions by pegging the scale and timing of its enrichment—beyond a small research and development (R&D)—effort to the actual requirements for fuel rods for civilian reactors that do not have foreign fuel suppliers. Because Iran’s current enrichment program exceeds such requirements, Tehran would have to scale it back significantly. Anything beyond R&D scale—for example, fueling a substitute for the Arak heavy-water reactor—would have to accord with realistic time frames for the need for fuel rods for reactors at stages of completion when fuel is normally provided in countries with purely civilian programs.

Iran’s existing power reactor at Bushehr is contractually required to be fueled by Russia for 10 years, and Russia is willing to extend the agreement. Construction of future power reactors by international suppliers or indigenous Iranian entities would take many years. Doubts about the safety and quality of fuel produced in Iran create liability and reputational imperatives for international constructors to insist on supplying fuel as part of any agreement or establishing a consortium with Iran to produce fuel of sufficient quality.

International experience indicates that indigenous production of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for reactors is decidedly uneconomical for the number of reactors that Iran could feasibly undertake to construct during the duration of a final agreement. Moreover, in the post-Fukushima world, safety considerations and public support for new nuclear plants militate in favor of nuclear cooperation with international vendors that offer state-of-the-art technology. Iran’s concerns that foreign fuel suppliers could be unreliable could be obviated by a UN Security Council endorsement of a final agreement with a specific assurance of fuel supply as long as Iran is complying with the agreement. The IAEA nuclear fuel bank could be specifically pledged as a further backup.[3]

Iran’s need for nuclear fuel for reactors under construction in the next 10 years or so could be tolerable from a breakout perspective. Requiring Iran to convert in a specified period its LEU into fuel rods designed specifically for these reactors (if there are any) would address the breakout problem insofar as Iran’s LEU would be in a form that would make conversion into highly enriched uranium more difficult, time consuming, and detectable. The additional infrastructure required to manufacture fuel and the cost of such manufacturing would add economic incentives for Iran to peg this capability to feasible requirements for the use of such fuel. Moreover, the requirement to keep the amount of fuel in line with near-term reactor needs would limit the amount of uranium hexafluoride Iran would enrich over the time of the envisioned comprehensive deal.

By structuring a final agreement around demonstrably practical requirements for a purely civilian nuclear program, this arrangement would provide a clearer test of Iran’s strategic purpose than would an approach predicated solely on breakout. Were Iran to reject such an approach or break an agreement based on it, the international community could be more readily mobilized to draw the proper conclusions about Iran’s intentions.

Irreversible safeguards. A desirable element to add to a final deal would be an Iranian commitment to put all of its nuclear facilities under irreversible safeguards.[4] Iran’s facilities currently fall under a so-called comprehensive safeguards agreement. This type of agreement, which is the standard one for nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) parties that are non-nuclear-weapon states, requires a country to place its nuclear facilities and materials under IAEA safeguards. Yet, this agreement applies only as long as Iran is party to the NPT.

Safeguards implemented under IAEA INFCIRC/66, however, apply for the “life” of given facilities and the materials derived from them even if a country withdraws from the NPT.[5] Confidence in Iran’s commitment to an exclusively peaceful nuclear program would be significantly enhanced if it applied INFCIRC/66 safeguards to all current and future facilities as a backup to the existing comprehensive safeguards agreement.

Circumscribed R&D. A final agreement should recognize that confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of a nuclear program cannot be strong if a state is conducting R&D and systems integration activities that bring it close to the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The IAEA has long been concerned that Iran has conducted a number of such activities with “possible military dimensions.” A final agreement should require Iran to resolve these concerns. Based on past cases, this will take longer than one year, especially as Iran will be reluctant to concede having done weaponization-related work until it has confidence that a final agreement will satisfy its interests.[6]

No matter how these existing concerns are addressed, the P5+1 should obtain Iran’s commitment that henceforth it will not undertake any R&D activities oriented toward nuclear weapons. The annex of the IAEA’s November 2011 report on Iran’s nuclear program lists some of these activities, including acquisition of uranium metal and efforts to form uranium metal into a spherical shape, development and testing of multipoint explosive initiation to achieve spherical compression, and development, acquisition, and testing of neutron generators. A final agreement that specified categories of R&D and systems integration activities that are inconsistent with a purely peaceful nuclear program would simultaneously help resolve the Iranian case and prevent similar threats to international peace and security in the future.

Agreed Elements of a Final Nuclear Deal

Last November 24, Iran and six world powers reached an agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program, which has caused discord between Iran and the international community for more than a decade. The agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, specifies initial steps the two sides are to take over a six-month period and outlines the terms of a comprehensive, long-term deal while invoking the principle that “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.” The elements of the envisioned comprehensive deal include

  • agreeing on the duration of the accord;
  • reflecting the rights and obligations of all parties under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and of Iran under its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA);
  • lifting all UN Security Council, multilateral, and national sanctions on nuclear-related measures;
  • adopting mutually agreed parameters on Iran’s enrichment program for a specified time period;
  • resolving concerns about the Arak heavy-water reactor;
  • implementing monitoring and transparency measures, including Iran’s ratification and implementation of an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA;
  • cooperating on civil nuclear projects, including nuclear fuel and light-water power and research reactors;
  • and reaching agreement on research and development practices.

Adapted from “Key Features of the Iran Nuclear Deal,Arms Control Today, December 2013.

    Transparency and verification measures. The Iranian case provides a challenge and an opportunity to devise transparency and verification measures that would build international confidence that a state with ongoing fuel-cycle activities and R&D experience with possible applications for nuclear weaponization will nonetheless not produce nuclear weapons. The 1997 Model Additional Protocol was designed for less-challenging circumstances than those that are known to exist in Iran. Thus, more-extensive transparency and verification procedures will be required for some time in Iran, as in other cases where the IAEA has required additional cooperation to determine that no relevant undeclared activities were occurring. For example, if indications of R&D activities that historically have been associated with nuclear weaponization emerge in Iran, a joint commission like the one established under the interim agreement would need procedures for ascertaining the civilian purposes of such activities. Such procedures could serve as a useful model if circumstances like those in Iran arose in other states in the future.

    The foregoing are measures that Tehran could accept to bolster the international community’s confidence that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” Iran also has concerns, which tend to be neglected by Western governments and experts. History makes Iranian leaders intensely skeptical that the United States will live up to its commitments. In particular, Iranian leaders doubt that they can rely on Washington to take all the steps necessary to remove pertinent sanctions on Iran at the national level and through the United Nations. Given that implementation of a final agreement would take place over several years, how can Iranians be assured that a future U.S. administration and Congress actually would lift sanctions?

    There are no easy answers to this question. Indeed, the question is not even being asked in Washington today, let alone answered. The current character of U.S. politics does not inspire confidence that bipartisan agreement could be reached and sustained to expeditiously provide sanctions relief reciprocal to Iran’s fulfillment of its part of any deal. The near future may or may not bring a more cooperative dynamic in the United States. Iran, as well as U.S. negotiating partners, will want greater clarity on Washington’s commitments. Perhaps the Obama administration and Congress, in private, could divert a fraction of the time and energy now spent debating whether to add sanctions on Iran to the more difficult challenge of figuring out how to cooperate in removing them if a final agreement is reached.

    George Perkovich is vice president for studies and director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


    1. See, for example, UN Security Council, S/2006/521, July 13, 2006.

    2. Institute for Science and International Security, “Defining Iranian Nuclear Programs in a Comprehensive Solution Under the Joint Plan of Action,” January 15, 2014, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/Elements_of_a_Comprehensive_Solution_20Jan2014_1.pdf.

    3. The low-enriched uranium fuel bank, which would be owned and managed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is intended to serve as a backup to other fuel supply mechanisms, such as the commercial fuel market and state-to-state transfers. The initiative does not diminish countries’ rights to establish or expand their own nuclear fuel production, but it does create an incentive for states to refrain from pursuing their own uranium-enrichment facilities. See IAEA, “Assurance of Supply for Nuclear Fuel,” September 4, 2012, http://www.iaea.org/OurWork/ST/NE/NEFW/Assurance-of-Supply/iaea-leu-bank.html; Daniel Horner, “IAEA Board Approves Fuel Bank Plan,Arms Control Today, January/February 2011.

    4. I am indebted to my colleague Pierre Goldschmidt for making this recommendation.

    5. As long as Iran remains in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a facility-specific INFCIRC/66-type safeguards agreement would be subsumed by the comprehensive safeguards agreement at no cost to Iran or the IAEA. “INFCIRC” is short for “information circular,” a type of IAEA document.

    6. See Mark Hibbs, “Verification and the Iran Deal,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 7, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/01/07/iran-iaea/gxoz.

    Posted: March 4, 2014