The Case for Zero Enrichment in Iran

Michael Singh

In the debate over sanctions on Iran—their role in bringing Tehran to the negotiating table and their proper place in U.S. diplomatic strategy in the future—scant attention has been paid to a major shift in the negotiating position of the P5+1, the group of six countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that is negotiating with Tehran over the Iranian nuclear program.

No longer is the P5+1 demanding that Iran halt uranium enrichment. Indeed, in the November 24 first-step nuclear accord, the Joint Plan of Action,[1] the P5+1 all but concedes that Iran will be permitted to enrich in perpetuity. In separate comments that have quickly become conventional wisdom among Iran analysts, U.S. negotiators now characterize their previous position that Iran should halt enrichment as “maximalist.”[2] Although undoubtedly expedient, this shift away from a zero-enrichment negotiating position is misguided and unnecessary.[3]

The U.S. shift away from zero enrichment to limited enrichment represents a significant diplomatic victory for Iran. For the last decade, the position of the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK) and then the P5+1 had been that Iran must “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development.” This position was enshrined as an Iranian obligation in a series of UN Security Council resolutions.[4] Iran, however, asserted a “right to enrich” and refused to halt enrichment after resuming it when nuclear talks with the European Union broke down in 2005. This difference formed the core of the confrontation that subsequently developed between Iran and the allies.

Beginning in 2005, the United States, the EU, and others imposed onerous sanctions on Iran, effectively cutting the country off from the global financial system and sharply curtailing its oil revenues and other forms of trade. Nevertheless, it was not Iran but the P5+1 that flinched first. In October 2009, the allies proposed a fuel swap, under which Iran would ship low-enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for fuel plates for its Tehran Research Reactor, which uses uranium enriched to a higher level to produce medical isotopes. The proposal did not explicitly recognize Iran’s claimed right to enrich, but seemed to implicitly accept that Iran would continue enriching uranium to a low level of 5 percent or less. The November 24 joint plan represents the culmination of this shift.

Iran, which is a net exporter of fossil fuels and electricity, has insisted that it desires enrichment solely for peaceful purposes. The text of the joint plan indicates that Iran will be permitted a “mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs.” The notion that Iran has any practical need for enrichment, however, is a dubious one.

Iran is blessed with abundant resources of oil and natural gas, so much so that it was one of the world’s leading exporters of these fuels before the recent sanctions.[5] It provided refined fuel to domestic consumers at deeply subsidized rates, making Iranian per capita consumption of gasoline among the highest in the world.[6] Even if one puts this aside and accepts Tehran’s argument that it wants to diversify its energy supply for environmental and other reasons, enriching uranium makes little sense. Because importing fuel is much more economical, very few non-nuclear-weapon states enrich their own uranium.

Iran may claim that it does not want to import reactor fuel—although this is precisely what it does for the Bushehr reactor—so that it can ensure a secure supply. Because Iran has minimal uranium reserves, however, it would remain dependent on imports of natural uranium. Indeed, Iran’s two reported uranium mines together annually produce insufficient uranium for even a single 1,000-megawatt reactor.[7] As former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker and former Secretary of Defense William Perry recently observed, “Iran can never become self-sufficient” in its nuclear energy program.[8] Iran’s energy security would be far better served by reducing its reliance on imports of refined petroleum and natural gas and lowering domestic consumption.

A common argument is that Iran must retain an enrichment capability because the Iranian people demand it, or because Iran, having made a major investment in enrichment, needs to save face.[9] Although a recent poll indicated that 96 percent of Iranians believe that “maintaining the right to advance a nuclear program is worth the price being paid in economic sanctions and international isolation,” only 6 percent agreed that “continuing our nuclear enrichment program” is one of the top concerns they want the Iranian government to address.[10] Of far greater priority are issues such as economic recovery and increased employment. This suggests that the Iranian people would be open to compromises that provide economic relief while preserving Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program without specifically permitting enrichment.

In short, Iran has no “practical need” for uranium enrichment, unless its actual desire is to build or preserve the option to build a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the Iranian government has not even convinced its own people that its intentions are peaceful. The poll cited above finds that 55 percent of Iranians believe that Iran “has ambitions to produce nuclear weapons.”[11]

One might argue that even if Iran has no practical need for enrichment, the P5+1 shift from zero to limited enrichment is expedient because it eases the way to a diplomatic agreement while incurring little cost to the P5+1. This neglects the serious downsides of permitting enrichment in Iran.

First and foremost, allowing Iran to enrich complicates the task of verifying that Iran is not diverting ostensibly safeguarded material to a parallel, covert nuclear weapons program. If Iran is permitted to enrich, by implication it also will be permitted to mine, convert, and stockpile uranium. In addition, it will be permitted to manufacture centrifuges and possibly import centrifuge components and related materials. Under the joint plan, Iran is even permitted to continue to research and test advanced centrifuges. Such work could significantly shorten Iran’s breakout time if it abrogated the nuclear agreement or that agreement expired.

Verifying nondiversion at every point along this supply chain is a formidable task. If Iran were to agree to forgo enrichment entirely and instead import its reactor fuel, however, any of the above activities, if detected, would serve as an early warning of possible clandestine nuclear activities.

Allowing Iran to enrich raises questions about broader U.S. policy on enrichment. Washington has sought to contain the spread of this technology, given its dual-use nature. The United States held out as a “gold standard” the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement it signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009, whereby the latter voluntarily agreed to forgo enrichment and reprocessing.[12] This was meant to be not only a signal to Iran, but also an effort to strengthen the nonproliferation regime globally, although the question of whether this standard should be applied universally is debated by nonproliferation experts.[13]

U.S. abandonment of its effort to require Iran to halt enrichment would not only threaten the agreement with the UAE, which, like Iran’s other regional rivals, would have an incentive to match Tehran’s capabilities, but undermine any effort to persuade countries to forgo enrichment and reprocessing, whether as the result of a legal or merely political commitment. In seeking to do so, Washington would be in the unenviable and perhaps unsustainable position of seeking to deny allies the technology it has permitted to a country that it views as an adversary and that has repeatedly violated the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The likely result would be the spread of enrichment technology.

Finally, permitting Iran to enrich, especially in the context of an agreement that does not require Tehran to abandon support for terrorism or other destabilizing policies, will be seen as a defeat for Washington. At a time when U.S. influence in the Middle East is already at low ebb, the message to allies and adversaries alike would be one of diminishing U.S. will. The effect on the global nonproliferation regime would be the same: Iran will have successfully defied the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and the UN Security Council after rejecting the legitimacy of both, sending the message that international nonproliferation obligations are malleable.

Zero enrichment is hardly a maximalist position; it entails offering Iran something it deeply needs (sanctions relief) in exchange for something it does not (enrichment). There was no tactical need for the P5+1 to walk away from zero enrichment. At a time when sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian economy, the P5+1 should allow the pressure of sanctions to work to full effect. Yielding on enrichment may hasten a nuclear agreement, but would threaten vital U.S. interests such as nonproliferation and regional stability.



Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was senior director for Near East and North African affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.



1. For the text of the joint plan, see

2. Wendy Sherman, “Reversing Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 3, 2014.

3. Other routes to development of a nuclear weapon, particularly through the use of plutonium rather than highly enriched uranium as the nuclear explosive material, are of equal concern. The joint plan, however, stipulates that Iran will not be permitted to have reprocessing capabilities, and therefore, the plutonium route is not a focus of this article.

4. For example, see UN Security Council, S/RES/1696, July 31, 2006.

5. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Iran Country Analysis Brief,” March 28, 2013,

6. See Charlie Szrom, “Structural Patronage in Iran,” American Enterprise Institute, 2010,

7. Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), “NuclearIran: Uranium Mining,” n.d., On the website, Iran claims that the Saghand mine’s annual production will be 120,000 metric tons of uranium ore. See, “Facilities,” n.d., By comparison, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimated that global production in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, was 54,670 metric tons. ISIS, citing the IAEA, estimates that Saghand can produce 50 metric tons of uranium ore per year.

8. Siegfried Hecker and William J. Perry, “Iran’s Path to Nuclear Peace,” The New York Times, January 9, 2014.

9. See, for example, “Give Iran a Limited Right to Enrich,” Financial Times, October 20, 2013.

10. Zogby Research Services, “Iranian Attitudes,” September 2013,

11. Ibid.

12. For the text of the UAE agreement, see House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the United Arab Emirates, 111th Cong., 1st sess., H.Doc. 111-43, May 21, 2009. The term “gold standard” was first applied to the UAE agreement by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in August 2010. See P.J. Crowley, transcript of daily press briefing, August 5, 2010,

13. Daniel Horner, “U.S. Policy on Nuclear Pacts Detailed,Arms Control Today, January/February 2014.