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The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, September 25

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IRAN-NUCLEAR-POLITICS By the research staff of the Arms Control Association. To get this P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert delivered to your inbox, sign-up now.

The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert will suspend its daily update until talks resume in August, but will update readers of the latest developments as necessary.

Crunch Time

Achieving progress this week in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 "is the key to reach a comprehensive agreement" before the Nov. 24 deadline, according to Michael Mann, spokesperson for EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, who spoke to reporters on Sept. 24.

With only two months to go, negotiators do not have time to waste. Unfortunately, our sources indicate that as of this week, the two sides remain at odds on key issues, the most important being defining Iran's uranium enrichment capacity.

As we and others have written, a win-win solution is still within reach, but in order to do so, both sides must pursue realistic options-and soon.

Heads of state are also taking the opportunity to emphasize the importance of reaching a deal as the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly opens this week in New York.

In front of a global audience at the UN, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the "historic opportunity" to reach a nuclear deal. He told Iran that a comprehensive deal that "meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful" is possible. He urged Iran to take this "historic opportunity" to reach an agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani echoed those sentiments in his remarks to the General Assembly today. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sure to dedicate a portion of his remarks to the talks when he takes the floor next week.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 (China, Germany, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have been meeting since last Thursday to continue negotiations toward a comprehensive nuclear deal.

In addition to technical meetings and the full plenary sessions, a number of bilateral meetings are also taking place, including a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

A full plenary at the ministerial level is possible before the end of the week. Right now talks are expected to run through this weekend or early next week and then recommence in October.--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director of nonproliferation policy and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director.

Understanding What "Breakout" Is and Isn't

One of the key goals of the P5+1 is to reach a nuclear deal with Iran that increases the amount of time it would take Iran to make a quick dash to a nuclear weapon, if Tehran made the decision to do so.

This goal is seemingly at odds with one of Iran's key concerns, maintaining its uranium-enrichment program and expanding its enrichment capacity over time as it plans to build more nuclear power reactors. But there is a solution to the uranium-enrichment question that meets the core concerns of each side.

That solution, however, should be based on a realistic assessment of how long it would take for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, or "breakout" of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Arms Control Association Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann explains the factors that should be taken into account when calculating how long it would take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a bomb, weaponize the material, and deliver it.

Thielmann concludes that:

"Because Iran already has the capability to build nuclear weapons it follows that the realistic goal for the P5+1 in pursuit of a final deal is not to make breakout impossible but to make it a less viable option. Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action has already made breakout a more difficult and unattractive policy option for Tehran than it was a year ago. It appears that Iran is willing to accept even more expansive transparency measures in a future agreement.

If the P5+1 and Iran build on the progress from the negotiations earlier this year and seek creative, practical tradeoffs on the most difficult issue-defining Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity-there is at least an outside chance of reaching a compromise agreement that meets the needs of all parties. In the context of such an agreement, the effective breakout timeline would remain sufficiently daunting for Tehran to be delivered from any temptation to break out of the NPT."

The full text of the Arms Control Association Iran Nuclear Policy Brief is available online.

Meanwhile, Back in Vienna...

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference is in full swing. While the importance of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran is a frequently mentioned topic for many member states in their statements to the conference, the bulk of the discussion about Iran's nuclear program took place last week during the agency's Board of Governors meeting.

IAEA_Headquarters_ViennaIAEA Director General Yukiya Amano presented the agency's quarterly report on Iran's nuclear program last week and told the board that Iran had not yet provided IAEA investigators with information about two areas of past work allegedly related to nuclear weapons development, or the so-called "possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran's nuclear program."

Last May, Iran committed to provide the information by Aug. 25 as part of a framework agreement wherein Iran agreed to cooperate with the IAEA to answer the agency's outstanding concerns about its nuclear program.

On Thursday, Sept. 18, when Iran had the opportunity to address the board, Iran's Ambassador to the IAEA Reza Najafi said that Iran and the IAEA discussed the two outstanding issues at an Aug. 31 meeting and that Iran plans to have another meeting "very soon" in order to complete the actions. While he denied that Iran ever had a nuclear weapons program and said the evidence of PMDs has never been authenticated, Najafi said Iran is cooperating with the IAEA to clarify the "ambiguities."

Once the issues are completed, Najafi said Iran will suggest new areas to complete the agency's investigation.

Iran's delay in providing information on the two PMD actions is a serious problem, and it is essential that Tehran work with the agency to complete these activities in a timely fashion.

However, this delay should not disrupt the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal can result in a more intensive monitoring and verification regime that helps to ensure that any activities with possible military dimensions that may have been pursued in the past do not continue in the future.

Disconnecting the Centrifuges Is Not Enough and Is Not the Whole Story

A Sept. 19 article in The New York Times suggested that the P5+1 wants Iran to disconnect the piping between the approximately 9,000 centrifuges that are installed but are not operating, and some of Iran's 10,200 operating machines.

According to the article, this "creative" solution would allow Iran to say it did not dismantle its existing centrifuges while putting up a barrier that would prevent Iran from rapidly turning on the machines to begin enriching uranium. A spokeswoman for Iran's Foreign Ministry said Iran has not accepted or dismissed the idea.

Any comprehensive agreement to help prevent a nuclear-armed Iran will require a verifiable, technically sound plan for taking Iran's excess centrifuges out of commission. It would be irresponsible for the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators not to look into this option as a part of the overall formula for defining enrichment capacity.

However, The New York Times story failed to mention that this technical approach is likely just one of several elements in a formula aimed at reducing Iran's overall uranium-enrichment capacity.

As a result, some members of Congress appear to have jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the P5+1 are simply proposing to disconnect the installed but non-operating centrifuges as the "solution" to the uranium-enrichment problem.

In reality, negotiators can and should develop a formula for defining Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity over the duration of a multi-year, comprehensive agreement that takes into account several key variables, including

  • the number of operating centrifuges;
  • the type and efficiency of the centrifuges;
  • the configuration of the centrifuges;
  • how non-operating centrifuges and parts are stored and where; and
  • the size and form (gas or oxide) of the stockpiles of enriched uranium available to run through the centrifuges.

The task of the two sides is to come up with an agreed formula that will increase the amount of time that it would take Iran to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so, while providing Iran with sufficient capacity to meet realistic future nuclear energy goals.

Looking Ahead ...

Week of September 22 - Iran P5+1 Ministerial level meeting (likely)

September 22-26 - IAEA General Conference

October 20 - Arms Control Association Annual Meeting "Preventing Proliferation and Advancing Nuclear Disarmament," in Washington, D.C. RSVP today!

November 24 - Target date for the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal