"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."

– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, March 19

Arms Control NOW

And Then There Were Two...

Talks continue in Lausanne, Switzerland with two issues emerging as the remaining obstacles for a deal; Iran's research and development of advanced centrifuge machines and resolution of the UN Security Council resolutions. 

Both Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) say that progress is being made and the gaps are real, but resolvable.

However, it is unlikely at this point that a deal will be reached before the weekend. At this point, talks are anticipated to continue through Friday, break for a few days due to commitments that require both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to leave Switzerland, and then reconvene next week.

The talks in Lausanne this week have been intense, with a number of bilateral meetings between Kerry and Zarif. U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz also came to Lausanne to participate in the meetings, as did Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. The presence of these technical experts is positive, as both will be key validators of an agreement when it is reached.

While Zarif traveled to Brussels on Tuesday to meet with EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Germany Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, no other foreign ministers are expected to come to Lausanne this week.

In November, negotiators set the end of March as a target date for reaching a framework outlining a comprehensive agreement with the goal of completing any remaining technical annexes for a deal by June 30. 

--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, reporting from Lausanne

Advanced Centrifuges: What's in a SWU?

Determining the scale of Iran's research and development of advanced centrifuges is emerging as one of the remaining gaps to be closed before a final deal can be reached. But compromise on this issue is possible.

Iran currently enriches uranium to reactor grade (less than 5 percent U-235) using about 10,200 IR-1 centrifuge machines. The IR-1 centrifuge, based on the P-1 Pakistani model, is inefficient and crash prone. Under optimal conditions, the IR-1 machine may achieve .9 separative work units (SWU) per machine per year. Iran's machines, however, generally have not performed to that level and average closer to .7-.8 SWU per machine per year.

Uranium-enrichment capacity is measured in SWUs. A SWU is roughly a measurement of the amount of separation done during the enrichment process. The efficiency of centrifuges can be expressed in SWUs. More efficient centrifuges have a higher SWU capacity.

Given the inefficiency of the IR-1 machines, Iran is developing and testing more advanced centrifuge models at its Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant. Currently, Iran is working on IR-2M, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-6s models at the pilot plant. 

Under the November 2013 interim deal, Iran is permitted to test the existing models, some as single machines and some in test cascades, but not use them to accumulate enriched uranium or test any new advanced models.

With more efficient advanced centrifuges, uranium can be enriched much more quickly and with the use of fewer machines. For example, Iran had begun installing the IR-2M in its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. Before the interim agreement was reached and Iran agreed to halt installation of additional centrifuges, it had 1,008 IR-2Ms in place. While these are not yet operational, experts assess that the IR-2M model, based on the Pakistani P-2 centrifuge, will likely have a SWU capacity of 2-5 SWU per machine per year. That is roughly 3-5 times more efficient than the IR-1 model.

To take over providing fuel for the Bushehr power reactor (currently fueled by the Russians), which Iran states is its goal by the mid-2020s, Iran would need about 100,000-120,000 SWU per year. Iran currently has about 10,200 operating IR-1 centrifuges (with an estimated SWU capacity of about 9,400) and a total of 19,000 installed IR-1s. 

Iran could achieve that goal more efficiently using advanced machines.

The P5+1, however, wants to limit research, testing and development of advanced machines. This is based on the concern that testing and development of advanced machines could allow Iran to quickly move toward enrichment to weapons-grade levels. That would rapidly decrease its so-called "breakout time." The P5+1 want to ensure that it takes Iran at least 12 months to produce enough enriched uranium for a single weapon, roughly 25 kg of uranium enriched to greater than 90 percent U-235.

Another concern is that Iran could use the duration of the agreement, which will likely establish at least 10 years of core limitations on its enrichment program, to perfect and stockpile advanced machines, and begin using them after the limitations of any comprehensive deal expire.

One possible compromise formula that could be used to address the concerns of both sides would be to verifiably limit testing and development of the advanced models over the course of the deal. Iran could continue testing some advanced machines up to a certain SWU capacity, but delay testing and development of others. Testing of advanced machines could be phased in the later years of a deal, or after Iran meets certain milestones, such as completion of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation. Testing of advanced machines in cascades could also be prohibited or limited.

The agreement could also prohibit the industrial scale production of advanced machines. Iran could grant international inspectors greater access to its centrifuge production facilities to ensure that advanced machines are not being manufactured.

The Arms Control Association and the International Crisis Group, with input from several technical specialists, developed a proposal along these lines for research and development in August 2014. See: "Iran Nuclear Brief: A Win-Win Formula for Defining Iran's Uranium-Enrichment Capacity."

In addition to U.S. and EU sanctions, the UN Security Council has imposed a number of sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear program. These sanctions, put in place under Chapter VII of the UN charter, are legally binding on all member states and enforceable by the Security Council. A summary description is available online in the Arms Control Association's Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle briefing book.

When the Security Council began considering action on Iran's nuclear program in 2006 , it was at the request of the IAEA. Iran was not complying with the IAEA's investigation into Iran's past nuclear activities related to weapons development and was not providing information and clarifications requested by the agency regarding its nuclear activities. Between 2006 and 2010, the UN Security Council had passed six resolutions related to Iran's nuclear program.

The Security Council resolutions were never intended to prevent an Iranian nuclear program in the future in compliance with the conditions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. P5+1 and Iranian negotiators agree that the sanctions imposed by the Security Council resolutions should be lifted as Iran fulfills the terms of the comprehensive nuclear deal--but they are haggling over the scope and pace of that process.

Iran views the Security Council sanctions as illegal and wants them lifted early in a deal. Policymakers in Washington are concerned, however, that if a deal falls apart it will be difficult to re-impose UN Security Council sanctions. Some parties also want to leave some of these sanctions in place until after the IAEA completes its investigation.

While lifting the UN Security Council sanctions is not necessarily contingent on the IAEA completing its investigation and assessing that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful, it could provide a strong incentive for Iran to provide the cooperation necessary for the agency's to be able to conclude its long-running investigation in a timely manner and report to the IAEA Board of Governors on its findings.

The United States and other members of the P5+1 have already stated that a UN Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear agreement is likely. Our sources tell us that the P5+1 have been considering options for more than two weeks. Such a resolution could alter the existing sanctions, but it is not yet clear when that would happen and what sanctions might be retained or lifted.  The issue is now one of the central questions being discussed with the Iranian side in Lausanne.

Bernadette Meehan, deputy spokesperson for the National Security Council, said last week that "existing UNSC resolutions impose certain obligations on Iran, as well as certain obligations on "all states" in their dealings with Iran.  And we would expect to retain many of these UNSC provisions even under a deal with Iran."

Looking Ahead ...

March 24 - Date by which many in Congress believe (incorrectly) the two sides must conclude a political framework agreement. After this date, key committees in the U.S. Senate may act on legislation relating to the issue that President Obama has threatened to veto.

March 26 - Special Press Conference: P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Negotiations" in Washington, D.C. Speakers will be: Robert Einhorn, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Kelsey Davenport, Dylan Williams, Trita Parsi, Kate Gould, and Daryl Kimball (moderator). Click here for more information.

End of March 2015 - Target date set by Iran and the P5+1 to reach a political framework agreement.

June 30, 2015 - Deadline for Iran and the P5+1 to complete the technical annexes for a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action.