P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, June 4

Another Round in Vienna

Negotiators reconvened in Vienna today to continue work on the comprehensive nuclear agreement. The political directors from the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran met on June 4, following a June 3 coordination meeting of the P5+1.

Meetings between the technical experts from Iran and the P5+1 are also ongoing.

This week's talks followed a May 30 meeting in Switzerland between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minster Mohammad Javad Zarif. The meeting, which included U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, lasted over six hours. After that meeting, Kerry broke his leg in a bicycle accident. Despite the accident, both sides say that completion of the comprehensive deal is possible by the June 30 deadline.

A State Department official said on May 30, after the Kerry-Zarif meeting, that the talks were "thorough and comprehensive" and both sides are committed to "staying on the schedule" that was set last November.   

--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy  

Stockpile Growth is Not an Obstacle to an Iran Deal

In a June 1 article in The New York Times, David Sanger and William Broad wrote that Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium is growing. That is true. 

But the reporters' assertion that the fluctuation in that stockpile poses "a major diplomatic and political challenge" and their claim that Western officials do not know why the stockpile is growing is not supported by the facts.

The State Department has vigorously refuted Sanger and Broad's spin--and for good reason. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a June 2 press briefing that the "main contention" of the piece is "totally inaccurate." 

Harf said that the allegation that the growth in the stockpile is an obstacle to a final deal is "patently absurd." She said that under the interim deal, "Iran can fluctuate its numbers in terms of the stockpile" so long as its reduced by fixed deadlines. 

The State Department is correct. The interim deal does not stipulate a rate at which Iran must covert its low-enriched uranium gas before the June 30 deadline.  Iran has not violated a timeframe set by the interim deal. Sanger and Broad are making a mountain out of a molehill. There is no mystery behind Iran's stockpile growth.

Under the November 2013 interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1, Iran agreed to convert any low-enriched uranium (about 3.5 percent) gas produced over the course of interim deal into a powder form. Essentially, when implementation of the agreement began, Iran had about 7,600 kg of 3.5 percent enriched-uranium gas in its stockpile. That is the number that Iran has to end up with on June 30. The size of the 3.5 percent stockpile between these deadlines is not regulated by the 2013 interim agreement.

In the May 29 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted that Iran currently has 8,715 kg of 3.5 percent enriched uranium gas. Iran will need to feed enough gas into the conversion process to bring the stockpile down to about 7,600 kg before June 30.

In fact, Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpile size has followed a similar pattern in the past. According to the the May 2014 report on Iran's nuclear program, Tehran had 8,475 kg of 3.5 percent enriched uranium gas. By the July 24, 2014 deadline, that number was below 7,600 kg. The IAEA certified that Iran met that commitment. 

If Iran's stockpile of enriched gas remains above about 7,600 kg after June 30, that will be a problem--but negotiators can cross that bridge if it occurs.

More importantly, under a comprehensive nuclear deal, Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent would be reduced drastically--to 300 kg. That includes 3.5 percent enriched uranium in both gas and powder form. Under a comprehensive deal, Iran's stockpile size cannot exceed that amount for a period of fifteen  years. The reduction of the 3.5 percent enriched uranium stockpile to 300 kg will not depend on conversion to powder. The excess low-enriched uranium above 300 kg will be diluted to natural uranium, shipped out of the country, or sold on the open market.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz made it quite clear that Iran will not be allowed to convert its entire stockpile of gas to powder form to meet the 300 kg limit. Conversion is reversible and Iran could then enrich the gas to weapons-grade levels more quickly. Shipping out the stocks or dilution to natural uranium are far better options that push Iran further from nuclear weapons if Tehran chooses to pursue the bomb.

The IAEA also noted in the May 29 report that Iran is fulfilling all other nuclear commitments under the interim deal, know formally as the Joint Plan of Action. The number of centrifuges enriching uranium remains capped at 10,200. No new machines have been installed and no new advanced centrifuge machines are being tested. Iran has not installed any additional components at the Arak heavy water reactor. The IAEA also reported that Iran is continuing to allow additional access to nuclear sites, including daily access at enrichment facilities, as required by the November 2013 interim deal. 

Limited Progress on PMD Issue 

The IAEA's May 29 report on Iran also noted limited progress on its investigation in the possible military dimension of Iran's nuclear program. While it is vital that Iran cooperate more fully with the agency's investigation, and in a timelier manner, this progress is a good sign. 

Under a separate November 2013 framework for cooperation, Iran agreed to cooperate with the agency on its investigation. Between November 2013 and August 2014, Iran provided access to sites and information on one of the possible military dimensions. Cooperation broke down in August 2014 when Iran failed to provide the IAEA with information related to high explosives and neutron transport calculations--both of which are applicable to nuclear weapons development.

However, IAEA and Iranian officials met several times in April and May. The IAEA noted that Iran provided some information on one of the two issues that caused the August breakdown. Further cooperation will likely be incentivized by a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

The U.S. factsheet on the April 2 parameters for a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action notes that Iran will provide the IAEA with information related to the possible military dimensions investigation under a final deal.

Israeli Military Cautiously Welcomes Emerging P5+1 and Iran Deal

Today, Reuters reported that Israel's senior military leadership believes the P5+1 deal under negotiation with Iran would provide clarity on the direction of Iran's nuclear program.

The agreement, which will include stepped-up international inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities and scaling back of its uranium enrichment, will, according to a source cited by Reuters, "allow for the supposition that, in the coming period of years, this is a threat in decline."

New Resources and Analysis

"The Verification Challenge: Iran and the IAEA," in Arms Control Today, June 2015,  by Tom Shea, an independent consultant to who worked for 24 years at the IAEA's Department of Safeguards. Shea explores the verification tasks and challenges vis-a-vis Iran and concludes: "If the IAEA receives the support it needs, which is likely, it will be able to verify Iran's commitments [under the CJPoA] effectively. Even the skeptics should have confidence that if Iran changes course, IAEA verification will work effectively to prevent Ian from acquiring a nuclear weapon." Copies of the article are available for reporters and congressional staff by request by contacting [email protected].

"Weighing the Concerns and Assurances About a Nuclear Deal With Iran," June 4, 2015.  The nonpartisan Iran Project released a new briefing book that reviews key questions and provides brief answers on a range of issues surrounding the pending Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear program.

The full report is available online here.

Looking Ahead ...

June 4 - P5+1 and Iranian political directors meet in Vienna. 

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