The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, June 23

A Critical Mass of Diplomatic Energy?

Key players are meeting and gathering ahead for what may be a final, intense and continuous round of talks aimed at finalizing a comprehensive agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flew to Luxemburg for talks with the German, French, and British diplomats and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Monday.

After meeting with Zarif, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that negotiations will go “up to the wire” but the parties aim to get a “durable” comprehensive nuclear agreement by June 30.

Zarif returned to Tehran after the meeting, but Abbas Araqchi, deputy foreign minister and negotiator, said that he would likely come to Vienna later this week. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is also expected to join the talks in Vienna later this week.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman is already in Vienna, as are the political directors from the other P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom). Sherman met with Araqchi and Madjid Takht Ravanchi, another deputy foreign minister and member of Iran’s negotiating team, yesterday. More meetings are scheduled for today, and talks at the expert level continue.

—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, with DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director.

Quick Reference Links

The Nuclear Deal at a Glance Issue Brief: Under a Microscope
Experts Available for Interview Solution to Iran's Arak Reactor
Archived Iran Nuclear Alerts Additional Resources

Action by Majlis

Iran’s parliament passed draft legislation on Sunday, June 22 that could complicate the negotiations. Of the 213 members of Majlis present when the bill was voted on, 199 voted for the measure.

To become law, the Guardian Council must ratify the bill. The council is made up of 12 members, six are appointed by the Supreme Leader and six by the Majlis.

According to translations of the legislation published in Persian by IRNA, if ratified, the bill would prohibit inspections of military sites and interviews with scientists. It also calls for the compete lifting of sanctions against Iran early in an agreement.

Under the parameters agreed to on April 2, and as part of the November 2013 interim deal, Iran has already agreed to implement and eventually ratify its additional protocol agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran’s additional protocol allows managed access to military sites by inspectors if the IAEA has concerns about illicit Iranian nuclear activities. This is standard for additional protocols.

Issue Recap: Blocking the Plutonium Pathway

One of the primary U.S. policy goals is to block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. This includes ensuring that Tehran cannot acquire the weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Under the basic terms of the April 2 framework that negotiators are finalizing, the final comprehensive nuclear deal will block Iran's pathway to nuclear weapons using separated plutonium, indefinitely.

Under the agreed upon terms, Iran will modify the heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak and destroy or ship out the original core. Construction of the reactor was halted under the November 2013 interim deal, but if completed as designed, the core would produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for about two nuclear weapons on an annual basis. If Iran were to build a reprocessing facility, the weapons-grade plutonium could then be separated from the spent fuel and used for a bomb. However, under the agreement, Iran has committed indefinitely not to conduct reprocessing or reprocessing research and development on spent nuclear fuel.

In addition to redesigning the reactor so that it will not produce weapons-grade plutonium, Iran will ship the spent fuel out of the country.

The heavy-water production plant will continue to operate, but Iran will not accumulate excess heavy water, which is used to moderate some types of reactors, like the one under construction at the Arak site. Excess heavy water will be sold on the international market. Under the terms of the framework outlined April 2, Iran will also not construct any new heavy-water reactors for at least 15 years.

Taken together, these provisions provide a strong guarantee Iran's plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons is verifiably and indefinitely blocked.

Solving the Long-Term Enrichment Question

A group of professors from Princeton University, Alexander Glasser, Zia Mian, and Frank von Hippel, published an article in Science offering a possible long-term solution to mitigate concerns about uranium enrichment in Iran.

The authors point out that,

When restrictions expire, Iran will continue to be bound by the NPT and subject to IAEA inspection of its nuclear program, including the extra transparency measures and access provided by the additional protocol. Despite this transparency, there will remain concerns in the West and among Iran's major competitors for influence in the Middle East about the nuclear-weapon option implicit in Iran's enrichment program.

The authors suggest multi-nationalizing enrichment and allowing other countries in the region to buy-in to Iran’s enrichment process. Countries that buy in would have access to Iran’s uranium-enrichment facility without raising additional proliferation concerns. Further transparency measures, such as those employed by Brazil and Argentina to check each other’s nuclear programs could also be instituted. The authors argue that this could remove the threat posed by enrichment in the long run. It could also be “an important step toward a long-hoped-for nuclear weapon–free zone in the Middle East.”

The authors conclude that, in addition to a deal, “working on multinational enrichment arrangements for the Middle East, and ultimately around the world, Iran and the E3+3 could chart a path to reduce the proliferation risks from national control of civilian enrichment plants, regardless of location.”

A Flawed Critique of Breakout Time

A wide range of scientific and technical experts agree that the combination of limits on Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity that were agreed to on April 2 in Lausanne, would increase the time it would take Iran to amass enough highly-enriched uranium for one bomb from the current timeframe of 2-3 months to at least 12 months, if such an effort were not detected sooner, which would very likely happen if Iran tried to make dash for the bomb.

These experts include the technical teams of the P5+1 countries, top experts from the U.S. national laboratories, a group of more than 30 nonproliferation experts, as well as other knowledgeable skeptics, including David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, who wrote on April 11 that “our estimate of breakout would confirm the United States’ assessment that these limitations satisfy a 12 month breakout criterion.”

However, in an op-ed in today’s edition of The New York Times, Alan Kuperman makes a number of flawed assumptions and charges that the agreement would only increase the so-called breakout time by one month.

Among the errors in his piece:

  • He assumes that Iran could immediately re-assemble, re-install, re-calibrate and begin to operate the 14,000 centrifuges the agreement will require Iran to disconnect and remove and put under IAEA seal. Such an assumption ignores the fact that it would take many months, if not years, to achieve such a stunt, which would be detected and could be disrupted within days of any such effort.
  • He assumes that the agreement would allow Iran to keep large amounts of current low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile in solid form (oxide powder instead of gas), which is entirely incorrect. Under the agreement, Iran must verifiably reduce its current stockpile of some 7,600kg of LEU gas to no more than 300kg of LEU in any form.
  • Kuperman repeats an old line from Iran’s Supreme Leader that he wants more than 100,000 centrifuges. That statement was made many months ago to describe the uranium-enrichment capacity Iran would need to power its one operating light-water reactor at Bushehr—and to try to gain bargaining leverage in the talks. Since then, Russia, which supplies the fuel for the reactor, has extended further fuel supply assurances for Bushehr, obviating any such “need” for Iranian enrichment capacity of that scale. Iran has also agreed to limits on its enrichment capacity that make the achievement of such capacity out of reach for well over a decade.

Without the limits that can be established under the P5+1 and Iran deal, Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity would be unlimited.

A comprehensive nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran would block the Tehran’s plutonium path to the bomb, significantly cut the LEU available for further enrichment, slash the number of centrifuges available to enrich uranium to less than 5,060, retire the remaining 14,000 installed centrifuges, limit research and development on advanced machines, and put in place a multilayered international monitoring regime to detect and deter noncompliance for well over a decade with many limitations lasting indefinitely. Iran’s potential “breakout time” would expand to over 12 months.

Looking Ahead ...

June 25: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, “Evaluating Key Components of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.” Witnesses, David Albright, Institute for Science and International Security; Ray Takeyh, Council on Foreign Relations; Jim Walsh, MIT. Dirksen Senate office building, 419, 10:00 am.

June 25:“Rouhani at Two Years: An Assessment on the Cusp of a Nuclear Deal,” with Robin Wright, United States Institute for Peace-Wilson Center; Suzanne Maloney, Brookings; and Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment at the Woodrow Wilson Center, 12:00-1:00PM. For more information, click here.

June 30: Target date for a comprehensive deal.

July 16: Hold the date - Arms Control Association event on the outcome of the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran and elements of a final, comprehensive nuclear deal. Speakers will include Richard Nephew, program director of Economic Statecraft, Sanctions and Energy Markets and former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the U.S. State Department (invited); Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy. Location: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C.