SECTION 3: A Comprehensive Agreement

Back to the Table of Contents

To prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and find a permanent resolution to the Iran nuclear challenge, a long-term agreement that addresses a complex array of interrelated issues must be negotiated.

In February 2014, senior diplomats and technical experts from Iran and the P5+1 started formal negotiations on a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program with the goal of reaching a deal by July 20. Arriving at such a diplomatic settlement will not be easy and will require that each side be willing to address the “core” requirements of the other side. The success of the effort will depend as much on the political will in Tehran, Washington, and other major capitals as it depends on the substantive and often very technical issues on the table.

The broad parameters of a comprehensive agreement were outlined in the November 24 Joint Plan of Action. The two sides agreed that the agreement will:

  • have a specified long-term duration to be agreed on;
  • reflect the rights and obligations of parties to the NPT and IAEA Safeguards Agreements;
  • comprehensively lift UN Security Council, multilateral, and national nuclear-related sanctions, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy, on a schedule to be agreed on;
  • involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed on;
  • fully resolve concerns related to the reactor at Arak (IR-40);
  • include provisions committing Iran not reprocess spent nuclear fuel;
  • fully implement the agreed transparency measures and enhanced monitoring;
  • ratify and implement an additional protocol, consistent with the respective roles of the Iranian president and the Majlis (Iranian parliament); and
  • include international civil nuclear cooperation, including among others, on acquiring modern light-water power and research reactors and associated equipment; the supply of modern nuclear fuel; and agreed R&D practices.

The Joint Plan of Action established that any deal would address UN Security Council resolutions, be comprehensive, meaning that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

After determining an agenda for the next three months of talks during the February meeting, Iran and the P5+1 met again in March and April in Vienna. During these two rounds of talks, each side outlined their positions. When the parties met again on May 13, they presented more-specific proposals and began the difficult task of negotiating to narrow the gaps between their positions in a draft document.

The parties hope to reach an agreement by July 20, when the six-month phase of the Joint Plan of Action expires. Although the interim deal can be extended for another six months, domestic pressures in the United States and Iran are motivating the parties to conclude a deal by the end of July. Lead negotiator for the P5+1, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, will complete her term later this fall, which could disrupt the negotiation process if it continues for many months more.

If either side pushes unrealistic requirements, the chances for a negotiated resolution will decrease, and the chances of a conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran will increase.

The considerations and potential options on the main issues confronting the negotiators are outlined below. Due to the complexity of these negotiations and the interplay of different elements of a deal, there is not a single solution to this puzzle.

Any agreement that is struck between the P5+1 and Iran should not be evaluated on the basis of any single feature, but must be assessed on the basis of its overall impact and in comparison to the alternative: no diplomatic solution.

Limits on Iran’s Uranium-Enrichment Capacity

In the November 24 interim agreement, the parties agreed that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program would be based on an assessment of its “practical needs.” In other words, Iran’s enrichment capacity and stockpile of material should not exceed what it requires for its civilian nuclear reactors.

Determining practical needs, however, is still a political decision on which the parties differ widely. The divergence in thinking about the size of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is tied in part to Tehran’s future plans for its civilian nuclear power program.

Currently, if practical needs are based solely on operating nuclear facilities, Iran’s requirements for enriched uranium are minimal. Iran operates the Tehran Research Reactor, which requires fuel plates fabricated from uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran’s current stockpile of material enriched to 20 percent will fuel the reactor for the foreseeable future.

Given that Iran has no other reactors requiring uranium enriched to this level, capping Iran’s uranium enrichment to reactor grade, or less than 5 percent, is reasonable. Iran has indicated in the past that it is willing to accept a cap on enrichment to reactor-grade levels.

Iran’s current needs for uranium enriched to reactor-grade levels are also minimal. Currently, Iran’s sole nuclear power plant at Bushehr is fueled by Russia. Under the original contract, Russia agreed to provide fuel for the reactor for 10 years, or until 2021-2022. As part of the agreement to complete construction of the reactor in 1995, Russia committed to supply the fuel for the lifetime of the reactor, should Iran chose to renew the contract.

Iran may need to produce small amounts of reactor-grade uranium to fuel the Arak heavy-water reactor, depending on how the parties agree to resolve concerns over that facility. If the reactor is converted to use reactor-grade enriched uranium, Iran could produce fuel for the reactor using less than 2,000 IR-1 centrifuges per year.

If the P5+1 defines “practical needs” by this strict accounting, Iran could be required to reduce its enrichment capacity by 80 percent, from about 10,400 operating IR-1 centrifuges to less than 2,000.

Iran will strenuously resist such a dramatic reduction. Iranian negotiators insist that Iran’s nuclear fuel needs may increase over time and say they cannot depend on foreign suppliers, given the unreliability of foreign sources in the past when Tehran was attempting to develop its nuclear program.

Moreover, considering the resources that Iran has dedicated to developing its enrichment program over the years, Tehran’s leaders would be hard-pressed to win sufficient domestic support for a deal that reduces its centrifuge inventory by such a significant amount.

Iran asserts that its practical needs include fueling the Bushehr reactor after the original contract with Russia ends. This would require operating approximately 100,000 IR-1 centrifuges per year.

According to the IAEA’s most recent quarterly report, Iran is planning to build another reactor to produce medical isotopes, a 10-MWt light-water reactor near Shiraz. This would require 20 percent-enriched uranium fuel, according to a February 8 letter that Iran submitted to the IAEA. The P5+1 could agree to provide fuel for this reactor in order to limit Iran’s enrichment to normal reactor-grade levels (below 3.5 percent). This commitment from the P5+1 would be consistent with the parameters of the Joint Plan of Action, which commit the P5+1 to civilian nuclear cooperation, including the supply of “modern nuclear fuel.”

Iran has made numerous other statements about expanding its civilian nuclear power program. Tehran has already declared to the IAEA its intention to build a 360-megawatt electric power plant at Darkhovin. In February 2014, Iran provided the IAEA with information about site selection for an additional 16 nuclear power plants, but did not give the agency any specific timetables for construction.

According to Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, Iran intends to start construction on the first in a series of four new nuclear power plants this (Iranian) year.[24] Iranian officials have made announcements about negotiations with Russia to build another two nuclear power plants at Bushehr and an additional four to six plants elsewhere in the country.

If these reactors are built according to the plan outlined by Salehi, the first reactor could begin operation as early as 2020 with additional reactors in 2022, 2024, and 2026.[25]

Many independent experts, however, dismiss this timeline as unrealistic, particularly given the slow pace at which the Bushehr reactor was completed. According to Einhorn, “[A]ny power reactor that Iran may wish to construct and fuel indigenously is at least 15 to 20 years away.”[26] Additionally, Russian contracts for nuclear power plants usually include a five- to 10-year fueling contract, so it is unlikely that Iran would need to produce fuel domestically for these reactors for years after they are built.

If the duration of any comprehensive agreement is 10 years or less, it is unlikely that additional reactors with additional fuel needs will be built within the time frame of the agreement. Therefore, the negotiators need not include them now in any calculation of practical need.

Iran, however, is likely to calculate domestic fuel requirements for the Bushehr reactor into its calculation of practical needs. Reports from the May 13-16 negotiations bear out this expectation. Yet, a steady increase in Iranian enrichment capacity to 100,000 operating IR-1 centrifuges by 2021 would not be acceptable to the P5+1.

Even an agreement to operate a smaller number of more-efficient, advanced centrifuges would be unacceptable to the P5+1 because the output would be the same. Experts assess that 25,000 IR-2M centrifuges would likely have a similar capacity as 100,000 IR-1 centrifuges.

There are options for bridging these gaps. One option is to increase Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity over time, contingent on the growth of actual practical needs. A phased approach could begin with a number of operating IR-1 centrifuges similar or slightly below the number currently operating, which is about 10,200. This number could be increased depending on a re-evaluation of Iran’s needs as its nuclear power situation progresses. Tying centrifuge capacity to specific actions within a comprehensive deal and allowing Iran to increase capacity over time as trust builds and as actual fuel needs emerge is likely to be far more acceptable to Iran than long-term, severe limits on its uranium-enrichment capacity and restrictions on research on more-advanced machines.

Some researchers note that it is in Iran’s interest to stop pursuing and building more of the less efficient IR-1 machines and to make a transition to a smaller number of more-efficient IR-2M centrifuges. During this transition period, they propose that the two sides could agree to hold total operating separative work unit (SWU) capacity constant, but phase out the IR-1 machines and replace them with IR-2Ms. Iran could also continue R&D and even stockpile components for more-advanced centrifuges but not assemble them until there is a demonstrable need for commercial-scale enrichment. This would increase the time it would take Iran to operate the machines, providing added insurance against rapid breakout scenarios. The R&D facilities and centrifuge production plants would be subject increased transparency measures. To provide further assurances, surplus IR-1 centrifuges and components could be removed from Natanz and Fordow and stored under IAEA supervision. [27]

To provide further assurances to Iran about the future availability of fuel supplies for Iran’s existing reactors, a comprehensive agreement could include a fuel guarantee by the international community, whereby a supply of reactor-grade enriched uranium for Bushehr is guaranteed over the lifetime of the reactor, so long as Iran continues to comply with the terms of the comprehensive agreement. This could allay any Iranian concerns about the reliability of Russian fuel supply.

If Iran insists on supplying the Bushehr reactor after 2021 with domestically produced fuel, increases in centrifuge capacity could be tied to actions taken by Iran in a comprehensive agreement. For instance, when Iran completes its disclosure to the IAEA on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program and the agency determines that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, centrifuge capacity could be increased. An additional step tied to increasing centrifuge capacity could be Iran’s ratification of an additional protocol. This would expand IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear facilities permanently, which is key to detecting violations early.

An additional step could be to require Iran to convert all of the reactor-grade enriched uranium that it produces from uranium hexafluoride gas to uranium dioxide powder. Uranium dioxide powder is used to make fuel rods for nuclear power reactors and poses less of a proliferation threat because it must be converted back into gas in order to be further enriched. The IAEA would quickly detect this reconversion process.

In May 2014, Iran completed a facility for this process. This “zero stockpile” approach would make it more difficult and time consuming for Iran to move quickly toward nuclear weapons production. Also, Iran would have to anticipate some loss of fissionable material as a result of reconversion. As an additional step, the uranium dioxide could be exported to Russia for fabrication into fuel elements for the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

If there is to be a comprehensive agreement, the two sides must find a suitable formula that limits Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity in a way that precludes an Iranian dash to produce enough HEU for weapons without being detected and disrupted, but allows for Iran’s practical civilian needs.

Getting to “yes” on such an approach will require difficult compromises for both sides, but solutions that prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and still provide Iran with the means to pursue a civil nuclear program are available.

alternate text
Click image to enlarge.
alternate text
Click image to enlarge.


The two sides must also reach an agreement on the future status of the Fordow uranium-enrichment facility. During earlier negotiations with Iran in the spring of 2013, the P5+1 wanted uranium enrichment at Fordow to end and for the facility to close. The facility, buried deep inside a mountain outside of the city of Qom, is less vulnerable to an airstrike, which is likely one of the reasons why the P5+1 originally wanted the facility closed.

Iran, however, has stated publicly that it will not accept closure of any of its nuclear facilities in a final deal.

Under the Joint Plan of Action, enrichment activities continue at Fordow, but the 696 operating centrifuges at the facility were converted to producing 3.5 percent-enriched uranium rather than 20 percent-enriched material. It is likely that the P5+1 will oppose the continuation of any production-scale enrichment at the facility, to dispel any Iranian notion that it has a secure breakout option.

In a final deal, the two sides might compromise by agreeing that Iran will effectively halt any enrichment activities at Fordow for production purposes and convert it to a “research-only” facility. Under this configuration, Iran could use the facility to develop and test advanced centrifuges, activities that currently take place at Natanz. The facility would still be subject to intensive IAEA monitoring. This compromise would keep the facility operating, as per the Iranian position, but address the proliferation risk.

Research and Development

Under a comprehensive agreement, Iran will want to continue R&D activities, including the development and testing of advanced centrifuges. Continuing these practices is consistent with the parameters for a comprehensive deal laid out in the Joint Plan of Action, which includes a commitment to respect Iran’s rights as an NPT member. If Iran’s R&D activities on advanced centrifuges are under safeguards, then it is meeting its obligations under the treaty on R&D.

Additionally, R&D on more-advanced centrifuges does not represent a significant breakout threat if the agreed limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity throughout the course of the agreement are determined in terms of SWUs (See “Understanding SWUs”).

Understanding SWUs

Uranium-enrichment capacity is measured in separative work units (SWUs). An SWU is roughly a measurement of the amount of separation done during enrichment. Centrifuge efficiency can be expressed in SWUs. More efficient centrifuges have a higher SWU capacity.

A nuclear deal with Iran may define Iran’s practical needs for uranium enrichment based on SWUs. This would allow Iran to operate a smaller number of advanced centrifuges, as opposed to a larger number of less-efficient, crash-prone IR-1s.

Each IR-1 centrifuge has an efficiency of approximately 0.8-1 SWU per year. Currently, Iran is operating about 10,200 IR-1 centrifuges, which is about 10,200 SWU per year. Iran is working on more-advanced models, including the IR-2M, which it had begun installing in production-scale cascades before the Joint Plan of Action froze new centrifuge installation. The IR-2M is estimated to be three to five times more efficient than the IR-1.

For example, if Iran’s SWU capacity was capped at 10,200 under a comprehensive deal, it could operate 10,200 IR-1 centrifuges, or 2,100 to 3,300 IR-2M centrifuges. Either configuration would keep them below the SWU cap.

To assess this need, the tables above presents estimates of the fuel requirements for current and possible future Iranian nuclear reactors.



Options for the Arak Reactor

A comprehensive agreement will need to determine the future of the 40-MWt, heavy-water reactor at Arak, which remains years away from completion. For the P5+1, this reactor presents a serious, long-term proliferation concern because heavy-water reactors are well suited to the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Iran maintains that the Arak reactor is intended to produce medical isotopes, although its large size far exceeds what is necessary for isotope production.

Under the current design configuration, the reactor will produce enough weapons-grade plutonium per year once operational for about two nuclear weapons. The spent fuel would need to be removed from the reactor and allowed to thermally cool for several months, then the weapons-grade plutonium-239 would need to be reprocessed, or separated from the spent reactor fuel, before it could be used in weapons. Iran currently does not have a reprocessing facility and says it has no intention to build one, but could construct a reprocessing plant relatively quickly if it chose to do so.

Additionally, because the Arak site represents Iran’s only indigenously developed and domestically constructed nuclear facility, Tehran strongly opposes any outcome that would require it to shut the facility and opposes to converting it to a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor.

Shutting down the Arak reactor is not the only way to guard against its possible use for fissile material production. Its design can be modified in ways that significantly reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium in its spent fuel, while allowing Iran to use the facility for medical isotope production and research.

Salehi said that Iran could “make some change in the design in order to produce less plutonium in this reactor and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns.”[29]

One of these design modifications would be to reduce the reactor from 40 MWt to 20MWt, 15 MWt or 10 MWt. This would reduce the annual output of weapons-grade plutonium from approximately eight to nine kilograms to around one kilogram. Approximately four kilograms of plutonium-239 are required for the construction of the core of a nuclear weapon.[30] Some analysts suggest it would be useful to modify the reactor vessel containing the fuel rods to ensure the modification is irreversible, so that Iran could increase the power of the reactor over time.[31]

Another option that would reduce the output of weapons-grade plutonium in the spent fuel would involve conversion of the reactor to use uranium fuel enriched to 3.5 percent or 20 percent instead of the natural uranium fuel that the reactor’s design currently requires.

Reactors that use natural uranium fuel are especially well suited for plutonium production because virtually all of the neutrons they produce that are excess to the requirements for maintaining the fission chain reaction are absorbed. There is less excess when using enriched uranium fuel.

Although fueling the reactor with enriched uranium would increase Iran’s practical needs for enriched uranium, the plutonium produced in the spent fuel would pose less of a concern for weapons use. Additionally, the need to produce 3.5 percent-enriched uranium for the Arak reactor could not be used by Iran to legitimize a large enrichment capacity. About 1,300 IR-1 centrifuges could produce enough material annually to fuel the Arak reactor operating at 20 MWt.[32]

From a nonproliferation standpoint, converting the Arak reactor to use 3.5 percent-enriched fuel would be preferable to converting it to use 19.75 percent-enriched fuel. If Iran produces its own fuel for the Arak reactor, it would be better that it not have a reason, in the near term at least, to produce more uranium that is enriched to almost 20 percent. Uranium enriched to that level requires much less additional enrichment to reach weapons grade (an enrichment level of 90 percent or more). Iran has produced enough uranium enriched to almost 20 percent to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for several years at least and has suspended further production as a confidence-building measure under the Joint Plan of Action.

alternate text
Click image to enlarge.

Under either of these configurations, Iran could use the Arak reactor for the production of medical isotopes and nuclear research as originally intended.

An additional option to reduce the Arak reactor’s proliferation potential would be to require that all spent fuel from the reactor be verifiably removed for disposition in a third country, possibly Russia, to prevent it from becoming a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons development. Russia is already responsible for removing the spent fuel produced by the Bushehr reactor. The quantities of spent fuel from Bushehr far exceed what would be produced by the Arak reactor. This option would put the weapons-usable plutonium even further out of reach for separation by Iran.

Another possible compromise that would effectively neutralize the Arak facility’s plutonium potential would be to convert it to a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor, but this option would require Iran to abandon its original heavy-water technology choice and would be strongly resisted by Iran, given its indigenous development of the reactor and its investment in technologies and facilities for the production of heavy-water.

Monitoring and Verification Measures

To provide greater assurance that any ongoing Iranian nuclear activities are not diverted for weapons purposes, the two sides will likely include additional international monitoring and transparency measures, including inspections of undeclared nuclear sites in order to guard against rapid breakout and a potential secret program.

Currently, Iranian nuclear sites that are part of its safeguards agreement are covered by IAEA monitoring and verification rules in place between NPT members and the agency. Safeguards are activities that the IAEA undertakes to verify that a state is living up to its international commitments not to use nuclear programs for nuclear weapons purposes. NPT states-parties are obligated to have a safeguards agreement in place. Safeguard activities undertaken by the agency are based on a state’s declaration of its nuclear materials and nuclear-related activities. Verification measures include on-site inspections, monitoring, and evaluation.

Iran’s safeguards agreement entered into force in 1974. It grants the IAEA access to Iran’s declared nuclear sites, including uranium-enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordow, the fuel fabrication plant at Esfahan, the Arak heavy-water reactor, and the Tehran Research Reactor, for monitoring and verification purposes.

The starting point for increasing the robustness of the monitoring and verification regime is the ratification and implementation by Iran of an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The Model Additional Protocol was developed to compensate for the deficiencies of the core safeguards regime that were revealed in the wake of the 1991 war with Iraq.

Zero Enrichment: Myths and Realities

Some policymakers and analysts argue that any negotiated settlement with Tehran must require Iran to give up all enrichment activities. There are numerous credible justifications for this demand, including long-standing U.S. policy that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not include the “right to enrichment.”

Additionally, Iran has pursued its enrichment capability in secret for 18 years and did so as part of, or in parallel with, an apparent nuclear weapons program. Tehran only declared its enrichment-related facilities after those facilities were publicly revealed or otherwise discovered. The materials and technology for this work were primarily acquired illicitly through the Abdul Qadeer Khan network and by violating national export controls in other countries. In essence, Iran’s enrichment program was infused with illegal activity from the start.

The public rationale for the existence of Iran’s enrichment program is questionable. Tehran claims that it wants to enrich uranium to manufacture fuel for an ambitious nuclear energy plan, ultimately producing a total of about 20,000 megawatts of electricity in about 20 nuclear reactors. Yet, Iran’s sole nuclear power reactor at Bushehr began operations only last year, and Russia has agreed to provide fuel for that plant for at least the next 10 years. Any additional nuclear reactors that would require Iranian fuel are years away. As a result, Iran does not appear to have any need for low-enriched uranium for at least the next decade. The fact that Iran decided in 2010 to begin enriching uranium to 20 percent, well above the 3.5 percent level of material used in power reactors and in excess of its needs for the Tehran Research Reactor, further elevates concerns about Tehran’s motives.

Although the arguments against Iran maintaining an enrichment capability are sound from a nonproliferation perspective, the prospect of achieving such an outcome through negotiations or any other means is not realistic at this point. Iran is not likely to give up such a capacity willingly, and there are no credible options to forcibly eliminate such a capacity from Iran altogether. Additionally, the November 24 agreement stipulated that a final deal will allow Iran a limited uranium-enrichment program based on its practical needs. Insisting on a zero-enrichment result would violate the agreed-on parameters of a comprehensive deal.

The zero-enrichment stance does not appear to have much support from the international community. Developing countries, including key U.S. partners such as India, have frequently issued statements backing Iran’s rights to a peaceful nuclear program. A Brazilian-Turkish diplomatic effort with Iran concluded in a May 2010 statement that Iran has the right under the NPT “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

Perhaps most importantly, although China and Russia supported the UN Security Council’s demand for enrichment suspension by Iran, they do not appear to favor requiring that Iran forgo enrichment activities permanently. If these key countries are unwilling to enforce a zero-enrichment demand on Iran, efforts to apply political and economic pressure on that basis will not be successful.

Lastly, achieving a zero-enrichment state is not necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and should not be the roadblock that prevents an effective, comprehensive deal.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 1, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that, “under very strict conditions Iran would, sometime in the future, having responded to the international community’s concerns and irreversibly shut down its nuclear weapons program, have such a right [to enrich uranium] under [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections.”[28]

Although an agreement that allows Iran to maintain a limited enrichment capability could arguably make it more difficult to convince other countries to forgo sensitive fuel-cycle technologies, the damage to the nonproliferation regime would be far greater if the opportunity to resolve the issue diplomatically was lost because the United States insisted on a zero-enrichment outcome.

Without an agreement with Iran that limits its capacity to produce fissile material and improves international monitoring in exchange for phased sanctions relief, Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities would grow over time, and the risk of a military conflict would rise. If the international community perceives that the negotiations fell short due to U.S. demands that Iran halt all uranium-enrichment activity, it would be very difficult to sustain, let alone toughen the international sanctions against Iran.

Even if the P5+1 agree that Iran can continue to enrich uranium on a limited basis, it is unlikely that other countries will be encouraged to follow Iran’s example. For the vast majority of countries, national enrichment capabilities are not economically viable, they would be very costly politically, and, given abundant global fuel supply options, they are unnecessary for any state that wishes to pursue a nuclear energy program.

An additional protocol is a legal document granting the IAEA inspection authority beyond what is permitted by a safeguards agreement. Additional protocols are voluntary agreements negotiated on a state-by-state basis with the IAEA. A principal aim is to enable the IAEA inspectorate to provide assurance that there are no undeclared activities and all declared nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes.

Once an additional protocol is adopted and implemented by a state, the IAEA is granted expanded rights of access to information and sites. States must provide information about and IAEA inspector access to all parts of a state’s nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium mines, fuel fabrication and enrichment plants, and nuclear waste sites, as well as to any other location with nuclear material. Additional protocols typically include provisions granting visas to inspectors, granting access to R&D activities, and granting information on the manufacture and export of technologies, and allowing for environmental samples.

These inspections allow the IAEA to access nondeclared sites without prior notification, which is a strong deterrent against any clandestine nuclear weapons work.

The IAEA has stated repeatedly in its reports that unless Iran implements an additional protocol, “the agency will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”

Iran negotiated an additional protocol with the IAEA and signed the agreement in 2003. Between 2003 and 2006, Iran voluntarily implemented its additional protocol, but never ratified the document. In 2006, Iran announced that it would no longer implement the provisions of the agreement.[33]

It is likely that, under the terms of a still-to-be-negotiated comprehensive agreement, Iran would be required to implement its additional protocol at an early stage, with ratification at a later point in time. Once the Iranian parliament approves ratification, the duration of the additional protocol would be unlimited.

With an additional protocol in place, the IAEA would be able to visit all facilities associated with Iran’s nuclear activities, including sites to which it does not currently have access, such as uranium mines, Iran’s centrifuge production facilities, and its heavy-water production plant. The additional protocol would also substantially expand the IAEA’s ability to check for clandestine, undeclared nuclear facilities by providing the agency with authority to visit any facility, declared or not, to investigate questions about or inconsistencies in a state’s nuclear declarations.

The IAEA would be able to visit any site on very short notice. These monitoring and verification measures would give the agency a more complete picture of Iran’s nuclear activities and allow for early detection of deviations from peaceful activities. Early notification would give the international community time to respond to activities that might indicate Iran is violating any comprehensive agreement and is pursuing nuclear weapons development.

Under a comprehensive agreement, it is very likely that Iran would be required to comply with the terms of the modified Code 3.1 version of IAEA safeguards, which requires that countries submit design information for new nuclear facilities to the IAEA as soon as the decision is made to construct or authorize construction of a facility.

In 2003, Iran accepted the terms of the modified Code 3.1, but reneged unilaterally on its implementation in March 2007. The IAEA maintains that subsidiary arrangements, including Code 3.1, cannot be altered unilaterally. Also, there is no mechanism in the safeguards agreement to suspend implementation of Code 3.1. Therefore, the IAEA maintains that it remains in force and Iran is not adhering to its obligations under Code 3.1 to provide the agency with updated design information for new and existing nuclear facilities.

If Iran implements Code 3.1, the IAEA would receive information about any plans Tehran has to expand its nuclear program earlier than it would under the existing safeguards agreement. Iran would also be obligated to share any design changes to existing nuclear facilities.

Yet, an additional protocol and Code 3.1 will not be enough to provide sufficient assurance against proliferation if Iran continues to maintain an enrichment program.

The P5+1 will likely seek additional inspection measures for an extended period of time to provide still more confidence to the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is being used for entirely peaceful purposes. This could include additional formal verification requirements and confidence-building measures. Such steps would need to cover all of Iran’s nuclear activities, including its uranium mines, and would need to ensure that Iran would not be left with an LEU stockpile it could quickly convert to weapons-grade material.

Nuclear “Rights” and Responsibilities

Iranian leaders have argued for years that attempts to limit Iran’s nuclear program and impose sanctions infringe on Iran’s sovereign rights as a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Article IV of the NPT says that the states-parties have an “inalienable right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”

U.S. and other Western government officials, however, note that the NPT does not specifically give states parties a “right” to engage in sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle activities, including uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. They also point out that the treaty obliges non-nuclear-weapon states under Article II “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” and under Article III “to accept safeguards” in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency standards and practices “with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Some critics of the November 24, 2013, interim agreement argue that “allowing” Iran to continue enriching uranium is counter to the U.S. policy position that does not recognize the right to enrich as part of the NPT, especially if states have engaged in illicit nuclear weapons-related research.

The P5+1 and Iran did not agree on the nature of Iran’s nuclear energy “rights” in their November 24 first-phase agreement, but the P5+1 recognized that Iran already has a nuclear enrichment program and would insist on retaining some enrichment capacity.

As such, as part of the broad parameters of the final deal, the parties agreed to negotiate practical limits on the scope of the enrichment program and additional safeguards on ongoing Iranian enrichment activities at its Natanz and Fordow facilities in order to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential.

One of the key objectives for any enhanced safeguards regime in Iran would be instituting measures that would provide an accurate and thorough accounting of nuclear material being used at Iran’s enrichment-related facilities. Any nuclear facilities Iran maintains would continue to pose a risk that nuclear material might be diverted. Therefore, more-stringent material accountancy in key nuclear facilities would provide greater assurance that no material has been diverted and impose a stronger deterrent against such action.

Such stronger measures could include measuring the mass balance of uranium going into and coming out of Iran’s uranium-conversion plant and using the destructive analysis technique at Iran’s enrichment plant to reduce errors in measuring the amount of nuclear material present. Under these procedures, Iran would find it more difficult to siphon some of its nuclear material for any parallel, secret program.

An intensified safeguards regime would need to provide the earliest-possible indication of any diversion or any other attempted misuse of nuclear material and facilities. The expedited inspections regime under an additional protocol would need to be supplemented by real-time monitoring of key facilities, in particular Iran’s enrichment and conversion plants. If Iran decided to move its stores of uranium hexafluoride or LEU from those facilities to enrich either to weapons-grade levels, a real-time monitoring arrangement would provide the earliest-possible indication of such an action, allowing the international community to respond before Iran could manufacture nuclear devices.

Finally, Iran could institute confidence-building measures regarding the nuclear material it produces, such as exporting the LEU it produces for fuel fabrication, thereby preventing it from holding on its territory a stockpile of LEU that could be further enriched to produce nuclear weapons. Such a measure would not likely be agreeable on a long-term basis, but could be instituted following a suspension period to provide additional confidence and until Iran develops a domestic need for such LEU.

These measures should be of limited duration, particularly as the Joint Plan of Action stipulates that additional measures have an agreed-on duration. The lifting of more-intrusive monitoring and verification measures could be tied to actions taken by Iran, including the ratification of an additional protocol.

Sanctions Relief

Determining the sequence of sanctions relief within the terms of a comprehensive agreement will be difficult. Although the Joint Plan of Action stipulates that all proliferation-related sanctions, including U.S., EU, and UN measures, be lifted as part of a final agreement, the sequence of relief will be determined by the negotiations.

Iran will likely press for a deal that front-loads sanctions relief, whereas the P5+1 will probably push for sanctions to be waived for the short term before being lifted. In the United States, the president has considerable waiver authority to relieve sanctions, but actually lifting many of the measures will require congressional action.

In the short term, waivers could be a good compromise because they grant meaningful sanctions relief while leaving the core of the legislation in place that will allow for the rapid reimposition of restrictions if Iran breaks the agreement. Early relief could include releasing frozen Iranian oil assets on a monthly schedule, similar provisions in the Joint Plan of Action. The United States also could allow for Iran to repatriate its funds from oil sales. On the EU side, a meaningful measure could be to allow for insurance of tankers carrying Iranian crude. The United States also could waive the requirement that countries importing oil from Iran reduce the levels of their imports every six months.

Taken together, these measures would provide considerable financial relief for Iran.

In the United States, given that lifting sanctions in the long term requires legislation in Congress, that action could be tied to a reciprocal action in Iran that requires the approval of its parliament. Ratification of an additional protocol could be the reciprocal action for congressional action lifting oil, financial, and nonproliferation sanctions.[34]

Sanctions relief is not the only incentive for Iranian compliance. The Joint Plan of Action pledges civil nuclear cooperation with Iran. International assistance on these civil nuclear projects should be phased in through during the course of the agreement. Civil nuclear cooperation on new facilities, such as light-water reactors, could be linked to resolution of the issue concerning possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. When the IAEA is satisfied that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, the P5+1 could work with Iran on constructing and potentially fueling these reactors.

UN Security Council Resolutions

The preamble of the Joint Plan of Action requires that the negotiations on a comprehensive deal address the conditions of the six UN Security Council resolutions dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

The core demands of the resolutions are that Iran halt its nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment and construction of the Arak reactor, and address outstanding IAEA concerns.

Notably, the UN Security Council’s earlier demands for Iran to “suspend” uranium enrichment does not require that a comprehensive agreement must end all Iranian enrichment activity.

The purpose of UN Security Council demands for the suspension of uranium enrichment and other sensitive fuel-cycle activities was to prevent Iran from accumulating more enriched uranium and a larger fissile material production capacity until it restored confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, not to cease all uranium enrichment activities permanently.[35]

None of the six resolutions call for Iran to dismantle its enrichment facilities or permanently halt enrichment. All six contain the same language promoting a diplomatic resolution to the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program that respects Tehran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program.

During debate before the most recent resolution was adopted on June 9, 2010, British Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of the P5+1, said the resolution was intended to keep “the door open for continued engagement” with Iran over its nuclear program. He said that the purpose of such diplomatic efforts must be to achieve a comprehensive, long-term settlement that respects Iran’s legitimate right to the peaceful use of atomic energy.[36]

That resolution, Resolution 1929, expanded the scope of sanctions and for the first time demanded that Iran suspend any activities related to the testing and development of ballistic missiles “capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In addition, the resolution banned all transfers of heavy weaponry to Iran.

Iranian officials have publicly and privately expressed their strong opposition to any discussion of Iran-specific ballistic missile limitations in the ongoing nuclear talks. They argue that Iran’s missiles are a legitimate means of self-defense in an unstable region where other countries are threatening to attack it, and they note that the first-phase agreement made no mention of missiles in its framework for a final deal.

Some members of Congress and independent experts believe limits on Iran’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles should be on the agenda of ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. For example, a bill introduced earlier this year by Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) would require that any comprehensive agreement include specific limits on Iranian missiles.

In response, senior administration officials have provided assurances that the issue of Iranian missiles would be “addressed, in some way” during the ongoing negotiations because UN Security Council Resolution 1929 references it, but they have not elaborated how it might be addressed.

The missile issue is certainly relevant to the issue of Iran’s future nuclear weapons potential, but it must be handled very carefully. Attempts by the P5+1 to impose specific, binding limits on Iranian ballistic missile capabilities at this point could jeopardize chances to conclude an agreement that establishes verifiable limits on its ability to produce material for nuclear weapons. Without its ability to produce nuclear weapons, Iran’s ballistic missiles pose much less of a threat to its neighbors.

Therefore, the most effective way to address the potential threat of nuclear-armed Iranian ballistic missiles is to conclude a robust deal between Iran and the P5+1 to prevent Iran from being able to build nuclear weapons.

As the lead U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman noted in a February 4 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “[I]f we can get to the verifiable assurance that [the Iranians] cannot obtain a nuclear weapon,…then a delivery mechanism, important as it is, is less important.”[37]

The primary means of ensuring that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon is to ensure that Iran’s fissile material production capacity is sufficiently limited and transparent. This requires that a comprehensive agreement lead to limits on Iran’s overall uranium-enrichment capacity that are commensurate with a realistic assessment of Iran’s practical needs for civilian nuclear activities, the implementation of a more rigorous IAEA safeguards regime, and the resolution of concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Within such a framework, the international community would have the tools to detect and the time to disrupt a possible attempt by Iran to break out of the NPT to build nuclear weapons.

The ballistic missile issue could be addressed in a comprehensive agreement under a requirement that Iran cooperate with the IAEA within the next year or so to resolve allegations that Iran has conducted research for adapting the front section of a Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile to accommodate the installation of a nuclear warhead. The final deal between Iran and the P5+1 should provide direction and a time frame to the IAEA and Tehran to finally resolve these and other outstanding issues with possible military dimensions.

It might be possible to persuade Iran to make a voluntary commitment to greater transparency with regard to its missile activities outside the terms of a comprehensive agreement. Such transparency measures might include providing timely notification of flight tests, exercises, and field deployments.

Iran could also pledge to join the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, a confidence-building regime to which 137 states subscribe. The provisions of this code include commitments to provide prelaunch notifications of launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. Subscribing states also commit to submitting an annual declaration of their policies on ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.

Because no Middle Eastern countries currently subscribe to this code of conduct, a proposal to Iran and its key regional neighbors simultaneously seems the most likely way to induce Iran to participate.

In addition to the requirements on Iran imposed by the UN Security Council, four council resolutions include a series of progressively restrictive sanctions against Iran for failing to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile activities. These sanctions must be removed as part of a final deal.

Resolving Questions About Possible Military Dimensions

The preamble to the Joint Plan of Action requires that a comprehensive agreement address concerns listed in the UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program. Also, the IAEA has passed six resolutions calling for a halt to Iran’s nuclear activities and cooperation with IAEA investigations into its outstanding concerns about Iran’s initial declaration and the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran and the IAEA are negotiating on these concerns in a separate track under a November 11, 2013, framework for cooperation. Yet, the issues of past activities with possible military dimensions will need to be addressed in a comprehensive agreement that allows the IAEA to continue its investigation uninhibited and ensures that Iran provides the agency with the information necessary to complete its task.

Given the pace of these investigations, Iran and the IAEA will not complete this process before the July 20 deadline. It is unlikely that the process can be completed by January, in the event that the P5+1 and Iran agree to an extension to the Joint Plan of Action.

It is vital that Iran cooperate with the investigation in a timely manner. Given the need for a thorough investigation, however, it would be unwise to rush the IAEA into a quick resolution of its investigation solely to meet negotiating deadlines. To make the determination that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, the agency will need to investigate each of the issues involving possible military dimensions individually and as a system to gain a complete understanding of Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons development. Measures proposed in the U.S. Congress that require Iran to resolve all questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program before the conclusion of negotiations on a comprehensive agreement would be counterproductive.

A comprehensive agreement can play a role in facilitating Iranian cooperation and a prompt conclusion to the agency’s investigation. A comprehensive deal could state that the information that Iran provides to the IAEA will be used only for the IAEA’s determination of whether Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. In other words, Iran should be assured that it will not be penalized for fully disclosing its past activities.

A comprehensive agreement could address the issue of possible military dimensions by tying UN Security Council sanctions relief to successful resolution of these issues and containing language that would reimpose sanctions if Tehran failed to complete the IAEA track. This should provide sufficient incentives for Iran to follow through on cooperating with the IAEA’s investigations into its work.

Bottom Line: A ‘Win-Win’ Deal to Guard Against a Nuclear-Armed Iran

To guard against an Iran armed with nuclear weapons and avoid a future confrontation over its nuclear program, the P5+1 and Iran must expeditiously negotiate and implement a long-term, final-phase agreement on the basis of realistic and achievable goals that meets the core requirements and respects the bottom-line needs of each side.

A “win” for the P5+1 is a comprehensive agreement that establishes verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program that substantially increase the time required for Iran to break out of the NPT and build nuclear weapons, increases the ability to promptly detect and effectively respond to a breakout, and decreases Iran’s incentive to pursue nuclear weapons development in the future.

A “win” for Iran would be preservation of key elements of its nuclear program, including some uranium-enrichment and R&D activities; protection of its “right” under the NPT to a peaceful nuclear program; and removal of international, nuclear-related sanctions.

If either side pushes to include unrealistic requirements, the chances for a negotiated resolution will decrease, and the chances of a conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran will increase.

A final-phase agreement will require difficult compromises on both sides, but it is the far more preferable and effective way to resolve the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Back to the Table of Contents