What Kind of Deal Is Necessary and Possible to Guard Against a Nuclear-Armed Iran?

Volume 4, Issue 11, October 10, 2013

The United States and its P5+1 partners--China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany--will resume negotiations with Iran on October 15-16 in Geneva to seek a lasting resolution to the high-stakes standoff over Iran's increasingly capable nuclear program.

The next round of talks--the first since the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's president in June--represents the best chance in years to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran.

Leaders in Washington and in Tehran say they want to see prompt action toward a "win-win" diplomatic solution. In August, a group of 76 senators wrote to President Barack Obama urging him "to fully explore the diplomatic process" with a "renewed sense of urgency." President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani have both said they believe there is a good basis for an agreement.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, Obama said:

"We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people [to access nuclear energy], while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful. To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."

In remarks delivered the same day, Rouhani said it is our objective and "[o]ur national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran's peaceful nuclear program."

Iran, Rouhani said, also seeks "acceptance of and respect for the implementation of the right to enrichment inside Iran and enjoyment of other related nuclear rights, provides the only path towards achieving the first objective."

These and other comments from senior officials suggest that Iran may be prepared make a serious offer that could lead to verifiable limits on its uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel cycle projects, as well as more intrusive and more timely international nuclear inspections if the P5+1 group is willing begin the process of phasing-out the damaging oil and financial sanctions now in force against the Islamic Republic.

The task now is to negotiate the basic terms of such an agreement. This requires that each side come to the October 15-16 meeting in Geneva with new, pragmatic proposals that address the core concerns of the other. Each side must be prepared to follow up quickly with further talks, including direct, bilateral diplomacy between senior U.S. and Iranian officials and technical experts.

The U.S. Congress must do its part by refraining from actions that place unrealistic demands on the negotiators or establish new conditions for the easing of nonproliferation-related sanctions in response to concrete, verifiable actions by Iran that reduce proliferation risks.

Negotiated Limits Vs. Unconstrained Enrichment, Sanctions & War

Neither side can or will get everything they might have wanted in the past. If one or both sides miscalculate and demand more than the other side can or is willing to deliver, the negotiations will fail. For instance, it would be counterproductive for Iran to continue to insist, as it was doing last spring, on sanctions relief in return for little or no change in its nuclear program.

Likewise, it is unrealistic to insist that Iran halt all nuclear activities before there is any prospect of sanctions relief or even further talks. For example, the suggestion advanced in AIPAC's October 7 briefing paper that "Tehran must suspend all enrichment ... activities" in order "to provide the necessary time and space for discussions" is a non-starter.

There is clearly sufficient time to conclude and begin to implement an agreement before Iran could produce a nuclear weapon, which President Obama said in an October 4th interview would take Iran "more than a year" to accomplish, if it were to chose to do so.

Furthermore, it is counterproductive at this stage to demand that Iran suspend all nuclear activities as a precondition for further negotiations. "Zero enrichment" in Iran would be ideal from a nonproliferation standpoint--and it may have been attainable a decade ago when Iran's program was in its early stages--but insisting on such an outcome is not realistic today and is a recipe for failure.

And if the talks fail, both sides--and Israel--stand to lose. Big time.

In the absence of a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program and put in place tougher international inspections regime to guard against a potential undeclared nuclear activity, Iran will continue to increase its capacity to enrich uranium without constraints, the United States will put in place even tighter sanctions, and risk of Israeli military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites will grow.

Skeptics of a negotiated solution must recognize the reality that the alternative course--further sanctions and possible military strikes--cannot effectively stop Iran's dangerous nuclear pursuits.

Iran's economy is suffering under increasingly painful sanctions, but sanctions alone will not halt or eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons potential. Direct military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites would delay--not stop--Iran's nuclear pursuits and would give strength to hardliners in Tehran and push Iranian leaders to openly pursue nuclear weapons.

Reaching a sound, negotiated agreement will be difficult, but it is clearly the most effective course of action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

The Core Elements of An Effective Deal

At the previous round of talks in April of 2013, Iran and the P5+1 presented proposals that highlighted key concerns of each side. While there were a number of common elements, there were significant differences regarding the sequence of actions, the scope of issues to be addressed, and the timing of sanctions relief.

To reach an agreement that addresses the most urgent proliferation risks posed by Iran's nuclear program, as well as Iran's desire to continue some nuclear activities and begin to remove elements of the severe sanctions regime that has been put in place, each side will need to exhibit more flexibility and creativity.

President Obama and the United States' P5+1 partners must be prepared to expand their modest diplomatic proposal from last April in a way that sets new constraints on Iran's evolving nuclear program in exchange for more significant sanctions relief.

Iranian Actions: The first priority of the P5+1 must be to seek a halt to Iran's production of 20 percent-enriched uranium on a permanent basis, which is above the fuel grade used in civilian power reactors and closer to weapons grade, and verifiably remove its existing stockpile of such material, in exchange for an arrangement to supply fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor, medical isotopes, or both.

Iran must also agree to reasonable limits on the overall uranium enrichment capacity of its two declared and safeguarded facilities: Natanz and Fordow. This can be accomplished in various ways, including:

  • verifiable limits on the overall number of operating centrifuges; and/or
  • agreed limits on Iran's enrichment capacity to a level commensurate with Iran's nuclear power reactor fuel supply needs, which are, for now, minimal.

Any agreed constraints on Iranian enrichment capacity must take into account the possible deployment of new and more efficient centrifuges.

The P5+1 also should press Iran to halt work on its Arak heavy-water reactor, which is nearing completion, in exchange for other forms of civil nuclear cooperation or energy assistance that do not represent such a high proliferation risk. Although Iran does not currently have the capability to extract the plutonium from the spent fuel this reactor would produce a year or so after it becomes fully operational, the Arak reactor could eventually provide Iran with a second path to producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.

To further guard against a secret weapons program at undisclosed sites and to provide additional warning time, Tehran should join the vast majority of other nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) member states in providing more-timely information to the IAEA about its nuclear projects under the standards of IAEA Code 3.1 and allow more-extensive inspections, shorter-notice through an Additional Protocol to its existing safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

With these restrictions in place, Iran would find it extremely difficult to try to make a dash to build nuclear weapons before the international community would detect such activities and could act to block such an outcome.

U.S. and P5+1 Actions: To get to "yes" on these important steps, the P5+1 must be prepared to phase-out hard-hitting sanctions against Iran's banking sector and oil exports, which are at the core of the wide-array of restrictions that have been imposed on Iran's trade and economic activity in recent years.

The purpose of the sanctions effort has been to alter Iran's cost-benefit calculations about agreeing to limit its nuclear program-and they have. Iran understands that the tough international and national sanctions will remain in place until it takes the steps necessary to provide confidence that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. But Iran will not likely agree to limits on its nuclear program if there is no prospect for sanctions relief.

In the coming weeks, key members of the Senate must refrain from pushing ahead with a new round sanctions before the results of the next round of talks become clear.

Contrary to the suggestions of some, including Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), the imposition of tougher sanctions now--before the negotiators have reasonable amount of time to conclude an agreement--would severely undermine the prospects of an negotiated solution that is in the United States' interests and increase the chances of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The P5+1 also must be prepared to recognize Iran's right under the Article IV of the NPT to pursue peaceful nuclear activities under certain conditions. As President Obama said in his September 24 address to the UN, such recognition requires that Iran adequately and satisfactorily respond to the international community's concern about the nature of its program.

To do so, President Rouhani must follow through on his pledge for "greater transparency" by agreeing to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol to its existing safeguards arrangement and by fully cooperating with the IAEA investigation of suspected weapons-related experiments. The next meeting between the IAEA and Iran to agree on a "structured approach" for the IAEA's investigation is scheduled for October 28 in Vienna.

If the two sides can agree to allow the IAEA sufficient access to Iranian sites, personnel and information about its ongoing and past nuclear work, the Agency should be able to determine whether experiments with "potential military dimensions" are still underway, or not. Only then can the Agency report to the IAEA Board of Governors and UN Security Council on the its findings.

Now Is the Time

Over the past decade, the United States, along with its European partners, as well as Iran, have squandered opportunities to reach a resolution that would have limited Iran's nuclear capabilities.

In the absence of an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear activities and improve safeguards against diversion, Tehran has significantly expanded its enrichment program and other sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle activities.

In 2005, when the United States and its EU-3 partners turned down Iran's offer to limit its enrichment capacity, Iran had less than three hundred uranium enrichment centrifuge machines; today Iran has nearly 10,000 operating centrifuges and has installed a total of nearly 19,000. A more advanced centrifuge design may soon become operational, increasing Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities even further.

Since 2007, the U.S. Intelligence Community has assessed that Iran has already gained a nuclear weapons capability--that is, "Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so."

Senior U.S. intelligence officials continue to assess that leaders in Tehran have not made such a decision and they assess that Iran still more than a year away from being able to produce enough weapons grade uranium and possibly build nuclear weapons.

But in the absence of a negotiated solution, Iran's capabilities to produce material for nuclear weapons will only improve, even if international sanctions are tightened still further.

Now is the time to finally secure a meaningful agreement with Iran to verifiably limit its uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. If the two sides proceed on the basis of realistic and achievable goals, we can secure the transparency necessary to increase confidence that Iran is not actively developing nuclear weapons and finally establish verifiable limitations on uranium enrichment program to ensure that Iran does not develop a more rapid break-out option.

Negotiating a deal to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran will not be easy, but it is the best option on the table.--DARYL G. KIMBALL


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today. Daryl G. Kimball is ACA's executive director.