A Realistic, Meaningful First Phase Nuclear Deal With Iran

Volume 4, Issue 13, November 19, 2013

After three days of intense, talks in Geneva Nov. 7-9, the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) and Iran came close to a breakthrough, "first phase" deal that would verifiably halt the progress of Iran's nuclear program, and at the same time increase International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring capabilities on its nuclear projects in exchange for limited, reversible sanction relief.

The negotiations will resume Nov. 20 in Geneva and could last through Nov. 22.

The key elements of the "first phase" agreement would clearly address the most immediate issues of proliferation concern, significantly increase the time it would take Iran to produce fissile material for weapons, and provide time to negotiate a more permanent agreement that might lead to a significant reduction of Iran's overall enrichment capacity and even more intrusive IAEA inspections to guard against any possible secret nuclear weapons-related activities.

Key elements likely include:

  • halting Iranian uranium enrichment to 20% levels, which is above normal power reactor fuel grade and closer to weapons grade (90%);
  • converting existing 20% material to oxide and/or downblending the stockpile to lower enrichment levels;
  • freezing the introduction or operation of additional centrifuges (approx. 10,000 IR-1 machines are operating; 19,000 are installed), including a freeze on the installation of more advanced IR2-M machines;
  • reducing the proliferation potential of the Arak heavy water reactor, possibly including a freeze on the manufacture of fuel assemblies, or an agreement on the disposition of its spent fuel outside of Iran, or converting the reactor to a more proliferation resistant light-water reactor;
  • unspecified additional transparency measures, possibly implementation (but not ratification) of the additional protocol and/or an agreement to allow the IAEA to maintain a near-constant presence at key nuclear facilities.

Taken together, these measures would put into effect even tougher limits on Iran's nuclear activities than the P5+1 proposal for Iranian actions put forward at the February and April 2013 talks in Almaty.

In exchange for these concrete steps, the P5+1 may be considering:

  • releasing approximately several billion of the estimated $50 billion in Iranian assets tied up in other countries from oil sales;
  • waiving certain sanctions on trade with Iran in petro-chemicals, trade in gold and other precious metals just put into effect last July;
  • waiving the designation of Iran's auto industry and access to aircraft parts as areas of "proliferation concern;" and
  • providing medical isotopes or fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which uses 20% enriched uranium fuel to produce medical isotopes.

This "phase one" agreement would last approximately six-months, during which time, Iran would remain under severe international sanctions and additional Iranian financial assets--perhaps as much as $15-$20 billion worth--would become frozen. The phase one agreement could be extended by mutual consent of the parties.

Toward A "Final Phase" Agreement

Most importantly, a "first phase" deal would open the way for negotiations on a more comprehensive, more permanent agreement that rolls back Iran's overall enrichment capacity-ideally to no more than 3,000-4,000 centrifuges-and provides more extensive IAEA inspection authority to guard against a secret weapons program.

In principle, Iran's enrichment capacity and stockpile of material should not exceed the fuel supply needs of its nuclear power reactor program, which for now are close to zero.

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.

To secure a "final phase" agreement, the P5+1 will need to further scale-back the oil and financial sanctions that are devastating Iran's economy and will need to recognize Iran's right under the Article IV of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue peaceful nuclear activities under certain conditions.

As Obama said in his Sept. 24 address to the United Nations: "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."

Article IV of the NPT guarantees the "the inalienable right ... to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II ...."  Many countries including Iran interpret this to include uranium enrichment to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors and research reactors that produce medical isotopes.

Article II requires each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty ... not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons ...." Article III of the NPT requires that each non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the NPT accepts safeguards agreements with the IAEA to ensure that all nuclear activities are for exclusively peaceful purposes.

To move forward on this issue, it has been reported by The New York Times and others that in the "first phase" agreement, each side might affirm that Iran would be entitled to all of the rights of states parties to the NPT.  The P5+1 and Iran would then agree to disagree on how to interpret those NPT rights.

To resolve concerns about the purpose of Iran's nuclear program, President Hassan Rouhani must continue to follow through on his pledge for "greater transparency" by implementing the additional protocol and fully cooperating with the IAEA to resolve questions about suspected weapons-related experiments that may have been conducted in years past.

On Nov. 11, IAEA Director-General Amano met with top Iranian officials in Tehran and signed a new framework for cooperation for initial actions to address some of these issues over the next 3 months.

Closing the Deal

With talks resuming on November 20 in Geneva, it is vital to maintain the momentum to work toward a "first phase" agreement that addresses the most urgent proliferation concerns.

Policymakers in Washington and leaders in Israel who genuinely want to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran should be careful not to insist on unrealistic demands, such as zero enrichment or the complete dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program.

Such a deal may have been possible in 2005 when Iran had fewer than 300 uranium centrifuges enriching uranium at one site; but it is not realistic now that Iran has 19,000 installed and 10,000 operating centrifuges at two sites.

Pushing for everything and getting nothing is foolhardy and dangerous.

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."

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

Since President Rouhani's inauguration, Iran has halted key elements of its nuclear program, according to the latest quarterly report of the IAEA.

But in the absence of a meaningful, realistic deal to limit Iran's nuclear program, Iran will likely continue to increase its capacity to enrich uranium and expand its other sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle projects. That, in turn, will increase the risk of Israeli military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites. Such an attack would only delay, not stop, Iran's nuclear pursuits, would lead to a wider Middle East war, and likely push Iran's leaders to openly seek the bomb.

In the absence of a negotiated "first phase" agreement to pause Iran's nuclear program, some U.S. legislators may seek further sanctions against Iran, but such sanctions would take many months to have an effect, they could strain international support for implementing the existing sanction regime, and such efforts would not halt or eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons potential.

Now is the time to finally secure a meaningful first phase agreement and quickly move to negotiate a longer-term final phase agreement on the basis of realistic and achievable goals.--DARYL G. KIMBALL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR



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.