Assessing the First-Phase Deal to Guard Against a Nuclear-Armed Iran

Volume 4, Issue 15, December 2, 2013

After years of on-and-off negotiations, the latest round of P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) talks with Iran has finally yielded an important breakthrough: a "first-phase" deal to constrain Iran's nuclear potential and to "reach a mutually agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure that Iran's nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful."

The deal will verifiably halt and, in some areas, roll-back advances in Iran's capabilities of greatest proliferation concern and reduce its potential to produce material for nuclear weapons. The agreement, spelled out in a Nov. 24 "Joint Plan of Action," also significantly bolsters the International Atomic Energy Agency's  (IAEA) monitoring capabilities, including daily IAEA inspections at the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities, that will effectively detect and deter any such effort.

In exchange, the P5+1 states will extend limited, reversible relief from certain sanctions now in place, including the repatriation of several billion dollars in frozen Iranian oil revenue, and a pledge not to impose new nuclear-related sanctions for the duration of the agreement if Iran abides by its commitments. Meanwhile, the core of the existing international financial and oil sanctions regime against Iran will remain in place.

Implementation of the first phase agreement will begin by the beginning of 2014 and the agreement will last six months but could be extended by mutual consent of the parties.

The first-phase agreement will provide the time to negotiate a more permanent "final-phase" agreement that could significantly reduce Iran's overall enrichment capacity according to a "mutually defined enrichment programme" with "agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment, activities, capacity ... and stocks of enriched uranium." The final phase deal would likely lead to even more intrusive IAEA inspections to guard against any possible secret nuclear weapons-related activities.

Constraints on Iran's Nuclear Program

Under the terms of the first phase of the agreement, Iran has agreed to several important constraints on its uranium enrichment program, as well as its Arak heavy water reactor project, which could potentially be used to produce plutonium for weapons:

  • halt uranium enrichment to 20% levels, which is above normal power reactor fuel grade (3.5%) and closer to weapons grade (above 90%);
  • neutralize the existing 20% enriched uranium stockpile by oxidizing or diluting the stockpile to lower enrichment levels. Currently Iran has 196 kg of 20% enriched uranium. It takes 250 kg, if further enriched, to produce enough highly enriched weapons-grade uranium for one bomb. Iran must disconnect equipment that could be used to reverse the oxidization process;
  • cap the stockpile of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium (now at 7,153 kg) by oxidizing a portion equivalent to whatever additional amount it produces;
  • freeze Iran's current enrichment capacity by halting the installation and operation of additional centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordow enrichment plants, including more advanced IR-2m centrifuges. Iran has approximately 19,000 IR-1 machines installed of which about 10,000 are operating;
  • freeze any further advances in nuclear-related activities at the uncompleted Arak heavy water reactor, including a halt to the production, testing, or transfer of fuel or heavy water for the reactor or the installation of any reactor components. The reactor, which is still a year or more away from completion, would have to operate for another year to produce spent fuel laden with plutonium. Iran also agreed not to construct a facility capable of separating plutonium from the spent fuel.

In addition, Iran has committed to new transparency measures. Iran will for the first time provide:

  • daily, rather than weekly, IAEA access for inspectors at Natanz and Fordow;
  • IAEA access to centrifuge assembly and production facilities, which will guard against any effort to build a secret enrichment facility;
  • earlier notification and information regarding any new nuclear facilities;
  • updated design information on the Arak reactor and more frequent on-site inspections at Arak; and
  • IAEA access to uranium mines and mills.

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

In exchange for these concrete steps, the P5+1 will, among other measures:

  • release approximately $4.2 of the estimated $50 billion in Iranian assets that are tied up in other countries from oil sales;
  • waive certain sanctions on trade with Iran's auto sector, petro-chemicals, and trade in gold and other precious metals just put into effect last July. This will provide Iran with approximately $1.5 billion in revenue, according the Obama administration.

Over the six month span of the agreement, Iran would remain under severe international sanctions and additional Iranian financial assets--perhaps as much as $15-$20 billion worth--would go into restricted overseas accounts as result of ongoing oil and financial sanctions. This provides the P5+1 with substantial leverage to persuade Iran to agree to further constraints on its nuclear program.

A Net Plus for Nonproliferation

According to the U.S. intelligence community Iran has had, at least since 2007, the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it were to choose to do so. But it would take Tehran "over a year" to build one.

The goal of U.S. and international policy must be to increase the time and the barriers required for Iran to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and build nuclear weapons, to increase the ability to promptly detect and effectively respond to a breakout, and to decrease Iran's incentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the future.

The first phase agreement accomplishes all of these things. It effectively caps the progress of Iran's nuclear program in all key areas and rolls-back Iran's theoretical nuclear weapons breakout capability.

By halting enrichment to 20 percent, neutralizing the existing 20% enriched uranium stockpile, and freezing the number of centrifuges available for enrichment, the first phase agreement will add at least a month to the time that it would theoretically take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. Without the first phase agreement in place, Iran could reduce this time to as little as 2 weeks by early 2014, which could potentially allow it to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb before inspectors could detect such an effort.

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[1] Estimated times are based on calculations described in "Iranian Breakout Estimates, Updated September 2013," by Patrick Migliorini, David Albright, Houston Wood and Christina Walrond, published by the Institute for Science and International Security, October 24, 2013. Centrifuge and stockpile numbers are based on the most recent IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program from Nov. 14. It is important to note that these are theoretical estimates that do not take into account the fact that IAEA inspectors and national intelligence agencies would very likely detect any effort to start enriching uranium above 20% well under a month with current IAEA monitoring tools and within a week or less with additional first-phase transparency measures in place.

Toward A "Final Phase" Agreement

This first phase deal opens the way for negotiations on a comprehensive, final phase agreement that rolls back Iran's overall enrichment capacity even further, blocks the plutonium path to the bomb, resolves outstanding questions about the purpose of Iran's program, and comprehensively removes nuclear-related sanctions.

The extent to which Iran is willing to reduce the capacity and the scope of its uranium enrichment program is key. The agreement reached in Geneva on Nov. 24 states that the program should be "consistent with practical needs." In other words, 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 but could grow in the coming years.

Iran will insist on retaining some uranium enrichment capacity, which it believes it has a right to pursue as a member of the NPT, which refers to the "inalienable right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy...."

The United States and the other P5+1 states do not believe that states have a "right" to uranium enrichment, which can be used to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium, especially if they may have engaged in nuclear weapons-related research. But they recognize the fact that Iran already has a uranium enrichment program.

Thus, the two sides did not agree on the nature of Iran's nuclear energy rights, but they did agree to negotiate practical limits and additional safeguards on ongoing Iranian enrichment activities, in order to reduce Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities.

Given Iran's limited need for enriched uranium fuel for energy production, a reduction in Iran's overall enrichment capacity--from 10,000 operating centrifuges at two sites to 3,000 or fewer at one site--would be more than sufficient for Iran's potential needs and, with limits on Iran's enriched uranium stockpile, would increase the time necessary to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb to 6 months or more.

The P5+1 states would also like Iran to abandon the unfinished Arak reactor, which represents a long-term proliferation threat, but Iran will likely resist such an outcome. One compromise that would effectively neutralize Arak as a long-term threat would be agree to convert Arak to a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor or to verifiably remove the spent fuel for disposition by a third country--possibly Russia--to prevent it from becoming a source of plutonium for Iran.

The P5+1 also will seek to persuade Iran to allow even more extensive IAEA inspection authority to guard against a secret weapons program under the terms of the Additional Protocol to its existing safeguards agreement. These inspections allow the IAEA to access non-declared sites without prior notification, which is a strong deterrent against any clandestine nuclear weapons work.

To resolve longstanding questions about suspected weapons-related experiments that may have been conducted in secret in past years, Iran will also need to fully cooperate with the IAEA. On Nov. 11, the IAEA and Iran agreed to a new approach to the long-stalled investigation about these experiments, including possible high-explosive testing for warhead designs, and whether they have been terminated.

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, which will require action by the European Union states and Congressional approval of revised sanctions legislation.

Negotiating an agreement along these lines will be difficult. Implementing these steps will be even harder.

Would More Sanctions Secure a Better Deal?

Some Members of Congress claim that further U.S.-mandated sanctions would improve the United States negotiating position in the next round of talks and are arguing for new sanctions legislation now that could be implemented in six months if a final phase agreement is not reached.

Such a strategy is illogical and counterproductive. The existing, core sanctions regime provides more than sufficient leverage on Iran to take further concrete measures to restrain its nuclear potential and improve transparency measure necessary to guard against a secret nuclear weapons effort in the future. If Iran violates the terms of the first phase deal or if a final phase agreement is not concluded in six months, the president can reverse the limited sanctions relief of the first phase agreement and Congress could consider additional sanctions, if necessary.

But additional sanctions, if pursued now, would be seen by Iran, as well as the United States' international partners, as an act of bad faith and an outright violation of the first-phase agreement, which specifically calls for no new U.S., EU, or UN-imposed nuclear-related sanctions against Iran while the deal is in effect.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told NBC News on Nov. 23 that "If there are new sanctions, then there is no deal. It's very clear. End of the deal."

This would of course also wreck the opportunity for a final phase deal that rolls back Iran's nuclear program and would give Iran the pretext to resume work to advance its nuclear program.

Nevertheless some critics of the P5+1/Iran agreement, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, may continue to argue that additional sanctions are necessary to force Iran to capitulate and agree to the permanent suspension of all uranium enrichment and the dismantlement of the Natanz, Fordow, and Arak facilities.

Such an outcome may have been conceivable in 2005-2006 when Iran agreed to suspend enrichment work and had less than 300 centrifuges. But today, demands that Iran permanently halt uranium enrichment are unrealistic and unattainable. A deal that bars Iran from enriching uranium for peaceful purposes would be unsustainable politically inside Iran-and such an outcome is not necessary to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran.

Some other critics claim the first-phase agreement does not fulfill the UN Security Council's earlier demands for Iran to "suspend" uranium enrichment. In reality, the purpose of the demand for suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran under existing U.N. Security Council resolutions is to prevent Iran from accumulating more LEU until it restores confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program--not to permanently cease all uranium enrichment activities. The Nov. 24 agreement effectively accomplishes that goal by capping the total amount of 3.5% material and it goes further by requiring Iran to neutralize its 20% stockpiles and to cease all enrichment to 20% levels while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.

To guard against a nuclear-armed Iran and avoid a confrontation over its nuclear program, the two sides should promptly implement the first-phase agreement and expeditiously negotiate a long term final-phase agreement on the basis of realistic and achievable goals.--DARYL G. KIMBALL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR