Iran Nuclear Deal 101: How A Comprehensive Agreement Can Block Weapons Pathways

Volume 6, Issue 10, October 30, 2014

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) and Iran are working hard to build upon their successful Nov. 2013 interim nuclear agreement, which has halted, and in some areas, rolled back Iran's nuclear program.

With just a few weeks to go before their Nov. 24 target date, the two sides may conclude a long-term, verifiable, comprehensive agreement that would

  • block Iran’s potential uranium and plutonium paths to nuclear weapons;
  • increase the international community’s ability to promptly detect and disrupt any future effort by Iran to build nuclear weapons (including at potential undeclared sites); and
  • decrease Iran’s incentives to enhance its nuclear capacity through nuclear fuel-supply guarantees and phased sanctions relief.

The following is a brief review of the key issues the comprehensive agreement will have to address, effective options for achieving U.S. goals in each area, and a brief discussion of some of the misconceptions that critics and skeptics of a negotiated solution have put forward. 

Any agreement that is struck between the P5+1 and Iran should not be evaluated on the basis of how it addresses any single feature. Instead, it should be judged on its overall impact on reducing Iran’s nuclear capacity and improving existing capabilities to detect and deter any ongoing or future Iranian weapons program. 

Furthermore, any such comprehensive agreement must be compared to realistic alternatives, including the absence of a comprehensive agreement, rather than theoretical notions or vague hopes of a "better" deal negotiated at some future point in time.

Blocking the Uranium Path

The two sides can and should reach agreement on a formula that establishes verifiable, long-term, sustainable limits on Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity that block Iran from quickly amassing fissile material for weapons.

As part of the 2013 interim nuclear agreement, the two sides agreed to reduce Iran's enriched uranium stocks and temporarily halt further expansion of centrifuge capacity, which now stands at about 19,000 centrifuges, of which 10,200 are operating, first generation centrifuges.

The two sides have agreed that a comprehensive agreement should define a “mutually defined enrichment programme” with “agreed limits on the scope and level of enrichment, activities, capacity…and stocks of uranium” that should be “consistent with practical needs.” 

Iran’s nuclear fuel supply needs currently are very limited, but could grow in the coming years. Its current enrichment capacity exceeds its near-term needs and provides the technical capacity to produce a quantity of weapons-grade uranium gas sufficient for one nuclear bomb (25 kilograms) in about two to three months if such an effort were not detected and slowed or halted.

Consequently, the P5+1 is pressing Iran to significantly reduce its enrichment capacity for a period of several years in order to increase the time Iran would theoretically require to produce enough weapons-grade material for weapons. 

Some, including AIPAC and some members of Congress, erroneously suggest that the only way to block Iran's uranium path to nuclear weapons would be to somehow persuade Iran's leaders to "dismantle its centrifuge infrastructure." (See AIPAC's six questions on "Negotiating A Final Deal with Iran," October 23.) Such an outcome was sought and failed a decade ago when Iran agreed to temporarily suspend all enrichment work and had about 300 operating centrifuges. 

Today, such demands are even more unrealistic and unnecessary to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran. If the P5+1 or members of Congress tried to hold out for dismantlement of Iran's uranium-enrichment facilities, Iran would not agree, negotiations would break down, and Iran would resume efforts to increase its uranium-enrichment capacity.

Even if facilities were to be dismantled, the Iranians would still have the technical know-how and ability to eventually develop and build a nuclear weapon, if they chose to do so.

A P5+1 and Iran comprehensive nuclear agreement will very likely bar Iran from enriching uranium above normal power reactor grade (five percent or less of fissionable uranium-235) and require Iran to transform the underground Fordow enrichment plant from a production-scale facility to a research-only site. The agreement can and should put in place verifiable restrictions that block Iran from manufacturing advanced centrifuges for production-scale enrichment for the duration of the comprehensive agreement.

To reduce Iran's capacity to quickly amass highly-enriched uranium, the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners are also pressing Iran to cut the number of operating centrifuges for several years, to reduce the amount and form of low-enriched uranium stockpiled in Iran, and to disable machines that are installed but not yet operating. 

For example, by reducing Iran’s current enrichment capacity by half, combined with a significant reduction in the size of Iran’s low enriched-uranium stocks and conversion to more proliferation-resistant oxide form (or removal to a third country), would increase the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade enriched-uranium gas for one nuclear weapon to nine to 12 months or more. With enhanced international monitoring capabilities, that is more than enough time to detect and disrupt any effort to pursue nuclear weapons in the future.

Blocking the Plutonium Path

A comprehensive agreement will need to address the risks posed by Iran's unfinished 40-MWt, heavy-water reactor project at Arak. Under the current design configuration, the reactor could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium per year for about two nuclear weapons. 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.

Shutting down the Arak reactor or converting it to a light-water reactor is not the only way to guard against its possible use for fissile material production, as AIPAC's recent point paper implies. 

Iran and the P5+1 agree in principle that as part of a comprehensive agreement, the design of Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor project can and should be modified--by reducing the power level and/or changing the fuel content and configuration--to drastically cut its annual weapons-grade plutonium output far below what is required for a nuclear weapon. They also agree that Iran shall not build a reprocessing facility that would be needed to separate that material from spent reactor fuel. 

More Robust Inspections and Monitoring

Iran's major nuclear sites are already frequently monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and very closed watched by U.S. intelligence. However, U.S. intelligence officials have testified since 2007 that if Iran were to make the decision to build a nuclear weapon, it would probably “use covert facilities—rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.”

Blocking the clandestine path to a bomb--also known as "sneakout"--is a top goal for the P5+1. Iran has already agreed to more intrusive IAEA scrutiny of its nuclear sites as part of last year’s interim nuclear agreement.

But to guard against “sneakout,” it is essential that a more robust international monitoring and inspection system that can help detect and deter potential weapons work at any secret sites is put in place. The only way to achieve this is through a long-term comprehensive nuclear deal.

To achieve the transparency necessary to promptly detect and disrupt any effort to pursue nuclear weapons in the future, even through a potential clandestine program, the Iran and the P5+1 agree that a comprehensive deal will, among other things, require implementation and ratification of the Additional Protocol to the IAEA’s safeguards agreement.

This would allow the U.N. nuclear watchdog the authority to inspect, on very short notice, any site that it suspects is being used for nuclear weapons work, whether or not it had been declared as part of Iran’s nuclear program. Once ratified, these arrangements would last in perpetuity.

Possible Military Dimensions

It is vital that Iran continue to cooperate with the ongoing IAEA investigation of past activities with "possible military dimensions," and to do so 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 assess them 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.

Both sides understand that the ongoing IAEA investigation of past Iranian activities with possible military dimensions will continue after a comprehensive nuclear agreement is reached. At the same time, it is clear that key sanctions relief measures, including UN Security Council measures tied to the issue, will not be removed until, and unless, the investigation is resolved. As a result, it is more likely that Iran will more fully cooperate with the IAEA investigation if there is a comprehensive nuclear agreement with the P5+1 than if there is no such agreement.

Some members of Congress, along with AIPAC, suggest that without a "full" explanation of Iran's past weaponization efforts, "it is impossible to fully understand its nuclear capability."

Iran’s nuclear capability is well understood, though clearly, the more the IAEA understands about Iran's past work the better. Given Iran’s history, it should be assumed that Iran's scientists have already acquired information that is important for building nuclear weapons.

An admission from Iran that its scientists once engaged in work intended to help build nuclear weapons will not erase that knowledge. It is also naive to think that Iran's leaders, some of whom have issued religious decrees against the development, production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons, will make such an admission.

The chief goal for the P5+1 is to structure a comprehensive agreement in such a way that it ensures that the IAEA obtains sufficient information to determine that Iran has halted any nuclear activities with possible military dimensions.

The Role of Sanctions

U.S. and international sanctions have helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table and changed Iran's cost-benefit calculus, but sanctions alone have not stopped and cannot stop Iran's nuclear progress. Further sanctions have little chance of extracting further concessions from Iran in the future and would likely prompt Iran to take escalatory steps.

To enhance Iran’s incentive to meet its nonproliferation obligations under the comprehensive agreement, the two sides agree that as part of a comprehensive nuclear agreement, the P5+1 will phase out and later lift nuclear-related sanctions as Iran meets its nonproliferation obligations, and the IAEA investigation of Iran's nuclear program is concluded. If Iran does not meet its obligations, key sanctions measures could be swiftly re-imposed by the president and by the UN Security Council.

The Duration of Key Elements of the Agreement

It is important to understand that any comprehensive nuclear agreement will be a multi-stage, multi-year agreement that specifies action-for-action steps by the P5+1 and Iran. Some restrictions may last for years, some measures will last decades, and some, like inspection measures under the terms of the IAEA's additional protocol, will be permanent. Overall, the agreement will likely last more than a decade, with certain Iranian commitments lasting well beyond its formal end date.

A few senators, including Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), have suggested that a comprehensive nuclear agreement and special inspections must last 20 years. Such requirements are not based on any scientific or technical assessment of what is adequate to block Iran's nuclear ambitions or to resolve the IAEA's questions about the history of Iran's nuclear program.

Furthermore, the longer the agreement the United States and its allies seek, the more difficult it will be for P5+1 negotiators to set tougher, more enforceable limits on Iran's nuclear capabilities, since Iran will resist long-term restrictions that close off its option to pursue legitimate, peaceful nuclear activities in the future.

Evaluating the Alternatives

Some may claim that a comprehensive agreement along these lines falls short of their expectations for limiting Iran’s nuclear potential in one area or another. Any agreement that is struck between the P5+1 and Iran should not be evaluated on the basis of any single feature. Instead, it should be judged on its overall impact on reducing Iran’s nuclear capacity and improving capabilities to detect any ongoing or future Iranian weapons program.

Some skeptics may claim that, with additional, tougher sanctions, Iran's leaders could be coerced to limit its nuclear program even further. Such thinking is naïve and dangerous. 

Although the nuclear talks may be extended beyond the Nov. 24 target date to resolve remaining issues, efforts to coerce Iranian leaders to make further concessions--including the possible imposition of new sanctions measures--will likely provoke Iran to take escalatory measures, worsen the chances for an effective diplomatic resolution, and lead to yet another Middle East crisis.

In the final analysis, serious policymakers in Washington and other capitals must consider whether their country is better off with an effective comprehensive nuclear agreement--or the continued pursuit of an effective deal--than without one. They must consider the results of failing to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement:

  • There would be no constraints on Iran’s enrichment capacity. Iran could resume enriching uranium to higher levels and increase its stockpiles of enriched uranium. The time required for Iran to produce enough material for nuclear weapons would decrease.
  • Inspections of Iranian facilities would likely continue, but would not be expanded to cover undeclared sites and activities, which would be the most likely pathway to build nuclear weapons if Iran chose to do so.
  • Sanctions would remain in effect, and some might be strengthened. Sanctions alone, however, cannot halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Eventually, the willingness of international allies to help implement those sanctions could erode.

Although Iran would still have to overcome significant hurdles to try to build nuclear weapons, such an effort would likely increase the possibility over time of a military confrontation. Yet, even Israeli leaders know that military strikes are not a solution. Such an attack would only delay, not destroy, Iran’s nuclear program and, at worst, would lead to a wider conflict that could push Iran to openly pursue nuclear weapons. Israel would be far less secure.

Some say, “no deal is better than a bad deal.”  But it is clear that a good deal is better than no deal, and such a deal is within reach.

Those who seek to block an effective agreement have a responsibility to present a viable alternative or take responsibility for its rejection.--Daryl G. Kimball