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Understanding the Extension of the Iran Nuclear Talks and the Joint Plan of Action
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Volume 6, Issue 12, December 23, 2014

The decision last month by the United States, its P5+1 negotiating partners, and Iran to extend their negotiations by additional four months means that a long-term resolution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program has been delayed once again. At the same time, it also means that significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program remain in place while the nuclear talks continue.

Not only did the two sides agree to extend the restrictions on Iran’s program that were put in place under the November 2013 interim agreement, formally known as the Joint Plan of Action, but additional restrictions were put in place under the terms of the extension to ensure that progress on the most proliferation-sensitive elements of Iran’s nuclear program is halted.

To date, both Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russian, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have adhered to the obligations of the interim agreement. In the press conference announcing the extension of the talks and the Joint Plan of Action on November 24, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called attention to the compliance record, noting that there have been no violations of the agreement.

Terms of the Extension

Under the terms of the extension, Iran and the P5+1 committed to reaching a political agreement on the terms of a comprehensive nuclear deal within four months of November 24, 2014 and then taking an additional three months to complete any technical annexes by June 30, 2015.

However, several of the parties expressed an intention to complete the negotiations on a political agreement in a shorter time frame. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters on November 24 that a deal could be reached in a matter a days. British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said that two to three months was a realistic goal. Regardless of the timing, the restrictions of the interim agreement will remain in place through June 2015.

In total, under the terms of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, Iran has stopped enriching uranium to 20 percent, a key proliferation concern to the P5+1 because 20 percent enriched material is more easily enriched to weapons-grade material (greater than 90 percent U-235). Leading up to the interim deal, Iran had nearly amassed enough 20 percent enriched uranium gas, which when further enriched to weapons grade, is enough for one bomb (about 250 kilograms).

Over the past twelve months, Iran also took steps to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium gas. Half of its stockpile was blended down to less than five percent enriched uranium gas, and the other half was converted to more proliferation-resistant uranium powder, which is used to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Iran also halted major construction activities at the Arak reactor, froze the number of its operating and installed centrifuges, and agreed to more intrusive inspections, including daily access to its enrichment facilities.  Iran also agreed only to produce centrifuges necessary to replace damaged machines.

The extension announced November 24 imposes additional obligations on Iran. Under the new restrictions, Iran will continue to convert its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium powder into fuel plates. At the time of the Nov. 24 extension, Iran had approximately 75 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium powder in its stockpile. Tehran agreed to convert 35 kilograms of this powder into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor over the next seven months.[1]

While this material can be converted back into gas form for further enrichment, the conversion steps would take additional time and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would very likely detect any such efforts quickly. Iran also committed not to set up a line to reconvert uranium oxide powder back into gas. The IAEA notes in its reports on Iran’s nuclear program that no such conversion line exists.

Iran and the P5+1 also agreed to more specific restrictions on Iran’s research and development program to resolve ambiguities and prevent Iran from moving its advanced centrifuges to new levels of testing.

Under the interim agreement, Iran can continue its safeguarded research and development activities.  This includes testing of advanced centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, so long as testing is not used for the accumulation of enriched uranium.

The additional restrictions on research and development as a result of the Nov. 24 extension, are designed to resolve ambiguities[2] regarding permitted and prohibited research activities. According to the documents outlining the extension, these provisions are designed to “limit research and development on advanced centrifuges that move the machines to the next level of development.”

Under these provisions, Iran agreed not to test the IR-5 with uranium hexafluoride gas. Iran also agreed not to pursue testing of the IR-6 on a cascade level with uranium gas, or semi-industrial scale testing of the IR-2M. Iran also agreed not to complete installation of the IR-8 centrifuge, which is currently partially installed at the Natanz pilot plant.

The IAEA will also have greater access to Iran’s centrifuge production sites under the extension. According to the terms, the agency’s inspections visits will double and be conducted with very little notice.

Taken together, the limits on research and development and regular access to monitor centrifuge production facilities will prevent Iran from refining and mass-producing more efficient machines that could allow it to move more quickly to enrich material for weapons purposes.

Iran also agreed to forgo uranium enrichment using other methods, including laser enrichment. While it is unlikely that Iran could move quickly to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels using these alternative methods, the commitment to refrain from testing any of these methods is positive and should mitigate concerns about covert enrichment activities involving such technologies.

Iran is known to have experimented with laser enrichment in the past, and as part of its agreement to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation into inconsistencies with its nuclear declaration and alleged activities with past military dimensions, Iran provided the agency with information about its laser enrichment activities. Iran also granted the IAEA access to the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Centre on March 12 as part of its investigation.

On the P5+1 side, the limited sanctions relief from the United States and the European Union in the petrochemical and precious metals trade remains in place. As does the commitment not to pass any new nuclear-related sanctions at the U.S., EU, or UN levels. The humanitarian channel also remains in place.

In addition, Iran will receive access to $700 million of its frozen assets per month.


With the Joint Plan of Action in effect, Iran’s nuclear program remains limited and highly-monitored. The additional measures in the extension move Iran further away from a dash to the bomb. And contrary to the assertion of some skeptics, Iran cannot use the extension to advance its nuclear capabilities.

President Barack Obama said on December 21 in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" that since the United States began negotiations with Iran in mid-2013, it’s "probably the first year and a half in which Iran has not advanced its nuclear program in the last decade."  

Both sides must use the additional time afforded by the extension of the talks wisely. It is essential that the two sides work expeditiously but carefully to bridge remaining gaps necessary to conclude an effective, verifiable, long-term agreement that blocks all of Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons: the plutonium route, the enriched uranium route, as well as the clandestine route. –KELSEY DAVENPORT and DARYL G. KIMBALL


[1] As pointed out by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in a Dec. 9, 2014 paper, some of the material fed into the conversion process remains within the process or in scrap or waste form. Some of this material can be recovered and converted back into gas for further enrichment. We agree that the waste and scrap are an issue of nonproliferation concern that should be dealt with appropriately in the comprehensive agreement now under negotiation. However, in judging Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, it is our judgment, and that of the IAEA, that Iran is in compliance with the commitments as set forth in the interim agreement.

[2] The IAEA’s quarterly report of Nov. 7, 2014, noted that Iran began feeding natural uranium hexafluoride “intermittently” into a single IR-5 centrifuge at its pilot facility. While unhelpful, this does not appear to be a “violation” of the Joint Plan of Action, as the ISIS has alleged. ISIS published an analysis on the IAEA report that said that “Iran may have violated” the Joint Plan of Action by starting to feed natural uranium gas into the IR-5 centrifuge. ISIS went on to claim that: "Under the interim deal, this centrifuge should not have been fed with (gas) as reported in this safeguards report." See: “U.S. experts disagree on whether Iran violated nuclear deal with powers,” by Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, Nov. 8, 2014. 

            However, the text of the Joint Plan of Action is more ambiguous than ISIS suggests. It says: "Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium." The Nov. 7 IAEA report noted, in paragraphs 25 and 26, that no low-enriched uranium was withdrawn as the product and tails were recombined at the end of the process.

            Furthermore, while the Joint Plan of Action prohibits the introduction of uranium gas into additional centrifuges at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), it does not rule out research and development of this kind at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP).

            However, due to the ambiguous nature of the terms of the Joint Plan of Action and the concern that Iran might try to exploit those ambiguities, the P5+1 succeeded in persuading Iran to agree to further limits on feeding or testing its more advanced types of centrifuges as part of the extended Joint Plan of Action.

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