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Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Separating Myth from Reality
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Volume 7, Issue 2, January 23, 2015 

As the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) move closer to a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, myths and misperceptions about Iran's nuclear program, its intentions, and U.S. policy goals in the negotiations cloud discussion of this important international security priority.  

An effective, verifiable comprehensive nuclear agreement is in the best interest of the U.S. national security and the stability of the Middle East. Such an important issue deserves discussion and debate based on facts, not myths.  

This issue brief seeks to dispel some of the most commonly held and articulated misconceptions about Iran's nuclear activities and the negotiations.

Iran's Nuclear Program

MYTH: Iran is pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program.

REALITY: According to evidence collected by and shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program, but abandoned it in 2003. These activities are referred to as the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program and are actively being investigated by the IAEA. This corresponds with the assessment from the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, which also stated with moderate confidence that Iran had not restarted its nuclear program. In the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also said that Iran also would not be able to divert safeguarded nuclear material and enrich enough to weapons grade for a bomb without discovery. 

According to a 2011 IAEA report, activities that could be relevant to nuclear weapons development may have continued after 2003, but not as part of an organized program.

MYTH: Iran is developing long-range ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.  

REALITY: The U.S. intelligence community assess that Iran may be technically capable of developing an ICBM with sufficient foreign assistance, not that they are doing so. To date, Iran has never tested any long-range rockets. Iran's longest-range missiles (2,000 kilometers) are medium-range ballistic missiles, not intercontinental-range missiles, as some have suggested. Iran would need an ICBM with a range of over 9,000 kilometers to reach the United States. Experts assess that even if Iran makes a concerted effort, deploying such a missile within the decade is unlikely. Additionally, if a comprehensive nuclear deal blocks Iran's potential pathways to a bomb, its ballistic missiles become less of a threat, because they cannot be armed with a nuclear weapon. 

MYTH: UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to permanently halt enrichment, dismantle its enrichment facilities, and dismantle the heavy water reactor at Arak.

REALITY: Since July 2006, the Security Council has passed six resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and work on the heavy-water reactor at Arak. None of the six resolutions passed by the UN Security Council called for Iran to dismantle its enrichment facilities or permanently halt enrichment.  The call for suspension was intended to push Iran to comply with the IAEA investigation into concerns about past activities possibly related to nuclear weapons development, and to promote a diplomatic resolution to the concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

During debate on the most recent resolution in June 2010, British Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of the P5+1, said the resolution was intended to keep "the door open for continued engagement" with Iran over its nuclear program. He said that the purpose of such diplomatic efforts must be to achieve a comprehensive, long-term settlement, that respects Iran's legitimate right to the peaceful use of atomic energy. The Security Council resolutions were never intended to eliminate an Iranian civil nuclear program in the future that complies with the conditions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

MYTH: Iran is just using the negotiations to buy more time to advance its nuclear program and nuclear weapons-related capabilities.  

REALITY: This argument may have been valid before the November 2013 interim agreement, but not now. The interim agreement has pushed Iran further away from a nuclear weapons capability by halting Iran's progress on nuclear projects of greatest proliferation concern-thus buying time to negotiate a comprehensive, long-term agreement to block Iran's potential pathways to the bomb.

Furthermore, according to April 2013 testimony from James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, Iran could not divert nuclear material and enrich enough weapons grade material for a bomb without being detected. The additional monitoring and verification measures put in place under the November 2013 interim agreement, including daily access to Iran's uranium-enrichment sites and caps on stockpiles of enriched-uranium gas, bars uranium enrichment beyond 5% uranium-235 (weapons-grade is 90%) and the introduction of additional uranium centrifuge machines, all of which provide additional assurances that Iran is not pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program.

MYTH: Iran needs a large-scale uranium-enrichment program to provide for its nuclear energy needs.

REALITY: Iran's current, practical needs for enriched uranium are very limited and will remain so over the next several years. There is no practical reason for Iran not to be able to reduce its uranium-enrichment capacity in the near-term in order to build confidence it is not seeking an option to build nuclear weapons.

Iran is currently operating about 10,200 first-generation IR-1 operating centrifuges, which exceeds its current needs. Iran also has approximately 9,000 more centrifuges that are installed but are not yet operating, including some 1,000 more advanced IR2-M machines.

However, Iran says it cannot afford to reduce that number because it wants to increase its enrichment capacity significantly by the 2020s. Iran points to its hopes for building new nuclear power reactors and says it wants to be able to eventually produce fuel for its one operating light-water reactor at Bushehr, which would require the equivalent of over 100,000 IR-1 machines.

Currently, Bushehr uses fuel provided by Russia under a 10-year deal that could be extended past its 2021 end date. In fact, Russia is obliged to supply fuel unless Iran chooses not to renew the contract--which would be a foolish move given the fact that Iran does not currently have the technical capacity to fabricate fuel for the reactor. A new deal with Russia for two additional reactors at the Bushehr site will be fueled by Russia for their duration, thus not requiring domestically produced Iranian fuel.

Impact of the Joint Plan of Action

MYTH: The interim agreement, or Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), has not stopped advances in Iran's nuclear program.

REALITY: Implementation of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action has halted the expansion of Iran's nuclear program and rolled back the most proliferation sensitive elements.  

In total, under the 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).  

Over the past twelve months, Iran also took steps to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched-uranium gas. Iran also halted major construction activities on its Arak heavy-water reactor project, 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.

MYTH: Iran has violated the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action by operating an advanced centrifuge, the IR-5.

REALITY: 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 for the first time. While unhelpful, this does not appear to be a violation of the Joint Plan of Action, which prohibits the use of advanced centrifuges to accumulate enriched uranium. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Nov. 24, 2014 that both Iran and the P5+1 have upheld their commitments under the interim deal. However, to dispel any ambiguities, in the extension agreed to on Nov. 24 , 2014, Iran agreed not to feed the IR-5 at this time.  

MYTH: Allowing Iran an enrichment program recognizes a "right to enrich" under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the United States has long opposed.  

REALITY: While the NPT clearly affords non-nuclear weapons states access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes in return for pledging not to pursue nuclear weapons and having IAEA safeguards in place, it does not specifically afford or deny enrichment and reprocessing rights to member states. Iran interprets the treaty to include a "right to enrich" and has insisted that its right to enrichment be "respected" under a nuclear agreement.

The U.S. policy does not recognizes a "right to enrich" under the NPT. In the interim agreement, the United States and its P5+1 partners acknowledged that Iran has an enrichment program and will retain a limited enrichment program in a comprehensive deal commensurate with its "practical needs."  

Acknowledging that a program exists is not the same as acknowledging that a treaty affords a "right." The United States has done the former, not the latter. And, after reaching the agreement last November, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that U.S. policy remains unchanged by the agreement. In an interview with ABC he adamantly said, "there is no inherent right to enrich."


MYTH: New sanctions that go into effect after the negotiation deadline are not a violation of the interim deal.

REALITY: Even if new sanctions do not go into effect until after the June 30, 2015 deadline for negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, they would still violate the November 2013 interim deal. In that agreement, the United States committed not to initiate any new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran during the talks.  

In a January 16, 2015 press conference, President Barack Obama asked Congress to hold off on new sanctions, saying that they would "jeopardize the possibility" of a nuclear deal. Iran made clear last year that it would interpret such a move as a violation of the Joint Plan of Action.  

Additionally, new sanctions risk fracturing the international coalition supporting sanctions, which is instrumental to maintaining pressure on Iran. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power noted on January 12, 2015, that "if we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now, we will go from isolating Iran to potentially isolating ourselves.

MYTH: Additional sanctions will pressure Iran into dismantling its nuclear program.

REALITY: The international sanctions regime helped push Iran toward the negotiating table. Increasing sanctions at this time, however, violates the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action and risks pushing Iran toward escalatory measures and away from the negotiating table. Moving forward on any sanctions bill will give the hardliners in Iran considerable ammunition to assert that the United States is not following through on its commitments in the Joint Plan of Action and will not negotiate a comprehensive agreement in good faith. This could narrow the space that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has to negotiate a final deal even further.

New sanctions could also cause Iran to pull out of the negotiations. Iran made clear last year that it would interpret such a move as a violation of the Joint Plan of Action. Iran's Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif said  that a "deal is dead" if the United States imposes more sanctions, even if they do not go into effect during the negotiations.

While complete dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program may have been the most ideal end-state, and possible a decade ago when Iran only had several hundred centrifuges, it is unrealistic and unnecessary. A final deal with stringent limits and intrusive monitoring and verification will guard against a nuclear-armed Iran and ensure that there is no covert program. Insisting on complete dismantlement of Iran's uranium-enrichment program also goes against the broad parameters for a comprehensive deal outlined in the Nov. 2013 interim agreement, which recognized that under a long-term agreement, Iran would have a limited enrichment program based on its "practical needs."

Negotiations on Comprehensive Nuclear Deal with Iran

MYTH: A comprehensive deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons using a covert program.

REALITY: A comprehensive agreement will block Iran's uranium and plutonium pathways to the bomb. Among other features, the agreement will set verifiable limits on Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity and its stockpiles of enriched uranium. It would also dramatically cut the output of weapons-usable plutonium at the Arak heavy-water reactor. U.S. negotiators have stated that an acceptable final deal will push the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb to 12 months.

A comprehensive deal also would put in place additional measures to ensure that any covert program is deterred or quickly detected. The additional monitoring and verification under the interim agreement has already dramatically expanded international oversight of Iran's nuclear program through increased IAEA access to sites. A comprehensive deal will provide additional monitoring and verification.

In addition, Iran has agreed to implement and ratify the additional protocol as part of a comprehensive deal. Specifically, it gives the IAEA expanded right of access to information and sites. With the additional protocol, the agency will have regular access to Iran's entire fuel cycle, including facilities such as Iran's uranium mines, centrifuge production facilities, and heavy-water production plant. This will make it far more difficult for Iran to siphon off materials for a covert program.

The additional protocol also helps the IAEA check for any clandestine nuclear activities in Iran by providing the agency with greater authority to carry out inspections in any facility with nuclear material. It also enables the agency to visit the nuclear facilities on short notice, making it more difficult to cover-up any activities intended to divert materials or that are inconsistent with a facilities' stated purposes.

MYTH: Iran needs to provide the IAEA with information about its past activities possibly related to nuclear weapons development before a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.

REALITY: On November 11, 2013, Iran and the IAEA concluded a framework agreement for moving forward to resolve the outstanding concerns. Under the terms of the framework, Iran and the IAEA agreed to resolve all outstanding issues, including past military dimensions, in a step-by-step manner. Iran has provided the IAEA with information on 16 areas to date, but is behind on turning over information on two past military dimension issues. Tying a comprehensive nuclear agreement to a resolution of the IAEA's investigation into the past activities is unnecessary and risks derailing a deal.

Resolving the questions about the past military dimension issue is important but is not a prerequisite for a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Nor is it realistic or necessary to expect a full "confession" from Iran that it pursued nuclear weapons in the past. Expecting Iran to "confess" that it pursued a nuclear weapons program is unrealistic and unnecessary. After having spent years denying that it pursued nuclear weapons and having delivered a fatwa against nuclear weapons, Tehran's senior leaders cannot afford to admit that it hid a nuclear weapons program.

Both sides understand that the IAEA investigation of past Iranian activities with possible military dimensions will continue after a comprehensive nuclear agreement is reached. At the same time, all sanctions tied to this particular issue should not be removed unless the questions are adequately resolved. This makes it more likely that if there is a comprehensive nuclear agreement, Iran will have a stronger incentive to provide the IAEA with the information necessary to determine that no such efforts are taking place now or will in the future.

MYTH: A nuclear deal with Iran, like a treaty or a "123" Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, requires Congressional approval.  

REALITY: Unlike a treaty, which requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate, a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran does not require a vote of approval from Congress. Unlike a civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and another country, a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran will be a political agreement between the five-permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iran designed to induce Iran to meet goals and obligations established by the Security Council and through Iran's safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

Over time, Congress will, however, have a vital role in implementing a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, including legislative action to remove and/or not renew legislatively-mandated, nuclear-related sanctions on Iran if and when Iran fulfils key non-proliferation obligations called for in a comprehensive agreement.

MYTH: A nuclear deal that allows Iran uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear power program will cause a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, with countries like Saudi Arabia deciding to move toward nuclear weapons.

REALITY: A verifiable, comprehensive nuclear deal will impose strict limits and monitoring on Iran's nuclear program, thus reducing the risk that Iran may someday pursue nuclear weapons. This will provide assurance to the international community that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons and that any deviations from the deal will be quickly noticed. This should reduce, not increase, the temptation by some states in the Middle East-particularly Saudi Arabia-to pursue the technical capabilities necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.

The alternative--no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal--would lead to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to countries in the region and could increase the possibility of a "proliferation cascade" in the region.

MYTH: A good comprehensive deal with Iran must dismantle Iran's nuclear weapons capability.

REALITY: Iran has had a nuclear weapons capability, but has chosen not to develop nuclear weapons. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessed that Iran has developed a range of technologies, including uranium enrichment, nuclear warhead mechanics, and delivery systems, that would give it the option to launch a nuclear weapons development effort in a relatively short time frame "if it so chooses." Eliminating that capability is, for all practical purposes, not possible. Even if Iran completely "dismantled" its nuclear infrastructure, it could rebuild it. Tougher sanctions or a military strike also will not eliminate the knowledge and basic industrial capacity that Iran has developed and could rebuild.  

Ergo, the goal of a verifiable, comprehensive agreement must be to prevent Iran from exercising that capability by limiting and constraining its nuclear capacity (especially fissile material production) and by increasing transparency over its program. Phased sanctions relief also offers incentives for continued compliance to comply with the deal and not decide to build a nuclear weapon in the future.


U.S. negotiators have an historic opportunity to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran that limits its nuclear program, blocks its pathways to a bomb, and guards against covert activities. The gravity of the situation demands a discussion on a comprehensive nuclear deal that is based on the realities of Iran's nuclear program, not myths and misconceptions about Tehran's past and current activities.--KELSEY DAVENPORT, DIRECTOR OF NONPROLIFERATION POLICY


The Arms Control Association 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.

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