What Would An Effective Comprehensive Nuclear Deal With Iran Look Like?

Volume 7, Issue 3, February 9, 2015 

Top diplomats from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) 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 the most proliferation-sensitive aspects of Iran's nuclear program.

The P5+1 are seeking a comprehensive, verifiable nuclear agreement that would block Iran's major potential pathways to nuclear weapons development--the uranium-enrichment route and the plutonium-separation route--and guard against a clandestine weapons program, thus removing a major threat to international security.

Over the past year, Iran and the P5+1 have made significant progress on long-term solutions on several challenging issues. Following the most recent round of high-level talks, Western officials were reported to have said that the two sides have further narrowed differences on how many uranium enrichment centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate under a long-term agreement, but hard-to-bridge differences remain on the timing for the lifting of sanctions and the duration of any deal.

The P5+1 and Iran are aiming to reach a political framework agreement by the end of March and conclude the technical annexes by the end of June.  

Senior U.S. officials have said their goal is to significantly reduce Iran's capacity to enrich uranium in order to increase the time that Iran would theoretically require to produce enough weapons-grade material for one bomb to at least twelve months.

Just as importantly, the comprehensive agreement would 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).

Though the aims and objectives are clear, a number of myths and misperceptions have clouded the discussion about what a comprehensive agreement must achieve and why. Debate on a good deal should be based on a realistic assessment of the issues, objectives and options.  

Toward a Realistic Evaluation

Any comprehensive agreement that is struck between the P5+1 and Iran should not be evaluated on the basis of any single feature (such as the number of centrifuges).

While each element is important, the agreement should be judged on its overall impact on reducing Iran's fissile-material production capacity and providing the additional transparency and monitoring necessary to detect and deter any future Iranian nuclear weapons program.  

Policy makers should also assess the comprehensive nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran in the context of the plausible alternatives, including the absence of a comprehensive agreement, rather than  vague hopes of a "better" deal that might still be negotiated at some future time.

Blocking the Uranium Path  

A key element of a comprehensive agreement will be sustainable limits on Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity that verifiably block Iran from quickly amassing enough fissile material for weapons.

As part of the 2013 interim nuclear agreement, the two sides agreed Iran would halt production of uranium gas enriched to 20% uranium-235, eliminate its stock of uranium gas enriched to that level, and temporarily halt further expansion of its centrifuge capacity. Iran has 19,000 centrifuges, of which 10,200 first generation centrifuges are operating.

The two sides also agreed in the interim deal 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" for a "period to be agreed upon."  

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 overall uranium-enrichment capacity for at least ten years in order to increase the time Iran would theoretically require to produce enough weapons-grade material for one bomb to at least twelve months.

While the overall number of operational centrifuges is a major factor, in reality, the agreement must address a number of elements of Iran's overall enrichment capacity in order to reach the 12-month theoretical "breakout" objective, including

  • barring Iran from enriching uranium above normal power reactor grade (five percent or less uranium-235);
  • putting in place verifiable restrictions that block Iran from manufacturing advanced centrifuges for production-scale enrichment for the duration of the comprehensive agreement;
  • significantly reducing the number/capacity of Iran's 10,200 operating IR-1 centrifuges for several years;
  • reducing the amount and form of low-enriched uranium stockpiled in Iran; and
  • verifiably disabling the approximately 9,000 centrifuge machines that are now installed but not yet operating.  

There are several possible ways these variables can be combined to increase the time that it would take Iran to amass enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

For example, by reducing Iran's current operating 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), the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade enriched-uranium gas for one nuclear weapon would grow to nine to 12 months.

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 shutdown the facility.

Preventing completion of 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 some have claimed.  

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. A critical step for this particular path for obtaining nuclear-weapons material.

More Robust Inspections and Monitoring

Iran's major nuclear sites are already regularly 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."

On January 29, 2014, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reported to Congress that the intelligence community still assesses "Iran would not be able to divert safeguarded material and produce enough [weapons-grade uranium] for a weapon before such activity would be discovered."

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, including daily access to its enrichment facilities," 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 be put in place to detect and deter potential weapons work at any secret sites. 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, Iran and the P5+1 agreed that a comprehensive deal would, among other things, require implementation and ratification of the additional protocol to the IAEA's safeguards agreement with Iran.

Specifically, the additional protocol gives the IAEA expanded right of access to information and nuclear 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, fuel fabrication facilities, and the heavy-water production plant. This will make it more difficult for Iran to siphon off materials for a covert program if the IAEA is tracking inventory.

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

Once ratified, these arrangements would last in perpetuity. Additional inspection measures, including on site inspections of centrifuge workshops, will also likely be part of the agreement.

Resolving Questions About 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. In late-2013, the IAEA and Iran agreed to a framework for cooperation for resolving the issues.

Measures proposed in the U.S. Congress that would 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 are 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, would not be removed until, and unless, the investigation is completed. 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 that offers incentives to comply.

Some members of Congress, along with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (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 the IAEA obtains sufficient information to determine that Iran has halted any nuclear activities with possible military dimensions. A good deal will also put in place the monitoring and verification to ensure that Iran is not pursing these activities in the future.  

The Role of Sanctions and Sanctions Relief

U.S. and international sanctions have helped 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. Additional sanctions have little chance of extracting further concessions from Iran in the future, would likely prompt Iran to take escalatory steps, and could blow up the diplomatic process.

As the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the European Union wrote in The Washington Post January 21, "... introducing new hurdles at this critical stage of the negotiations, including through additional nuclear-related sanctions legislation on Iran, would jeopardize our efforts at a critical juncture."

To enhance Iran's incentive to meet its nonproliferation obligations under a comprehensive agreement, the two sides agree that the P5+1 will phase out and later remove nuclear-related sanctions as Iran meets its obligations under the deal, and the IAEA investigation of Iran's nuclear program is concluded.  

If Iran fails to meet its core obligations, key sanctions measures could be swiftly re-imposed by the president and, if necessary, by Congress.

More Pressure Will Not Lead Iran to Abandon Its Program

Some members of Congress, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, erroneously suggest that the only way to block Iran's path to nuclear weapons is to secure an agreement that requires Iran to abandon key elements of its nuclear program, including its enrichment facilities and its Arak heavy water reactor project.

Such an outcome would be ideal from a nonproliferation standpoint, but it is unrealistic to expect that Iran's leadership would accept such terms, even under the tougher sanctions pressure, as some members of Congress and Netanyahu are now advocating.

As former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert J. Einhorn said in January testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, "... no one who closely follows Iran and its domestic politics believes that it is achievable, whatever pressures we are able to bring to bear.

"Iranian leaders," Einhorn said, "have successfully convinced their public that an enrichment capability is an inalienable right, an essential component of a respectable civil nuclear program, and a source of national pride - and that giving it up in the face of Western pressure would be a national humiliation. No one across the Iranian political spectrum, even those who strongly want a deal, would be prepared to accept an outcome banning enrichment and dismantling nuclear facilities."

Moreover, as Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Senate hearing January 21, as a practical matter

... the problem is that Iran has mastered the fuel cycle, whether we like it or not. We can't bomb that away, we can't sanction that away, we can't argue that away. They have that knowledge.

The real question is not whether they have any enrichment capacity. The real question is whether it is so limited, so constrained, so confined, so transparent, that as a practical matter, they cannot develop enough fissile material for a bomb without us having the time to see it and to do something about it. That is the practical test.

Now in an ideal world, would we want them to have zero enrichment? Sure. Is that something they will ever agree to? I think the answer is probably not, in fact. And second, our partners are unlikely to stick around in terms of implementing the sanctions regime if that has to be the bottom-line test.

The 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."

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.   

If the Congress initiates action on new sanctions against Iran while the interim agreement is still in force, it would violate the terms of the successful Nov. 2013 interim nuclear agreement and prompt Iran to take escalatory steps.  

Toward a Sober Evaluation of the Alternatives

The goal of a verifiable, comprehensive agreement must be to limit Iran's capacity to amass enough fissile material for nuclear weapons and to strengthen oversight and transparency to ensure prompt detection of any effort-even a clandestine attempt-to build nuclear weapons. Phased sanctions relief is critical to providing Iran with the political and economic incentives for continued compliance with the agreement well into the future.

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.--DARYL G. KIMBALL


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.