Negotiators from the United States and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and their Iranian counterparts aim to negotiate a “comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful” and to settle the long-running international dispute over Iran’s nuclear capabilities and compliance with its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards obligations not to pursue nuclear weapons.
For the United States and its negotiating partners, an effective agreement should
- establish verifiable limits on Iran’s program that, taken together, increase the time it would take for Iran to break out of the NPT and build nuclear weapons,
- increase the ability of the international community to promptly detect and effectively disrupt any breakout attempt, and
- decrease Iran’s incentives to pursue nuclear weapons in the future.
The framework and timetable for reaching a comprehensive deal was spelled out in their interim accord known as the Joint Plan of Action, which was concluded by the two sides in November 2013 and went into effect January 20, 2014.
This six-month-long agreement essentially freezes the growth of Iran’s nuclear capacity and increases international oversight of Iran’s nuclear activities, which has helped provide the time and trust necessary for negotiations on a comprehensive agreement.
Elements of a Comprehensive Deal
The two sides agreed in November that a comprehensive agreement would include several key elements.
- Agreed limits on the size and scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program commensurate with its “practical needs” for a civil nuclear program.
- Steps to reduce the proliferation potential of Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor project.
- More-extensive international monitoring and verification mechanisms, particularly at undeclared nuclear sites, to improve detection and deterrence of possible nuclear weapons-related activity in the future.
- A resolution of the multiyear investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of past Iranian experiments with possible military dimensions.
- Additional steps to address other issues cited in past UN Security Council resolutions relating to Iran’s nuclear program, which include Iranian ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
- Civilian nuclear energy assistance and cooperation for Iran.
- The removal of sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council, the United States, and the European Union relating to its nuclear program.
Like the interim agreement, a comprehensive agreement would likely require that each side undertake reciprocal, step-for-step measures in stages. Whereas the interim agreement calls for actions to be taken within six to 12 months, the implementation steps for a comprehensive agreement would be measured in years.
A comprehensive agreement will set forth deadlines for the completion or initiation of certain actions by each side. Some provisions would be temporary and time limited, while other actions, such as more-extensive IAEA monitoring under the terms of an additional protocol to guard against the development of a secret nuclear weapons program, would be indefinite in duration.
The two sides appear to have made progress in several areas, but differences on some major issues must still be bridged, and time is running short.
It is possible that the negotiators will not be able to conclude a final, comprehensive agreement by their target date of July 20. By mutual consent, the two sides could agree to extend the interim agreement for as much as six months while they seek to reach agreement on any remaining issues.
Defining Iran’s Uranium-Enrichment Capacity
The most challenging issue appears to be how to negotiate a “mutually defined enrichment programme” with “agreed limits on the scope and level of enrichment, activities, capacity…and stocks of uranium” that are “consistent with practical needs.”
Since 2005, Iran increased its centrifuge capacity from 300 first-generation IR-1 machines at one site to about 19,000 installed, first-generation IR-1 machines at two sites. Today, about 10,200 are operating. About 1,000 advanced IR-2M centrifuges are installed at the Natanz enrichment plant, but are not operational.
Iran’s operating IR-1 machines could allow Tehran to enrich natural uranium stock into a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium (HEU) (25 kilograms in gaseous form) for one nuclear bomb in about six months, although such an effort would be detected first.
Taking into account Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) (8,784 kilograms), Iran could use these operating centrifuges to produce enough HEU for one bomb in two to three months.
It is extremely unlikely that Iran would invite further sanctions or a military attack in order to produce enough fissile material for just one nuclear weapon, which is not an effective deterrent. If Iran tried to build a militarily significant nuclear arsenal, it would take considerably more than a year to amass enough material for additional weapons, convert the HEU gas to metal form, assemble and perhaps test a nuclear device, and mate the bombs with an effective means of delivery.
One critical goal for the P5+1 is to increase the time it would take to produce enough fissile material for an arsenal and enhance inspections and monitoring to ensure that any such effort could be detected and disrupted.
An agreement that significantly reduces Iran’s present-day enrichment capacity and its enriched uranium stocks would increase that time even further and still would provide Iran with more than sufficient capacity for its nuclear fuel needs, which are very limited for the next decade or more.
Yet, Iranian officials insist that Iran’s nuclear fuel needs will increase over the course of the next 10 to 15 years or more and say they cannot depend on foreign suppliers, given the unreliability of foreign suppliers in the past. It is estimated that Iran would need about 100,000 operational IR-1 centrifuges by 2021 to provide fuel for its Bushehr reactor if the current fuel supply contract with Russia is not renewed. Iran says it has plans for other power and research reactors.
To reach a comprehensive agreement, the two sides must find a formula that limits Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity at the Natanz site in a way that precludes an Iranian dash to produce enough HEU for weapons without being detected and disrupted but allows for Iran’s practical civilian needs, which are very minimal for the next several years but could increase over time.
Iran and the P5+1 should be able to agree to several straightforward steps, such as
- limiting uranium enrichment to levels of less than 5 percent;
- keeping Iran’s LEU stockpile to a minimum (less than 1,000 kilograms or so); and
- halting production-scale work at the smaller Fordow enrichment plant and convert it to a research-only facility.
Some independent analysts and some Israeli officials argue that Iran should mothball the underground Fordow plant, which is less vulnerable to an airstrike. Iran strongly opposes such an outcome.
Negotiators have other options available that could help square the circle on uranium-enrichment capacity and address the concerns of each side.
- A comprehensive agreement could allow for appropriate increases in Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity in the later stages of the deal. Such adjustments could be conditioned on Iran providing sufficient information to the IAEA to show that any past experiments with possible military dimensions have been discontinued and demonstrating that it cannot obtain foreign nuclear fuel supplies for the new nuclear power reactors that it builds.
- Iran could agree to phase out, remove, and store under IAEA seal its less efficient, first-generation centrifuges and, over a period of years, replace them with a smaller number of more-efficient centrifuges. During the transition period, the total operating enrichment capacity would be held below agreed limits, ideally less than Iran’s current capacity. Iran could agree not to assemble the more efficient centrifuges until there is a demonstrable need for commercial-scale enrichment. This would increase the time it would take Iran to operate the machines, providing added insurance against rapid breakout scenarios.
- To reduce Iran’s rationale for greater enrichment capacity to fuel future reactors, a comprehensive agreement could commit the P5+1 to provide fuel supply guarantees to Iran for any such needs.
Reducing the Proliferation Potential of the Arak Reactor
Another major issue that the two sides must resolve through a comprehensive agreement is the reduction of the proliferation risks posed by Iran’s effort to build a 40-megawatt thermal (MWt) heavy-water reactor at Arak. The reactor, as currently envisioned, is ideally suited to produce enough plutonium in its spent fuel for as many as two nuclear weapons annually.
The Arak reactor is a longer-term proliferation threat. The reactor, which is more than a year away from completion, would have to operate for approximately one year before spent fuel could be removed. The spent fuel would have to cool for several months, and then the plutonium would have to be chemically separated using a facility that Iran is not believed to have.
It appears that the two sides can probably come to terms on reducing the Arak reactor’s plutonium-production potential. According to statements made by the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran is open to technical modifications of the reactor that would reduce its plutonium output. Members of the P5+1 indicate they would support this approach in principle. These design modifications include decreasing the power of the reactor from 40 MWt to 10 MWt and using low-enriched (3.5 percent) reactor fuel instead of natural uranium fuel.
These modifications would reduce the Arak facility’s annual output of unseparated plutonium-239 from about eight kilograms to less than one kilogram. The two sides would have to agree on how to ensure that the modifications are difficult to reverse.
The two sides should be able to agree, as they did in the November interim agreement, that Iran would not build a reprocessing facility to extract the weapons-grade plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel.
As an additional safeguard, Iran and the P5+1 could agree to ship the spent fuel produced by the Arak facility out of Iran to prevent any covert reprocessing. Russia would be a likely destination because it is taking the spent fuel from the Bushehr reactor.
Resolving Concerns About Possible Weapons-Related Experiments
Another issue that must be addressed in order to build confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program involves activities having possible military dimensions that Iran is believed to have conducted prior to 2004 and perhaps afterward.
Until this year, Tehran has not cooperated with IAEA efforts over the past several years to comprehensively verify Iran’s claims about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, adding to suspicions about the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran and the IAEA reached a framework agreement in November 2013 for moving forward to resolve the outstanding concerns. Although some initial progress has been achieved, the IAEA investigation will continue beyond July 20 and probably into 2015.
A comprehensive deal can play a role in facilitating Iranian cooperation and a prompt conclusion to the agency’s investigation. A comprehensive deal could,
- clarify that the information that Iran provides to the IAEA will be used only for the IAEA’s determination of whether Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful;
- be conditioned on the IAEA determination that questions surrounding the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program have been addressed to the extent possible; and
- clarify that international sanctions may be reimposed if Tehran fails to complete the IAEA’s requested actions in a timely manner.
These measures should provide sufficient incentives for Iran to follow through on closing its file with the IAEA.
Securing More-Extensive International Inspection Authority
If Iran were to pursue nuclear weapons development in the future, it would most likely try to do so by means of a secret program carried out at undisclosed facilities rather than its declared facilities under international monitoring.
The two sides agree that a comprehensive agreement should include requirements for more-timely notification of Iranian nuclear activities to the IAEA under Iran’s current comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA and more-extensive IAEA inspection authority to guard against a secret weapons program under the terms of an additional protocol.
An additional protocol would allow the IAEA to conduct inspections of nondeclared sites without prior notification, which is a strong deterrent against any clandestine nuclear weapons work. In the first phase of a comprehensive agreement, Iran will likely be required to implement an additional protocol. At a later point, Iran would commit to ratify it. Once approved by the Iranian parliament, the duration of the additional protocol would be indefinite.
In addition, the P5+1 will seek more inspection measures for an extended period of time to provide still more confidence to the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is being used for entirely peaceful purposes, including ongoing monitoring of Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing facilities and support infrastructure.
Phasing Out Sanctions Against Iran
To secure a comprehensive agreement, the P5+1 will need to agree to phase out the tough, multilateral nuclear sanctions regime now in place, including the international oil and financial sanctions that are devastating Iran’s economy.
Iran will likely insist that, with each of the successive steps that it undertakes as part of a comprehensive agreement, there will be commensurate actions to suspend and then lift sanctions.
The step-for-step approach of a possible comprehensive agreement will require a new UN Security Council resolution on Iran’s nuclear program and positive, follow-up actions by the EU states and approval by the U.S. Congress of legislation that unwinds U.S. nuclear-related sanctions that impact other nations’ affairs with Iran.
Addressing Other Issues in UN Security Council Resolutions
The November 24 agreement stipulates that a comprehensive deal must address other issues in the existing UN Security Council resolutions. This includes Security Council Resolution 1929 (2010), which required Iran to halt all ballistic missile activity that could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.
The missile issue is certainly relevant to the issue of Iran’s future nuclear weapons potential, but it must be handled very carefully. Attempts by the P5+1 or the U.S. Congress to impose specific, binding limits on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities at this point could jeopardize chances to conclude an agreement that establishes verifiable limits on Iran’s ability to produce material for nuclear weapons. Without Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, its ballistic missiles pose much less of a threat to its neighbors.
Therefore, the most effective way to address the potential threat of nuclear-armed Iranian ballistic missiles is to conclude a robust deal between Iran and the P5+1 to prevent Iran from being able to build nuclear weapons.
Assessing the Outcome of the Negotiations
An agreement between the P5+1 and Iran should not be evaluated on the basis of any single feature. Instead, it must be assessed on the basis of its overall impact, especially the extent to which it limits Iran’s nuclear weapons-related capabilities, improves transparency about the program, and enhances the ability of the international community to promptly detect and disrupt any dash toward nuclear weapons.
Neither side can expect that they will achieve everything they seek. Inevitably, there will be critics of any agreement that emerges from the talks who will argue that the deal falls short of their expectations of what they consider to the requirements of any agreement.
In the final analysis, serious policymakers in Washington, Tehran, and other capitals who have responsibility for approving actions necessary to implement an agreement must consider whether their country is better served by an agreement than without one. They must consider that, without a comprehensive diplomatic solution,
- there would be no verifiable limits on Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and Iran would likely deploy additional and increasingly efficient centrifuges;
- Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles would grow, not shrink;
- the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for nuclear weapons would decrease rather than increase;
- IAEA inspections of Iranian facilities would likely continue but not be expanded to cover undeclared sites and activities, which is the most likely pathway to build nuclear weapons if Iran chose to do so; and
- sanctions would remain in effect and some might be strengthened but sanctions alone cannot halt Iran’s nuclear progress and, over time, the willingness of international allies to help implement those sanctions could erode.
Although Iran would still have to overcome significant hurdles if it were to try to build nuclear weapons, this unpleasant scenario would likely increase the possibility of a military confrontation over time.
Yet, any use of military force against Iran’s nuclear sites by Israel or the United States and a coalition of the willing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program a few years at best and, at worst, would lead to a wider conflict and could very likely prompt Iran’s leadership to openly pursue nuclear weapons in order to deter any further attacks.
A ‘Win-Win’ Deal to Guard Against a Nuclear-Armed Iran
The P5+1 and Iran have a historic opportunity to negotiate a long-term, final-phase agreement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran and helps avoid a future military confrontation over its nuclear program.
Both sides must focus on realistic and achievable goals that meet their own core requirements and offer solutions that respect the bottom-line needs of the other side.
If either side pushes to include unrealistic requirements or fails to follow through on the commitments established by the agreement, the chances for a negotiated resolution will decrease, and the chances of a military conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran will increase.
An effective, comprehensive nuclear agreement is the best option on the table to help resolve the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, DARYL G. KIMBALL, and GREG THIELMANN