FPI Analysis: At Minimum, Interim Deal Should Fully Freeze Iran’s Growing Nuclear Threat

November 7, 2013

As the United States and other world powers resume nuclear talks with Iran this week, a senior official in the Obama administration recently told reporters in Geneva that they seek a short-term interim agreement that gives Iran partial and reversible relief from U.S.-led international sanctions, with the goal of getting a package of short-term Iranian concessions that “stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward for the first time in decades” and “potentially rolls part of it back.” While this is a laudable goal, the potential package of Iranian concessions that has been discussed in the media would fail to fully freeze Iran’s nuclear program, let alone roll it back.

The potential package of Iranian concessions could reportedly include:

(1)  Partially Increased Nuclear Transparency:  somewhat increased inspection and monitoring of Iranian nuclear material, equipment, and facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but less than enhanced measures authorized by the so-called “Additional Protocol” agreement that Iran has refused so far to ratify.

(2)  Freeze on Medium Enriched Uranium:  a freeze on Iran’s production of uranium enriched to 20-percent (sometimes called “medium enriched uranium” or MEU), and conversion of Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent MEU into harder-to-enrich reactor fuel plates.

(3)  Numerical Limits on Centrifuges to Enrich Uranium:  limits on the number of Iran’s actively-enriching first-generation centrifuges, and a delay on the use of Iran’s installed and more advanced second-generation centrifuges.

(4)  Delayed Start-Up of the Plutonium-Producing Heavy Water Reactor:  deferral on starting up and operating Arak, a heavy water reactor capable of producing spent nuclear fuel containing plutonium that is very well-suited for use in a nuclear weapon.

Below, we analyze the extent to which each element of the reported package of Iranian concessions meets the Obama administration’s goal of stopping “Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward.”

(1) Partially Increased Nuclear Transparency. 

Under this concession, Iran would allow specific measures for increased inspection and monitoring of Iranian nuclear material, equipment, and facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  These measures would go beyond those authorized by Iran’s standard IAEA safeguards agreement.  But they are likely to fall far short of the enhanced measures authorized by the “Additional Protocol” to the standard IAEA safeguards agreement, which Iran has refused to ratify.

This concession would achieve only partial—not complete—Iranian cooperation on nuclear transparency, making it difficult for the United States and the world to have complete confidence that Iran is not engaging in undeclared activities that move its nuclear program forward.  In an August 2013 report, the IAEA repeated its nearly 10-year-old warning that international inspectors are able to verify only the correctness—but not the completeness—of Iranian nuclear declarations to the Agency due to Iran’s refusal to ratify the Additional Protocol and other stonewalling on nuclear transparency:

“While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and [locations outside facilities] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, as Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implementing its Additional Protocol, the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

The IAEA also repeated its warning that international inspectors “will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran unless and until Iran provides the necessary cooperation with the Agency” as legally demanded by the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors and the United Nations Security Council.  However, Iran has adamantly refused to provide the IAEA with such “necessary cooperation” for a decade and counting.

Here, a meaningful Iranian concession for an interim agreement would include ratification and full implementation of the Additional Protocol’s enhanced measures for inspection and monitoring.  The IAEA’s Board of Governors first urged Iran to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol in September 2003.  The U.N. Security Council first reiterated calls for Iran to ratify the Additional Protocol in December 2006.  On this point, Iranian cooperation should not be viewed as a concession, but compliance with its longstanding and long-violated obligations.

Moreover, any comprehensive agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis should set a high standard and demand that Iran go further.  Iran should unconditionally permit extraordinary or special IAEA inspections measures, including extensive near-real-time monitoring, wide-area surveillance, and zero-notice inspections at any remaining or suspected nuclear-related facilities.  And Iran should fully disclose its past work on nuclear weaponization, including a complete history and details on Parchin, a military complex near Tehran where Iran conducted experiments related to nuclear weapons development, and Iran’s work on initiators, hemispheric implosion, and other non-nuclear components for nuclear explosive device.

(2) Freeze on Medium Enriched Uranium.

Under this concession, Iran would freeze production of uranium enriched to 20-percent (sometimes called “medium enriched uranium” or MEU), and convert some, if not all, of its roughly 185.8 kilogram stockpile of 20-percent MEU hexafluoride into uranium oxide-based reactor fuel plates, a form that cannot be further enriched unless converted back to gaseous form.

This potential concession’s biggest problem is that it leaves completely untouched Iran’s growing 6,774 kilogram stockpile of 3.5-percent enriched uranium (also known as “low enriched uranium” or LEU), which also poses a serious nuclear proliferation risk.  Another key problem is that Iran is capable of converting back any uranium oxide-based reactor fuel plates into 20-percent MEU hexafluoride gas, a form that’s readily usable in centrifuges.

It’s counterintuitive, but Iran’s stockpiles of 20-percent MEU and 3.5-percent LEU are both dangerously close to weapons-grade uranium enriched to 90-percent or more purity (also known as weapons-grade “high enriched uranium” or HEU).  Because each percentage point of enrichment is easier to achieve than the last, whereas 20-percent MEU represents roughly nine-tenths of the effort required to produce weapons-grade HEU, 3.5-percent LEU still represents seven-tenths of the effort.

So, while the name “low enriched uranium” may sound benign, the nuclear proliferation risk of Iran’s stockpile of declared 3.5-percent LEU can be measured in weeks:

  • The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that if Iran were to use its declared enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, it could overtly “break out” of international inspections and leverage its LEU stockpile to produce enough weapons-grade HEU for its first nuclear explosive in as few as 6-to-10 weeks. 
  • The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center similarly estimates that Iran could do so in as few as 6 weeks. 
  • R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT who served previously in the State Department as a science adviser, projects that Iran could do so in far less than two months.

These calculations assume that Iran does not possess an undeclared enrichment facility, a possibility that cannot be easily dismissed.  Iran has not only refused to provide full transparency to the IAEA, but has been caught once before building an undeclared enrichment facility.  If Iran also possesses an undeclared enrichment facility, then the nuclear proliferation risk posed by Iran’s current stockpile of declared 3.5-percent LEU can be measured in days:

  • The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that if Iran were to use an undeclared enrichment facility, it could covertly “sneak out” of international inspections and leverage its LEU stockpile to produce enough weapons-grade HEU for its first nuclear explosive in as few as 22-to-37 days. 
  • The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center similarly estimates Iran could do so in as few as 21 days.

Here, a genuinely meaningful concession for an interim agreement would require Iran not only to verifiably halt production of 20-percent medium enriched uranium and ship out of Iranian territory all stockpiled MEU, but also to halt production of 3.5-percent low enriched uranium and ship out part of its stockpiled LEU.  This step would respect the integrity of numerous legally-binding international demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.  On September 12, 2003, the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution urging Iran “to suspend all further uranium enrichment related activities.”  On July 31, 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA.”  The Security Council repeated its demand in a December 2006 resolution, a March 2007 resolution, a March 2008 resolution, a September 2008 resolution, and a June 2010 resolution.  Again, Iran is not so much called upon to make a concession as simply comply with the demands of the international community.

Moreover, any comprehensive agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis should set a high standard and demand that Iran go further.  As a matter of principle—and prudence—the United States should require Iran to verifiably ship out the majority of its stockpiled 3.5-percent LEU.

(3) Numerical Limits on Centrifuges to Enrich Uranium.

Under this concession, Iran would numerically limit the number of its actively-enriching first-generation centrifuges, and delay the installation and operation of more advanced second-generation centrifuges.

This potential concession’s biggest problem is that it would likely neither verifiably remove nor otherwise irreversibly disable the majority of Iran’s first-generation and second-generation centrifuges, which provide Iran with the technical capability to produce weapons-grade high enriched uranium on short notice.  Iran currently has in excess of 19,000 centrifuges.  As of late August 2013, Iran has installed over 15,700 first-generation centrifuges at Natanz, a site with two major uranium enrichment plants, and over 9,000 of these centrifuges are actively enriching.  It also has installed over 1,000 more advanced second-generation centrifuges at Natanz.  And it has installed over 2,700 first-generation centrifuges at Fordow, a uranium enrichment plant secretly built inside a mountain near the city of Qom, and nearly 700 of these centrifuges are actively enriching.

If Iran ships out its stockpiled 20-percent MEU but still retains its inventory of 3.5-percent LEU, numerical limits on Iran’s centrifuges will have to be dramatically low to lengthen the window for overt Iranian nuclear “breakout” to at least six months:

  • Under these conditions, the Institute for Science and International Security estimates if Iran has more than 5,800-to-6,800 first-generation centrifuges and zero second-generation centrifuges, then it could still “break out” in less than six months 
  • Under these conditions, former State Department science adviser R. Scott Kemp projects that if Iran has more than 2,000 first-generation centrifuges and zero second-generation centrifuges, then it could still “break out” in less than six months.

If Iran is not willing to blend down or ship out its stockpiled 20-percent MEU and 3.5-percent LEU, then a meaningful concession would require Iran to verifiably remove or otherwise irreversibly disable anywhere from 75-to-90 percent of its declared first-generation centrifuges and all of its advanced centrifuges.  Regardless, the United States and world powers should not ignore the serious nuclear proliferation risk posed by combined presence of significant amounts of LEU and large-scale enrichment capability in Iran.

Moreover, any comprehensive agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis should set a high standard and demand that Iran go further.  As a matter of principle—and prudence—the United States should seek “zero enrichment” in Iran.  This would require Iran to verifiably and irreversibly shut down key facilities, including (but not limited to):  Fordow and Natanz, as well as Esfahan, a site with a facility to convert yellowcake into uranium oxide and uranium hexafluoride for further enrichment.

(4) Delayed Start-Up of the Plutonium-Producing Heavy Water Reactor.

Under this concession, Iran would temporarily delay the start-up and operation of Arak, a heavy water reactor capable of generating spent nuclear fuel containing plutonium that is very well-suited for use in a nuclear weapon.

While this potential Iranian nuclear concession is technically meaningful, its biggest problem is that it does not verifiably remove or otherwise irreversibly disable the Arak heavy water reactor, which poses a serious nuclear proliferation risk.  Nor does this potential concession address the nuclear proliferation risks of Bushehr, a light water reactor that can be operated to irradiate nuclear fuel for shorter periods than normal—thereby yielding spent nuclear fuel laden with plutonium that’s more easily used in a nuclear weapon. 

Here, an even more meaningful concession for an interim agreement would require Iran to verifiably and irreversibly shut down the heavy water reactor at Arak.  This heavy water reactor provides a key enabler for Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb using plutonium that could be separated from a reactor’s spent nuclear fuel.

Moreover, any comprehensive agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis should set a high standard and demand that Iran go further.  The light water reactor at Bushehr provides another key enabler for Iran’s plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.  If Iran continues to operate Bushehr, then—as a matter of principle and prudence—the United States should require Iran to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct 24/7 human inspections, install near-real-time monitoring systems, and install wide-area surveillance at that reactor.

Conclusion:  Too Dear a Price for an Interim Agreement

If it costs the United States nothing to persuade Iran to implement the rumored package of short-term Iranian nuclear concessions, then we should welcome that outcome.   But while U.S. diplomats have not publicly said what they will offer in Geneva, they reportedly are considering relaxing restrictions on Iran’s oil revenues held in overseas accounts and perhaps also on trade in gold and petrochemicals.  Given the difficulties faced at times by the United States in getting allies and partners to support the sanctions regime against Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration’s potential forms of sanctions relief could be too dear a price to pay for the rumored package of Iranian concessions.

According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, U.S. officials have described the interim agreement between Iranian and western negotiators as involving “spigots” of pressure that the two sides could ease or tighten in the future, depending on the progress of negotiations toward a comprehensive deal.  However, the Foreign Policy Initiative organized a crisis simulation with a group of congressional staff in August 2013 that examined the possibility of just this type of arrangement.  The key takeaway of this exercise was that while Iran could easily turn its “spigot” and accelerate the nuclear program after any interim agreement expires, it could be incredibly difficult for the United States to compel its international partners to re-impose, let alone strengthen, any sanctions that have been eased. 

We should not underestimate the impact of the U.S.-led international sanctions regime on Iran.  As a senior official in the Obama administration told reporters in Geneva:  “Sanctions have been important to Iran’s coming to the table.  It was meant to change the strategic calculus of the Iranian Government—not to bring about regime change, not to punish the Iranian people, but to change the strategic calculus of Iran.”  Iran, seeking sanctions relief, is now seeking every opportunity it can to build international support for its diplomatic position on the nuclear issue, and will eagerly exploit any crack in the sanctions regime.

The success of the sanctions regime on Iran, so far, is due largely to the leadership of the U.S. Congress, even over the Obama administration’s frequent objections.  Lawmakers should continue to evaluate any proposed package of Iranian concessions soberly and without any illusion, standing ready to reject any deal that weakens the U.S. international sanctions regime without Iran completely freezing and ultimately reversing its growing nuclear threat.

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