FPI Bulletin: Defiance and Desperation in Iran Nuclear Talks

September 30, 2014

The latest round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program was marked by Iranian defiance and Western desperation to reach a deal.  Tehran’s goal in these talks has long been clear—to simultaneously break free from international sanctions while retaining the capability to break out as a nuclear weapons power on short notice.  Western negotiators are working to determine just how short that notice must be—with the reported goal of lengthening Iran’s breakout time from less than three months to between six and twelve months. 

The focus of these negotiations, as they near a November 24 deadline, remains whether Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium in defiance of its international obligations.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged during his speech before the United Nations General Assembly last week that Iran would never “surrender” on the issue of uranium enrichment, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that Iran must acquire a dramatically larger nuclear capability.

While Tehran refuses to acknowledge its international obligations, the United States and its international negotiating partnersknown as the P5+1are moving dangerously closer to Tehran’s position.  Called “creative solutions” by their advocates, these proposals would in reality leave Iran with the ability to resume large-scale production of nuclear material in a short period of time, effectively leaving Tehran’s nuclear weapons program intact.

As 31 Republican Senators wrote in a September 19 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, reports of “troubling nuclear concessions to Iran” raise concerns that the P5+1 will sign an agreement “that, in return for further relief of U.S.-led international sanctions, would allow Iran to produce explosive nuclear material.”

“Creative Solutions,” Bad Ideas

Proposal #1:  Iran retains approximately half of its uranium enrichment centrifuges.  The Associated Press reported on September 26: “The tentative new U.S. offer attempts to meet the Iranians close to half way on numbers…[I]t envisages letting Iran keep up to 4,500 centrifuges but would reduce the stock of uranium gas fed into the machines to the point where it would take more than a year of enriching to create enough material for a nuclear warhead.”

Why it won’t work:  This proposal would guarantee that Iran retains a substantial nuclear infrastructure that can still achieve a rapid breakout time. According to Ambassadors Eric Edelman and Dennis Ross, in order to meet the P5+1’s goal of a 6-12 month “breakout” time, Tehran would have to reduce its number of centrifuges from 19,000 to fewer than 4,000. 

Proposal #2:  Iran would keep all of its centrifuges, but disconnect the pipes that connect them to each other.  The New York Times reported on September 19 that U.S. officials hope to “convince the Iranians to take away many of the pipes that connect their nuclear centrifuges, the giant machines that are connected together in a maze that allows uranium fuel to move from one machine to another, getting enriched along the way.”

Why it won’t work:  Reconnecting the centrifuges would take somewhere between several days and several months, according to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security and Olli Heinonen, who led the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Department of Safeguards.

Proposal #3:  Iran would again keep all of its centrifuges, but Iran’s compliance with a final agreement would be measured by the rate of nuclear material it produces.  Albright reported on September 23 that Iranian officials have repeated their July 2014 proposal that a final nuclear deal be based on Iran’s rate of nuclear enrichment—referred to as Separative Work Units (SWU) per year—instead of its capacity to enrich uranium. This could be achieved by either reducing the speed that a centrifuge spins or adjusting the rate by which uranium is fed into the centrifuge cascades.  It would not, however, require Iran to remove or even deactivate a single centrifuge. 

Why it won’t work: This approach would be easily reversible and fail to extend breakout time or provide time for warning in the case that Iran reneges on a long-term deal.  Edelman and Ross noted that a SWU approach “could allow Iran to maintain a latent nuclear weapons capability and remain a flip of the switch away from sprinting for the bomb, even while it conforms to a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program.”  They added that Iran could even “develop a much greater nuclear weapons capability much faster than before the final deal was agreed.”

All of these proposals would undermine six U.N. Security Council resolutions that require Iran to stop enriching uranium and create a dangerous precedent for other states.  As Greg Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Center wrote in 2012, “If it is decided that non-weapon states have the ‘right’ to large centrifuge enrichment plants, reprocessing plants and stocks of HEU and separated plutonium, then in fact the NPT is really a Proliferation Treaty and Iran will not be the last NPT member to use the guise of peaceful nuclear activities to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Congress Cut Out

With less than two months to reach a comprehensive agreement, it is clear that the administration has missed several opportunities to strengthen its own leverage in these negotiations. The most important example is the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, authored by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) and supported by 58 of their colleagues.  This legislation, which Menendez called a “diplomatic insurance policy,” would have established crippling sanctions against Iranian energy exports and other key elements of the country’s economy, but only if Tehran violated its commitments under the current interim agreement or failed to negotiate a final agreement in good faith. 

The White House imposed extraordinary political pressure to prevent the passage of the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act.  National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan even told the Huffington Post in January that the Menendez-Kirk legislation would “make diplomacy less likely to succeed.” She added, “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so.”

The administration’s arguments have it backwardssanctions-in-waiting would have enhanced prospects for successful diplomacy by setting a clear price if Tehran remained defiant at negotiations. Instead, by signing an interim agreement that offered sanctions relief in exchange for minimal Iranian concessions up front, the P5+1 gave Tehran little incentive to compromise.


In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama said that negotiations with Iran “do not rely on trust,” adding, “any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb.” He concluded, “If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.”  As negotiations with Iran stall in the face of Iranian defiance and Western desperation, the President’s pledge may soon be put to the test.


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