FPI Bulletin: Iran Nuclear Deal—High Standards or No Standards?

March 3, 2015

Speaking this morning before a Joint Session of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a stern warning about the dangers of a flawed nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu’s presence in the Capitol has become a source of controversy, yet his prescriptions for nuclear diplomacy reflect the concerns of prominent figures on both sides of the partisan divide.

Both the Associated Press and The New York Times have reported that American negotiators are considering a deal that would impose restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for only ten years, after which the restrictions would gradually be phased out.   Furthermore, Iran would retain as many as 6,500 working centrifuges even during the first ten years.  If such reports are accurate, then the nuclear deal with Iran will confirm its status as nuclear threshold state rather than eliminating its capacity to build nuclear weapons. 

In his remarks, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “We're being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That's just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.” Netanyahu is right. The Israeli prime minister also laid out specific criteria for evaluating a potential deal, criteria which are almost identical to the ones proposed by leading experts on non-proliferation. If President Obama were less eager to sign a deal and more willing to apply pressure, the prospects for a good deal would increase sharply.

Laying Out High Standards

As Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted in January, Iran has four pathways to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb: “two uranium pathways, through its activities at Natanz and Fordow; a plutonium pathway, through the Arak heavy water reactor; and a potential covert pathway.”  Ideally, a final deal should prohibit Iran from uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.  Dealing with the covert pathway requires, as Blinken said, “robust monitoring and transparency measures to maximize the international community’s ability to detect quickly any attempt by Iran to break out overtly or covertly.”  This means, at a minimum, Iran should ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol and allow unrestricted and unconditional international inspections of its nuclear sites.

No Uranium Enrichment. Ideally, all of Iran’s key nuclear facilities should be dismantled in a final deal, including but not limited to the Fordow and Natanz nuclear enrichment plants and the Arak heavy water reactor.  However, the emerging framework for the agreement misses this mark.  As Netanyahu lamented, “According to the deal, not a single nuclear facility would be demolished. Thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium would be left spinning. Thousands more would be temporarily disconnected, but not destroyed.”  The Prime Minister emphasized, “It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” 

What’s more, these reported terms also fall short of the Obama administration’s own standard that an agreement with Iran should ensure that the Islamic Republic needs at least one year’s time in order to “breakout” and enrich enough fuel for a nuclear weapon.  Such a threshold would limit Tehran to 2,000-4,000 operating centrifuges, according to Ambassadors Eric Edelman and Dennis Ross, far fewer than the 6,500 envisioned under the reported proposal. 

If Iran is allowed to retain a sizable number of centrifuges, then it could easily resume industrial-scale enrichment in the future, thus setting a dangerous precedent for other would-be proliferators.  Indeed, the United Nations Security Council has demanded six times over the past decade that Iran halt all uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing activities.   As Greg Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center has written, “if Iran…is allowed to retain this capability, on what basis can any country that has abided by its IAEA safeguard obligations be denied centrifuge enrichment?  The current negotiations with Iran are setting the stage for many countries to acquire centrifuge enrichment, making it very easy for them to produce the HEU for nuclear weapons whenever they desire them.”

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in a January appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort…to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.” (Emphasis in original.)

Netanyahu made the same point with a rhetorical flourish: “This deal won’t be a farewell to arms. It would be a farewell to arms control.”

No Plutonium Reprocessing. The Arak heavy water reactor will have to be dismantled or permanently modified to prevent Iran from reprocessing its spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.  This reactor, as currently designed, could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for as many as two bombs per year.  As Olli Heinonen, the former head of the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards, recommended in a November 2014 report for the Henry Jackson Society, Arak’s currently installed core should be replaced with a smaller one.  Other options, such as changing its fuel supply or reducing its power, could be easily reversed.  As Heinonen notes, “North Korea was able to reestablish fairly quickly its small plutonium production capability, which culminated in its first nuclear weapon test in 2006” after it withdrew from its Agreed Framework with the United States in 2002.  It appears that the U.S.-led negotiators have not heeded the lessons from North Korea’s nuclear program, and are in danger of repeating their failure.

Complete Transparency. Any final deal with Iran must also have a robust and non-negotiable inspections and verifications regime.  As Heinonen writes, “The IAEA must be able to provide prompt warning of violations, determine the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations, establish the total number of centrifuges produced by Iran and the size of its natural and enriched uranium stocks, and establish confidence in the absence of undeclared nuclear activities or facilities, including providing assurances on the absence of nuclear weapons-related activities in Iran.” 

Specifically, this means that Iran must ratify and implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, but it should also go further.  As Robert Einhorn, a former member of the Obama administration’s negotiation team in the Iran talks, writes in The New York Times, a final deal “should have rigorous monitoring measures to convince Iran that any attempt to violate and break out of the agreement at either declared or covert sites would be detected very quickly.”  This requires “intrusive verification provisions that go beyond the measures contained in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol, including frequent access to centrifuge production facilities, detailed reporting of nuclear-related procurement and robust inspection procedures.” 

These measures are vital because, as Heinonen notes, “Iran has been running parts of its nuclear program first clandestinely and then without satisfactorily fulfilling its reporting obligations to the IAEA and additionally disregarding UN Security Council resolutions.”  Therefore, he says, “the onus of proof bears heavily on Iran to show that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.”

Ballistic Missiles and Other Nuclear-Related Military Research. In his remarks, Netanyahu pointed out that Iran’s ballistic missile program is “not part of the deal, and so far, Iran refuses to even put it on the negotiating table.” Yet ballistic missiles provide the most effective means for the delivery of a nuclear warhead.  If a deal limits neither nuclear fuel enrichment nor missile development, then Iran will continue to possess the core elements of a nuclear weapons program.

It is also essential for Iran to disclose all “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of its nuclear research program. In 2013, John Kerry testified that Iran will “work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern” related to PMD. However, Iran has resorted to its usual stonewalling. Netanyahu added, “The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, said again yesterday that Iran still refuses to come clean about its military nuclear program.”

Congress Can Act

Even more troubling than the administration’s willingness to accept a deal that would ratify Iran’s status as a threshold nuclear state is the administration’s abandonment of its prior support for returning to Congress for approval of a nuclear deal.  During an April 2014 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) asked Secretary of State John Kerry, “Does the administration intend to come back to the Congress if you have a final deal for ultimately lifting some of the elements that would be needed to be lifted under law?”  Kerry responded, “Well, of course, we would be obligated to under the law. ...We would absolutely have to. And so clearly, what we do will have to pass muster with Congress. We well understand that.” 

However, appearing before the same panel last week, Kerry made clear that this statement was only in regards to lifting sanctions, not in regards to involving Congress in the approval of a final deal.  The secretary told Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), “I have no doubt that Congress will find plenty of ways to approve or disapprove [of a final deal]. You have a vote because ultimately the sanctions that Congress has put in place will not be lifted unless Congress lifts them…. But we don't think it needs to be formalized in some pre-arranged way that makes the negotiation more difficult.”  He added in a later response to freshman Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), “I believe this falls squarely within the executive power of the president of the United States and the execution of American foreign policy.”

Should a final agreement be reached, many lawmakers fear that they will be put in the compromising position of having to accept a fundamentally flawed deal as a fait accompli.  That’s why Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced legislation late last week that would give Congress an opportunity to review the deal and voice its approval or disapproval.  Likewise, Congressmen Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), the chairman and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are circulating a letter to their colleagues that warns the administration that offering Iran permanent relief from sanctions should only come by way of new legislation.  These measures, along with legislation offered by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Menendez, are an important signal to the administration that the views of Congress must be heard and accounted for as it seeks any deal with Iran. 

There is recent precedent for this action.  In 2002, then-Senators Joe Biden and Jesse Helms wrote to the Bush administration to insist that the agreement that became the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (popularly known as the Moscow Treaty) be submitted to the Senate for formal approval.  Though the Bush administration notably championed the commander-in-chief’s executive authority in wartime, Mr. Bush agreed with the senators, recognizing the legislature’s unique constitutional role in foreign policy.  Mr. Obama would do wise to follow his predecessor’s example and solicit the advice and consent of Congress.


At this critical juncture, it is worth remembering that the purpose of these negotiations is, as Secretary Kerry said in November 2013, “to require Iran to prove the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and to ensure that it cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.” Recently, however, President Obama characterized their purpose as “to reduce the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.” (Emphasis added.)

After years of systematic denial and deception from Tehran regarding its nuclear program, the international community must have complete and credible assurance that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and that it cannot produce a nuclear weapon.  The administration should accept this high standard as the minimum for any final deal and uphold—rather than undermine—the global nonproliferation regime.

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