FPI Bulletin: While U.S. Dismantles Sanctions, Iran Keeps Its Nuclear Program

November 25, 2013

The six-month nuclear deal that Iran signed with a group of world powers in Geneva on November 24th represents a diplomatic triumph for Tehran.  Under the agreement, the United States and its partners will begin to dismantle international sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program—without requiring Iran to dismantle a single centrifuge for uranium enrichment, to ship abroad a single kilogram of enriched uranium, or to start dismantling its plutonium-producing heavy water reactor.

After suffering years of crippling sanctions, Iran has much to gain from the Geneva pact.  The United States and its partners will ease sanctions on Iranian oil sales, petrochemical exports, gold and precious metals, and the auto industry.  Iran will also be provided access to a share of its oil revenues held in overseas banks.  The agreement also promises that no new sanctions will be imposed by the United States, the European Union, or the U.N. Security Council.  While the Obama administration claims that Iran will gain at most $7 billion under the deal, Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has estimated that such a deal could allow Tehran access to some $20 billion.  What is clear is that the regime in Tehran will now have additional funds available to invest in any of its other illicit activities.

What did Iran surrender for this sanctions relief?  Not enough.  If anything, Tehran’s nuclear program is poised to emerge in six months from the Geneva pact stronger than ever.

The Geneva pact leaves intact Iran’s industrial-scale uranium enrichment program.  Tehran will retain its over 7,000 kilograms of 3.5-to-5-percent low enriched uranium and its nearly 19,000 installed “first-generation” centrifuges.  Low enriched uranium represents seven-tenths of the work required to produce military-grade high enriched uranium of 90-percent purity.  That’s why these raw ingredients and equipment, by themselves, already enable Iran to overtly “break out” of international inspections and make a nuclear weapon in as few as six weeks or less.  Although any agreement that truly sets back the Iranian nuclear program would require Tehran to dismantle anywhere 75-to-90 percent of its installed “first-generation” centrifuges and all of its more advanced “second-generation” centrifuges, the Geneva deal touches not a one.

The deal fails to effectively “neutralize” Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium—let alone “destroy” it.  This stockpile was a natural focus of negotiations because it represents nine-tenths of the work required to produce military-grade high enriched uranium.  While Secretary of State John Kerry has claimed in a series of television interviews that this stockpile will be “destroyed” under the Geneva pact, the agreement does no such thing.  The deal obliges Iran to convert half of its 20-percent enriched uranium into an “oxide” form that creates hurdles for further enrichment, but Iran is fully capable of reversing this process whenever it chooses to.  It also requires Iran to blend its remaining stocks of 20-percent enriched uranium down to 5-percent or less purity.  But, again, this is completely reversible.  Iran has a long history of converting its 20-percent enriched uranium to uranium oxide when it is diplomatically convenient, but has never been so richly rewarded for doing so.

The Geneva pact thus provides a fig leaf of international legitimacy to Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment efforts.  The U.N. Security Council has passed five legally-binding resolutions demanding a verifiable halt to the Iranian enrichment program.  The deal not only ignores these resolutions and allows Iran to keep enriching uranium, but also states that the anticipated final agreement between Iran and the world powers will include the establishment of a “mutually defined enrichment program.”  Although the deal’s text does not explicitly endorse Iran’s claim of an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium, international consent to future Iranian enrichment is victory enough for Tehran today.

Moreover, the agreement’s apparent acceptance of Iranian enrichment over the long term harms decades of U.S.-led efforts to halt further international spread of enrichment, reprocessing, and other nuclear fuel-making activities that can bring a country within months or days of building a nuclear bomb.  If the United States is not willing to say “no” to Iran—a rogue regime that has repeatedly cheated on its international obligations—then it will likely face a much harder time getting nations that haven’t broken any rules, including some of America’s allies and partners, to refrain from pursuing their own programs for enrichment, reprocessing or, perhaps eventually, nuclear weapons.  While the Middle East is already volatile, a post-Iran race for nuclear weapons-making capability in the region would be disastrous for the security and interests of the United States, Israel, and other allies.

Importantly, the deal does not dismantle Iran’s plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak.  Concerns over this facility reportedly caused the French government to balk at an earlier draft of the agreement.  Indeed, Robert Einhorn, a former nonproliferation official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, has dubbed Arak a “plutonium bomb factory.”  The day the deal ends, Iran can sprint to complete and start operating the heavy water reactor.

Finally, the Geneva pact’s new inspections measures fall far short of intrusiveness that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said would be needed to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful.”  As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Tehran is legally obliged to allow the IAEA inspectors to verify that it has not merely correctly, but also completely, declared all its nuclear materials and activities.  However, Iran has adamantly refused to meet this obligation for complete nuclear transparency, even though it has a longlonglonglonglong record on concealing weapons-relevant nuclear activities from the world.  Indeed, the agreement in Geneva fails to address concerns about Iran’s history of nuclear weapons work at the Parchin military complex, or about the possibility of undeclared Iranian nuclear activities.  That’s alarming because the IAEA has repeatedly warned that it “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, including by implementing its Additional Protocol” that authorizes more intrusive and immediate nuclear inspections.


In sum, the Geneva pact obligates the United States to begin dismantling the international sanctions regime against Iran, without any corresponding obligation by Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons-making capability.  What’s worse, the six-month deal effectively accepts the continuation of uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities that the U.N. Security Council has legally demanded that Iran verifiably halt.  Congressional lawmakers will now have to assess the merits of the Geneva agreement as they debate legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons-making capability in violation of international obligations.

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