Princeton has a proposal that would allow Iran to transition, over time, to more capable centrifuges operated in a multilateral framework.  There have been responses by ISIS (David Albright, not the terrorist group!) and Mark Fitzpatrick at IISS. My colleague at Monterey Institute, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, has decided to add his two cents in a guest post.

Comments on the Princeton Group Proposal for the Two-Stage Strategy for Iran

Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress

The Current Dead-Lock

It is important to remember the historic progress that made since January under the JPOA between the P5+1 and Iran and the Frameworks for Cooperation that followed between the IAEA and Iran.

Iran has suspended its enrichment of near-20% UF6, has blended down or converted to uranium oxide most of the near-20% UF6. The IAEA has daily access to centrifuge plants and regular access to other nuclear sites, and finally has an updated DIQ on the IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak. On the other hand, Iran has escalated its enrichment of near-5% enriched UF6 (although, this is allowed under the JPOA) and outstanding questions related to Iran’s possible military aspect of the Iranian nuclear program remain. However, the JPOA in all its success has left the most difficult problem until right at the end, that is, defining the extent of the enrichment capacity mutually acceptable to all parties.

Iran has stated in the past that it requires enough enrichment capacity to be able to fuel the Bushehr reactor, a 915 MWe reactor requiring at least 100,000 SWU/year to provide the required 27 t 3.5% enriched fuel. This is at least an order of magnitude more than Iran currently has installed. The P5+1 wants to limit the possibility of a breakout scenario where either Iran expels inspectors or Iran develops clandestine facilities to further enrich existing UF6 to weapons grade, convert to a metal and manufacture into a warhead. The P5+1 express the risk of Iran to develop a bomb in terms of a “breakout time,” the time that it takes to accomplish the task. Arguably, the most difficult step in the process is enriching the UF6 to weapons grade. The United States has argued that a 2-month breakout time corresponds to the current capacity, which the P5+1 is negotiating to extend to 6-12 months significantly curtailing the current capability.

The effort of a centrifuge plant to separate a certain quantity of uranium to a certain enrichment is expressed in terms a unit called the Separative Work Unit (SWU). Milestones to reach a certain goal such as developing enough weapons grade uranium to produce a bomb is quantified as 1500-1600 SWU depending on the enrichment of the waste UF6. Each centrifuge contributes a certain quantity of SWU/year toward the milestone and adding up all the centrifuges operational is a measure of how long it will take to get to a certain milestone. Think of a centrifuge program like a vehicle moving along a road to get to a certain destination. The more centrifuges, the faster the vehicle will go and the sooner it will get to the destination. The problem is that the enrichment requirement for a bomb is far smaller than the enrichment that Iran says they need which is the principle reason for the current deadlock. Iran sees enrichment as their right as a non-nuclear weapon state subject to the NPT, while the P5+1 considers that Iran’s past violations of UN security resolutions preclude that right. Because of this disagreement, the negotiations are now at a standstill and the risk is high that the July 20th deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement will not be met.

Princeton Proposal to Resolve Crisis

The group from Princeton University’s Science and Global Security has come up with a potentially face-saving solution to the crisis. They propose a two-stage solution, where in the first stage Iran has the opportunity to demonstrate the peaceful nature of their program under stringent safeguards in preparations for the second stage. The first stage has the following features:

  • Phase out IR-1’s which are very low efficiency machines compared to IR-2m’s currently installed for testing at Iran’s centrifuge plants. The advantage of this is that the number of centrifuges necessary would decrease by about the same as the ratio of the separative capability of the centrifuge machines. The true capability of the various centrifuges is not precisely know and this makes it difficult to determine with certainty the size of these centrifuge plants for different scenarios.  The fact that the number of centrifuges would be less for higher capability centrifuges also means that this potentially makes these centrifuge plants easier to hide. However, destroying the IR-1’s (as suggested by ISIS June 12th response to the Princeton proposal) in favor of a smaller number of IR-2m’s would make safeguarding the facility easier to manage. If this proposal were to work it would be important to synchronize bringing IR-2m’s into production with the destruction of a number of IR-1’s that equates to the same number of total SWU.
  • The second aspect of this first stage is to let Iran continue to develop advanced centrifuges (IR-4, IR-5 or IR-6) in a safeguarded facility. Then once, sufficient testing and development has been done, produce them for commercial scale operation, but rather than installing them store the centrifuges in parts, perhaps even in a third country. Swiftly detected if taken out of storage, these components would be under strict safeguards. The authors point out that to assemble these parts into centrifuges and balancing them would then take at least another 6 months in a breakout scenario. This may be a long enough time to organize an appropriate response to the violation if it occurs. The centrifuges would be installed once the legitimate need arises.
  • Iran should ratify the Additional Protocol as well as follow all the safeguards and transparency measures in the JPOA.

The second stage of the Princeton proposal would be to setup a multilateral enrichment facility at which point more centrifuges stored in components under safeguards could be installed. This facility could provide fuel for the Bushehr reactor as well as other reactors planned to be built in Iran. The time when such a facility would be implemented would need to be decided through negotiation and should be subjected to conditions.

A Promise is Not Enough

A treaty between the P5+1 and Iran could establish a consortium where Iran promises not to enrich or reprocess outside of the consortium, an agreement that the countries that makeup URENCO have already committed to. The advantage is that this further compartmentalizes enrichment where activities can take place and any activity outside of these locations would be an immediate violation. The facilities would be operated as a perimeter portal site which would be continuously monitored. The other advantage of this proposal is that this approach from the point of view of Iran still justifies the large funds expended on the Iranian enrichment program making it easier for Iran to sell domestically. A multilateral enrichment plant probably does not make much sense economically for low capability machines such as the IR-2m or even higher generation machines, but it does allow Iran to save-face, which may to them be more significant than economic gains. Others have suggested that a multilateral enrichment agreement is the wrong approach stating that:

“winning the right to enrichment and international support for a nuclear programme after successfully defying the demands of the Security Council and the IAEA Board, however, is hardly a model one would wish to see emulated.”

In the past, Geoffrey Forden and John Thompson, formerly of MIT, proposed a similar option for a multilateral enrichment facility to solve the Iranian crisis. They recognized that a multilateral enrichment facility would only work if there were a way not only to detect cheating but also, crucially, to respond to it immediately. For example, they proposed a self-destruct mechanism for centrifuges, an extra circuit to cause an additional torque on the rotor causing the centrifuge “to crash catastrophically.” Ironically, at the time they proposed this idea, Stuxnet, the malware that destroyed 1/5th of Iran’s centrifuges was in its infancy. For additional safeguards, one could imagine coupling this self-destruct mechanism to an automatic trigger. The trigger could be in-line enrichment sensors such as CEM  (continuous  enrichment monitoring) and CHEMO (cascade header enrichment monitor) on UF6 piping to and from the centrifuge cascade hall. Currently, these systems are tuned to 20% enrichment as a threshold, but they could be set to less than 5% enrichment. The advantage of an automatic self-destruct mechanism of such a system is that the blame lies with the plant operator if the centrifuges self-destruct. These systems would be protected, not by tamper-indicating devices, but by tamper-triggering seals that trigger a set of actions that damage equipment. So that tampering with the seal to access the device would risk severe damage to the system. It is a different concept from tamper-indicating devices and admittedly does allow for the possibility of very costly mistakes, so safeguards would need to be in place to warn the unintentional operator that a mistake has been made.

Other ideas might be to co-locate the centrifuge facility with a conversion facility to UO2 or U3O8 so the the material is immediately converted after enrichment. In this way, the UF6 is never stored in the form of UF6  for a long period, and the conversion plant is tuned to the throughput of the enrichment plant. Of course, the UF6 could be converted back to UF6 but this adds an extra step and requires not only transporting the material outside of the facility but requires a clandestine facility that would convert the material back into UF6.  If the entire facility is operated as a portal monitoring system then transportation of UF6 out of the facility would be difficult to accomplish.

Another idea from the Fordon-Thompson Proposal learned from experience on inspecting Iraqi WMD sites is to track Iranian experts in centrifuge design. The authors point out:

“Through  their  frequent inspections  in Iraq,  weapons  inspectors got  to  know who  was  important  and  capable  so  that  when  those people moved to other facilities red flags were raised, especially  when  several  with  complementary weapons production skills were present… Iranian technicians and scientists working at the joint facility would, almost by definition, become the local experts on enrichment. Western technicians would be working side-by-side with the Iranian technicians and scientists  and  would  come  to  know  their  skills  and capabilities.”

Tracking known experts could be done in more overt ways as an agreed component of the proposal where devices continually monitor the location of these experts. This would however be very intrusive for the scientists and engineers and will probably be unacceptable. The point of this is to isolate and compartmentalize the activities to just the areas where the enrichment sites are and where the centrifuges are being built. As the authors point out:

“Thus, any new covert facility  would  have  to  start  from  scratch  and without much of the information and skills they have so painfully and expensively—both in money and in political baggage—learned since February 2006.”

Don’t Expect 100% Verification

One of the challenges of the Princeton proposal and other similar proposals is to verify that enrichment is not performed clandestinely elsewhere in the country. This is a difficult task because the concern would be that upgrades to better centrifuges would mean that it would be easier to hide a centrifuge plant, which would be modest in size, but would be large enough to produce a bomb.

However, this is a fundamental problem with the concept of verification, that is, 100% verification is simply unattainable, just as it is impossible to have a detector with no uncertainty. Furthermore, a cost-benefit analysis is always done on what is financially feasible for a verification protocol and what is not. Often this fact is not understood placing unreasonable demands on detecting cheating in verification regimes. Recognizing that 100% verifiability is not possible, former U.S. Ambassador Paul Nitze coined the term “Effective Verification” as the measure by which an inspection regime should be judged, which can be summarized as:

“If the other side moves beyond the limits of the treaty in any militarily significant way, we would be able to detect such violation in time to respond effectively and thereby deny the other side the benefit of the violation”

The positions on both sides are becoming more and more entrenched, face-saving solutions, such as Princeton’s proposal are ways of getting to a compromise, but the agreement must have teeth beyond the safeguards in the JPOA. A promise to not enrich is not enough. The safeguards arrangements need not be 100%, but the program must be effectively verifiable. This means that violations should be detected before any militarily significant advantage is attained or breakout time is reached.

Finally, just because 100% verification is not feasible, that does not mean that the agreement is not effectively verifiable, besides national technical means there are other ways of detecting violations. If one thinks somebody is lying, one looks for any sign, any inconsistency, that indicates evidence of a lie. This is why indicators like the past possible military dimensions of Iran’s program, careful scrutiny of bookkeeping records, and analysis of the status of its missile program become important to understand Iran’s intent. This will be important for understanding developments in the past, now, and for decades into the future. Of course, the devil is in the details with all of these proposals, and details will need to be wrung out in careful negotiations.

A note from the founding publisher: Jeffrey here. I wonder about the time we spend on such proposals.  Don’t get me wrong — the ideas are completely sensible.  But I sometimes think they are efforts to find technical solutions to an ultimately political problem.

Readers know that I am skeptical of emphasizing breakout as a measure of any agreement. The real danger is that Iran will build covert facilities.  For my part, I suspect that any deal will ultimately leave Iran with a lot of capability to breakout at declared sites or, more likely, to deploy centrifuges at covert sites. I support technical efforts to resolve such problems, but there is always some irreducible risk that arises from the hostility between Iran and many other countries. In Iran’s case, it’s likely to be a large, irreducible risk.

The best we can hope for, I suspect is a political solution that offers Iran compelling benefits to remain inside the nonproliferation regime, monitored in such a way that the Supreme Leader concludes a covert site will probably be detected. Even such an agreement might have a no better than 50/50 chance of working over the course of, say, a decade. But that might be the limit of our power.  We can shape the Supreme Leader’s preferences, but that’s about it.  If he ultimately wants a bomb, he’s going to get one, whether we bomb the heck out of Iran or not.

The important thing is not to let the best be the enemy of the good.  The final deal with Iran will be far from perfect. But if it offers a reasonably verifiable gap between the Supreme Leader and the bomb, along with real benefits that entice Tehran to comply, the Obama Administration will have done a competent job.  Others will argue, in that charmless Washington way, that they would have gotten a better deal.  Don’t believe them!  And, even if you do, don’t get suckered by the promise of a deal that is not on offer. You know what they say about your grandmother’s testicles. Our choices will be limited — the deal, an Iranian bomb, or a war.  Like it or not, it won’t be much of a choice. JGL