Since I’ve already inflicted my thoughts on the Iran deal over at Foreign Policy.com, I am happy that my friend Jofi Joseph has agreed to share his here at the blog.
Pleasant Surprises and Grudging Disappointments
Jeffrey has kindly offered his blog as a venue for my thoughts on some of the specific technical elements of the P5+1 political framework with Iran announced last week. For someone who worked on this issue in the U.S. government between 2011 and 2013, it is gratifying to see the efforts of many, many individuals in multiple governments finally bear fruit.
What follows is a checklist of pleasant surprises and grudging disappointments when it comes to this agreement’s nonproliferation bona fides. Like many others, I was quite pleased at the depth and specificity of Iranian commitments when it came to real world constraints on their fuel cycle capabilities, but recognize the hardest negotiations are likely to take place over the next twelve weeks as broad text is translated into detailed annexes.
Iran Only Permitted to Use IR-1s for Enrichment for Next Ten Years
At one time, the Administration was prepared to concede to Iran the flexibility to deploy various centrifuge models at its own discretion, so long as overall enrichment capability remained under an ironclad SWU ceiling. In other words, if Iran was limited to an operational capacity of 7500 SWU per year, it would be the AEOI’s choice as to whether to deploy a larger number of the inefficient IR-1 centrifuges or introduce a smaller number of more advanced machines. Although this formula would help ensure any prospective Iranian breakout timeline would not fall under one year, it contained a potentially fatal flaw – enabling Tehran to exploit production-scale enrichment to further develop and perfect more advanced centrifuges.
Under this agreement, however, Iran will only be permitted to enrich uranium with 5060 IR-1 machines at Natanz, which means the P-5+1 has frozen Iran’s enrichment program at existing levels for the next ten years. Not only are the IR-1 centrifuges woefully out of date and prone to high failure rates, Iran has been using these machines for almost a full decade. In other words, it has nothing further to learn from continued enrichment with this technology, and the next decade becomes a “lost decade” when it comes to the modernization of Iran’s enrichment program.
Broad Constraints on Iran’s R&D Capability
Some critics argue that, because Iran will be permitted to continue limited research and development on the IR-2, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8 models over the next decade, it can use the next decade to master operation of these more advanced models and launch a more powerful enrichment program once constraints under the CJPOA begin coming off. Yet this argument ignores the significant differences between limited, small-scale testing of individual centrifuges in a laboratory setting and production-scale operations employing large centrifuge cascades where actual enrichment can occur. The halting progress of Iran’s enrichment program over the past fifteen years underlines the difficulty its scientists have faced when taking laboratory-scale technology into a real world setting. Without the ability to test these advanced models with actual enrichment and utilizing production-scale cascades, Iran will only make incremental progress in developing more advanced centrifuge models.
Comprehensive Transparency and Verification Requirements
As Jeffrey has so usefully argued before, the real danger from Iran’s nuclear program is not a breakout involving one of its overt facilities, but rather Iran’s use of a civilian nuclear program to camaflouge covert facilities/activities where inspectors are not present. The best means to ferret out a covert program is a broad-based set of inspections, verification requirements, and transparency measures that aims to detect the production of fissile material at every iterative step of the process – from the initial milling/mining of natural uranium to the final steps of weapons grade enrichment or reprocessing of spent fuel rods.
And that is exactly what the U.S. and P5+1 negotiators have managed to achieve. Whether it involves continuous surveillance of uranium mines and mills or access to the production facilities where Iranian centrifuges – and key parts like bellows and rotors – are assembled and manufactured, the agreement covers all the bases remarkably well. While “anytime, anywhere” access was never a realistic objective, the Iranian agreement to concede IAEA access to any suspicious sites where covert enrichment – and necessary precursor steps like uranium conversion, yellowcake production, and centrifuge manufacturing — may be occurring is an important one. For the duration of this agreement, it will be extremely challenging for Iran to carry out a covert program on its own soil.
And The Not-So-Good Stuff:
The Curious Language Surrounding Iran’s AP “Implementation”
Longtime ACW readers are quite familiar with the tortured history of Iran and the Additional Protocol. Iran originally signed the AP in 2003, but never got around to ratifying it. Several years later, when the United Nations Security Council formally took up the Iran file, Tehran retaliated in part by suspending its implementation of the AP, where it has stood ever since. Getting Iran back into compliance with the AP has always been a key objective, not least because this agreement is uniquely constructed to help ferret out potential covert activities to produce fissile material.
It is for that reason why the language in the U.S. fact sheet outlining Iran’s commitment here is so curious. The fact sheet only declares that “Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol of the IAEA”. It does not specify the duration of this commitment; will Iran only implement the AP for a period of ten, fifteen or twenty five years, or is this an indefinite commitment? If the latter, then why doesn’t Iran agree to take the necessary steps to eventually ratify the AP? The joint statement read out by the EU High Representative and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is even more disconcerting, as it refers only to the “provisional application” by Iran of the Additional Protocol.
Resumed Iranian compliance with the AP has always been assumed to be one of the easy “gets” in any final agreement, not least because the AP is in no way specific to Iran; it is a universal agreement which the vast majority of other NPT signatories have signed and ratified. Iranian insistence that it be treated like every other normal NPT state holds no water when it comes to AP ratification – because that is what normal NPT states have already done!
I don’t have any good guesses on Iranian motivations here. There may have been a reluctance by the Iranian negotiating team to commit to future action involving ratification by the Majles when that may be out of their lane of authority. Any final agreement should better flesh out the specifics of what Iran will do when it comes to AP implementation and lay out a clear rationale if that implementation will be time-limited.
Last and Perhaps Least – the PMD Dossier
And, finally, the long nettlesome issue of investigating and documenting Iran’s past efforts to develop a nuclear warhead capable of fitting onto a ballistic missile. The U.S. intelligence community concluded in 2007 that Iran halted such efforts in 2003, although concerns have persisted to this day on whether some elements have continued at low levels. Those critics who have insisted that any comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program include a full accounting of such efforts are likely to be disappointed by the language in the U.S. fact sheet: “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns” regarding the PMD issue. Negotiators may have reached agreement on a much more detailed set of understandings on what these measures entail, but I doubt it. Iran has agreed to “measures” on PMD before, most recently in 2013 in the run-up to the agreement on an interim accord, yet then proceeded to largely ignore its implementation, even while continuing intensive talks with the P5+1 on a broader agreement.
All this points to an unavoidable reality: like it or not, if an Iran deal is ultimately to succeed, the quest for a full accounting of Iran’s past activities may have to be sacrificed. Put yourself into the shoes of a U.S. negotiator. You recognize upfront that you will not get everything you want from Iran and you will have to accordingly prioritize. Eventually, you may have to choose between insisting on tougher constraints on Iran’s future nuclear activities that serve the purpose of deterring both an overt and covert breakout vs. an exhaustive historical inquiry that assesses what exactly Iranian physicists may have been doing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For most folks, the decision there is relatively straightforward.
Some argue that it will be very difficult to identify future covert Iranian nuclear weapons efforts without a detailed understanding of what happened before. I’m not so sure. It is not clear if the individuals involved with the previous Amad Plan would be the ones tapped again for a future covert program or whether a clear understanding of their previous actions would help identify future efforts.
What is of some concern is where this leaves the IAEA and its Director General – Yukiya Amano. DG Amano in some respects has served as the necessary skunk at the picnic on this issue – reminding everyone that the allegations surrounding PMD remains an outstanding piece of the puzzle. If this deal is completed and then implemented in good faith by all sides, there may come a time when the PMD issue will have to be gently brushed aside. Let’s hope that the good Director General doesn’t get caught in the stampede.