Masshad, Iran/Flickr: Jeanne Menj

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

As I explained in my last post, the interim Iran nuclear deal is good as far as it goes, but the chances of reaching a long-lasting comprehensive agreement are quite low: no more than 10%. There is also a 10% possibility that diplomacy will break down altogether. In my 3 February talk at IISS, I ticked off some of the events that could throw a spanner into the works. I also offered some suggestions for overcoming the barriers to a long-term agreement.

A major sticking point is the West’s desire for Iran to dismantle the most dangerous features of its nuclear programme and Iran’s insistence that it will not dismantle anything.

In the North Korean case ‘Complete, irreversible, verifiable dismantlement’ (CVID) was the unconditional demand. It was the proper demand. But we never got it. In the case of Iran, there is no point in asking for CVID, because Iran’s negotiating partners have accepted that Iran can maintain some level enrichment consistent with its civil energy needs. So away with the ‘C’ part of CVID. And at the end of the agreement, when Iran is considered to have satisfied all concerns, there would be no restrictions on its nuclear program. So forget ‘irreversible’ as well. Still, 'verifiable dismantlement’ would be good.

Rather than insisting on dismantlement as a principle, however, the six powers should determine what they could accept in terms of Iran’s break-out time. According to some analysts, the break-out time to produce a weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium was 1.5 months before the deal and will be 3 months by summer. The break-out time should be extended to 6-12 months at a minimum. One can then work backwards from this goal to determine the limits required: how many centrifuges and their efficiency, as measured in separative work units; to what extent Fordow should be mothballed; how much R&D is permissible and where; and whether centrifuges need to be dismantled or if they can be disabled or otherwise put out of use. After the 1994 North Korea-US Agreed Framework, unfinished reactors were left simply to rust out.

There are technical solutions to the challenges of a long-term agreement, including alternatives to dismantling. Excess centrifuges could be sent to a third country for safekeeping. Fordow could be used for something else unrelated to uranium enrichment. Arak could be upgraded to a light water reactor with conditions that make it proliferation resistant. The timeframe for limitations can be left up to the IAEA to apply neutral, objective criteria. If Iran accepts and fully implements the Additional Protocol, after a few years the IAEA can draw conclusions about no undeclared nuclear activity. Drawing such a conclusion typically takes a couple of years for countries that pose no anomalies. In the case of Iran, it would take several more years. As long as the IAEA has any doubts or is presented with credible evidence that requires investigation the agency will not be able to draw the necessary conclusion. Rather than rescinding sanctions legislation, which the US Congress almost never does (for example, the Jackson-Vanik sanctions on the USSR remained for two decades after Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate) sanctions can be repeatedly suspended. Admission of past weapons work can be preceded by a pledge of immunity.

Whether these alternatives are politically acceptable to the key capitals, I doubt. A roll-over of the interim deal is thus most likely, with some further incremental limits to both the nuclear program and to sanctions. Whether it can be rolled over more than once is too early to tell, especially in light of the mid-term US elections in November. But if the option is roll-over or more sanctions and more centrifuges, then another roll-over will probably be the choice.

Will roll-over just play into Iran strategy of playing for time? I don’t buy the idea that talks buy time for Iran to advance its nuclear program. It was advancing every year without talks. Advances will be smaller under the interim deal, because it caps the capabilities. Iran’s leaders have to worry about internal expectations of more sanctions relief. The status quo on sanctions could be dangerous politically. So they are not just playing for time; they do want sanctions lifted.

R&D is one area where Iran can continue advances. The Joint Plan of Action specifies that ‘Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices.’ Questions arose as to whether this meant Iran could install new centrifuges as part of R&D work or enrich above 5%. Apparently it was agreed that Iran could continue to do what it has already been doing, as reported by the IAEA. This means the Natanz pilot plant may see more development of 2nd, 4th and 6th generation centrifuges. That is potentially troubling.

The advances from continued R&D can be applied to work at any clandestine plants. The Joint Plan of Action requires ‘No new locations for the enrichment’. But Iran’s policy has been not to declare new nuclear facilities until six months before operational. Iran said in 2009 that ten new enrichment plants were to be constructed. My assumption has been that in the ensuing four years, at least one such new plant would by now be under construction. This is one way my presumption of no cheating under the interim deal could be wrong. If Iran is already constructing new enrichment plants, will it stop and will the IAEA have access?

Let me end with one suggestion. If the interim deal is rolled over, the E3+3 should seek to limit the R&D allowed. In return they should be ready to suspend sanctions on something similar, such as technology transfer for oil and gas exploration and production. This would help counter the narrative that the Western nations want to stop Iranian technology development. No, they just want to stop nuclear weapons development.

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