A Justified Extension for Iran Nuclear Talks, But Hard Choices Ahead

With significant headway already made but major gaps remaining – and especially with the options available in the event of a breakdown of negotiations looking unattractive to all parties – it made good sense for the P5+1 countries and Iran to extend their talks for another four months, which they announced late Friday.

The United States and its partners can well afford to take the additional time. The six-month halt in all significant advances in Iran’s nuclear program will remain in effect, as will the modest but worthwhile lengthening of the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon – the result of the neutralization of Tehran’s entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium gas. Indeed, over the next four months, Iran has agreed to convert a portion of its 20 percent uranium in powdered form to fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, making it even less readily accessible for use in a weapons program.

Moreover, with an extension of the very limited sanctions relief measures that applied during the six-month deal, including the suspension of certain secondary sanctions and the continuation of the metered-out release of a tiny fraction of Iran’s oil revenues held in overseas restricted accounts (roughly $700 million a month for a total of $2.8 billion by November), the devastating impact of the sanctions will remain intact and Iran will continue to have plenty of incentive to reach a comprehensive agreement.

The Extension Is Better for the P5+1 than for Iran 

It is the Iranian public, more than Western publics, that should be disappointed with the failure to meet the July 20 target date, and especially with the continuation of the debilitating sanctions. Critics of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), notably the Israeli government, had predicted that the interim deal would result in a rush to do business with Iran and an unraveling of the sanctions regime.

But those predictions have not materialized. Companies and governments all over the world have been exceedingly cautious about engaging in new business with Iran. They have waited for the end of sanctions, which they knew would only result from the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement.

The new deadline of November 24 was well chosen. It is consistent with the provision of the JPOA (announced November 24, 2013) that called on the parties to conclude negotiation of a comprehensive solution “no more than one year after the adoption of this document.” And importantly, the four months is long enough to give governments the time to make important decisions and negotiators the time to craft detailed provisions – but not so long that it would give critics in Tehran, Washington, and elsewhere the impression that the parties are prepared to prolong the talks indefinitely.

Perhaps most important, the extension will allow the parties to step back, take stock, and reflect on the hard choices that will confront them in the months ahead.

In their public comments, all sides have noted that the negotiations have produced significant progress, including in recent weeks and on some major issues. In particular, negotiators are reportedly working on design modifications of the Arak heavy water reactor that will substantially reduce its production of plutonium and opportunities for breakout. Discussions are also apparently underway about how the functions of the underground Fordow enrichment facility will be changed to minimize fears about its potential use in a nuclear weapons program.

But when government spokespersons on all sides talk about major gaps remaining, they are talking primarily about the vast divide that remains between the P5+1 and Iran — and especially between the Washington and Tehran — on the question of the uranium enrichment capacity Iran should be allowed to possess under an agreement.

Enrichment Remains the Primary Outstanding Issue in the Nuclear Talks

Iran has insisted that it must have sufficient enrichment capacity to produce enriched fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power reactor when the Russia-Iran contract to supply fuel for that Russian-built reactor expires in 2021. That would require Iran to expand its current enrichment capacity by a factor of ten or more and would reduce the amount of time it would need to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb to a matter of a few weeks, should it decide to do so.

The United States and its P5+1 partners have called for a sharp reduction of Iran’s current enrichment capacity (i.e., around 19,000 centrifuges, less than 10,000 of them operating) — to perhaps a few thousand first-generation centrifuges or a smaller number of more advanced centrifuges. They point out that such a limited enrichment capacity would nonetheless enable Iran to meet its realistic, near-term practical needs for enriched uranium — to provide enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, a modified Arak reactor, and perhaps a small light-water research reactor — and that Russia is eager to continue supplying fuel for Bushehr beyond 2021 (and could do so reliably and more competently, cheaply and safely than Iran could do on its own).

This gap has been apparent for several months, but seemed to widen when Supreme Leader Khamenei stated, in a July 7 speech, that Iran has a “definite need” for 190,000 SWUs — or “separative work units,” a measure of centrifuge performance equivalent to well over 100,000 first-generation centrifuges or smaller numbers of more advanced centrifuges. Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, elaborated the following day that new-generation centrifuges would be tested, mass-produced, and phased in over the next eight years so that, by the scheduled expiration of the Russia-Iran fuel supply contract in 2021, Iran would be able to produce the 190,000 SWUs the Supreme Leader said was necessary to fuel Bushehr.

Iran’s Negotiating Positions Have Undergone “Rights Creep”

The evolution of Iranian positions on enrichment might be called “rights creep.” For several years, while the United States held that no enrichment program should be permitted in Iran, the Iranians argued that a central negotiating goal was simply gaining recognition of a “right to enrich.” Although the United States still does not recognize a “right to enrich,” it agreed last year that, in the context of an otherwise acceptable deal, Iran could pursue a limited enrichment program. Having won that major concession, the Iranians have begun talking as if the ability to produce sufficient enriched uranium independently to fuel its power reactors – a capability even advanced nuclear-energy state Japan does not possess – is a right and minimum requirement that must be guaranteed and exercised. They now seem to be reaching even further, arguing that they must have that capability in place by 2021.

In an interview with The New York Times a week ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif revealed some elements of his government’s position that were presumably intended to be seen as movement toward the P5+1, particularly the notion that Iran would not insist on ramping up its enrichment capacity right away, but would defer an expansion for a number of years and in the meantime would remain at current centrifuge levels. But Zarif’s comments, together with those of the Supreme Leader and Salehi, suggest an Iranian strategy on the enrichment issue that is sharply at odds with the approach of the United States and its partners.

From public reports, it appears that the key elements of Iran’s strategy are:

  • to maintain the current level of operational centrifuge capacity for the duration of the agreement;
  • resist pressures for reducing that capacity; allow unlimited research, testing, production,
  • and perhaps even installation of advanced centrifuges during the agreement;
  • freeze or perhaps even reduce stocks of enriched uranium (even in oxide form);
  • make the agreement as short as possible (perhaps five to eight years);
  • and ensure that, upon expiration of the agreement, Iran would be free to increase the number of advanced, operating centrifuges as rapidly as it is able in order to achieve a capacity of 190,000 SWUs at the earliest possible date.

If Iran pursues such an approach when the talks resume, it will not be acceptable, certainly not to the United States and several of its partners, and it will ensure continued deadlock.

Iranian officials like to say that the United States and its P5+1 partners must show greater “realism” — meaning Western negotiators must accept the reality of Iran’s declared nuclear plans. But it is Iran that must show greater realism if it truly wants the negotiations to succeed and sanctions to be removed.

Iran’s Approach to Enrichment Fails the Realism Test

The Iranian approach fails the realism test at several levels. Iran has no compelling need to produce fuel indigenously for the Bushehr power reactor post-2021. The Russians are more than happy to extend their fuel supply contract for the life of the reactor, and to provide fuel for any additional reactors that Iran buys from Russia. Citing disappointing past experience — especially the failure of the “Eurodif” enriched uranium consortium to meet its obligations to Iran — Tehran asserts that it cannot afford to rely on foreign suppliers and must ensure independence in fuel production.

But Russia has proven to be a reliable partner to Iran for decades, defying strong U.S. pressure to abandon the Bushehr project. And even if Iran does not trust Russia or the well-supplied enriched uranium buyers’ market, it can pursue a variety of means to ensure against a fuel-supply disruption, including purchasing from Russia a continually renewable, five-year supply of spare fuel that could be stored on Iranian territory.

Iran is also not being realistic about its ability to take over Bushehr fuel production from Russia in 2021. As Carnegie Endowment nuclear expert Mark Hibbs points out in the July 7 Iran Fact File, “Iran has no experience and no infrastructure for making commercially significant quantities of VVER [Bushehr’s reactor type] fuel and no intellectual property agreement with Russia giving Iran access to design data for core internals including fuel, which it would need to make the fuel by itself. Were Iran to go ahead without Russian cooperation, a bilateral agreement assigning Russia liability in the case of safety issues arising at Bushehr would be automatically terminated.”

So Iran’s declared plan to produce Bushehr fuel independently by 2021 is not only unnecessary and uneconomical, it is also technically unfeasible, legally questionable, and highly unrealistic in terms of timeframe. If Iran somehow managed on its own to fabricate and load fuel into Bushehr, major safety issues could arise.

Foreign Minister Zarif’s “concession” that Iran would defer for several years expanding its enrichment capacity to the supposedly-needed 190,000 SWU level is really no concession at all. Iran will not wish to ramp up its enrichment capability using obsolete, current-generation centrifuges. It will want to install much more advanced machines. But further research and testing is likely to take several more years, until Iran is satisfied with their performance, and then they will have to be produced in large numbers. Even without an agreement, Iran would have to put off any buildup to an industrial-scale enrichment capability for a significant period of time.

And if a future industrial-scale capability will require more advanced centrifuges — and if a small, significantly reduced number of current-generation centrifuges are sufficient to meet Iran’s practical, near-term need to fuel a few research reactors — it makes little sense for Tehran to insist on maintaining current centrifuge levels during the agreement.

Iran’s recent public line that it needs an industrial-scale enrichment program to provide fuel for the Bushehr reactor and perhaps future power reactors — especially the Supreme Leader’s authoritative statement about a “definite need” for a 190,000 SWU capability – may well constrain Iranian negotiators’ room for maneuver, especially now that Iranian hardliners have taken up the 190,000 SWU battle cry.

But Iran may have left itself some wiggle room. At a July 15 press conference, Zarif said that “this amount [190,000 SWU] is not an immediate need and we have time to reach that level. We also need time in terms of technology to reach that level. And this time provides us with the possibility of reaching a solution.”

The Way Forward on Enrichment

These comments suggest a possible way forward on the enrichment issue. For the duration of the agreement, which should be close to what the P5+1 have proposed, Iran would accept a significantly reduced enrichment capacity that would nonetheless enable it to meet its modest, near-term needs. The agreement would be much longer than Iran would prefer and would require greater reductions in current enrichment capacity than Iran would prefer. But it would permit Iran, within agreed limits and monitoring measures, to engage in certain activities that would better prepare itself for proceeding in the post-expiration period to the more ambitious civil nuclear program that it says it wishes to pursue. Such activities could include research and testing of more advanced centrifuges and acquisition of the required expertise and infrastructure for fuel fabrication.

Such a framework would not require Iran to abandon its declared civil nuclear plans, only to accept a longer and more realistic time frame for pursuing them. It would also require the United States and its partners to make hard choices about the activities Iran would be permitted to engage in during the agreement.

For several years, and especially in recent months, Iranian officials have spoken as if Iran is the aggrieved party in the negotiations, demanding that the P5+1 and the broader international community drop the unjust sanctions, stop trying to coerce unwarranted concessions, and permit Iran’s legitimate exercise of its civil nuclear rights like any normal law-abiding country. Recently, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani asserted — as many Iranians have asserted before him — that Iran only wants to enjoy its rights, like Japan.

Iran’s Incriminating Nuclear Track Record Has Left a ‘Trust Deficit’

But given Iran’s highly incriminating track record in recent decades — including numerous violations of its nonproliferation obligations and credible evidence that, at least in the past, it pursued research, experiments, and procurement related to nuclear weapons — it cannot expect to be treated like Japan or other NPT-compliant countries. It cannot wish away or expect the international community simply to forget this record. Iran continues to suffer from what former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei used to call a “trust deficit.”

Iran’s leaders may or may not still be interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, but if they want the rest of the world to believe their nuclear program is devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes, they must demonstrate it through their actions, not just their words – and that will take time. Until Iran has gained the confidence of the international community in its peaceful intent, it will not be acceptable for Tehran to acquire sufficient enrichment capacity to be able to break out of constraints and produce enough nuclear material for a bomb in a short period of time. Deferring, but not necessarily abandoning, its civil nuclear plans is a reasonable price for Iran to pay to earn the trust of the international community – and to achieve a comprehensive agreement that can remove the sanctions, help re-energize Iran’s economy, and end its international isolation.

Four additional months is not a lot of time to close the wide gaps that remain between the parties. But rather than rush back to the negotiating table, it would be desirable for the exhausted diplomats to return to their capitals and take the time to reflect with their colleagues on the difficult choices and tradeoffs that will be required to arrive at a deal by the end of the extension period. Even with the new deadline, success is far from assured.