2 April 2015

Why the framework nuclear agreement with Iran is good for both sides

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai is a visiting assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a former associate in the Belfer Center's...

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After months of negotiations, Iran and six world powers have finally reached a framework agreement on limiting the country’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal announced on Thursday is intended as the basis for a comprehensive agreement to be worked out by the end of June.

Getting to this agreement was a crucial step, as virtually all technical issues have now been addressed, but much work still remains to be done. The coming months will involve a great deal of legal and political wrangling. In the United States especially, due to anxious allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) and some domestic opposition (especially among Republicans in Congress), negotiations will keep the White House busy.

Nonetheless, this is a good agreement for both sides, as indicated by some of its key components.

First, most of the public discussion about the negotiations has until now been focused on quantifiable elements, such as the number of centrifuges and amount of low-enriched uranium that Iran gets to keep, and the length of the deal’s implementation. But perhaps the most crucial aspect lies in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) access to Iranian facilities. In the framework deal, Tehran has said it will once again voluntarily implement the Additional Protocol to its existing IAEA safeguards agreement, granting the nuclear watchdog more inspections authority. (Iran had previously implemented the Protocol but stopped adhering to it.) This means that IAEA inspectors will be able to regularly monitor Iranian facilities and can conduct unannounced inspections as well. Inspectors will also have access to the supply chain through which Iran obtains materials for its nuclear program. Inspections will likely last for about 25 years, longer than the implementation period of the agreement itself.

Second, Iran’s enrichment program will be limited. It has agreed not to build any new enrichment facilities for 15 years, and will not enrich uranium above 3.7 percent—a level suitable for commercial power plants, but too low to practically be used in a nuclear weapon—for at least that long. It is also reducing its current stockpile of 10,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to a small fraction of that amount.

The Fordow nuclear facility will cease enriching any uranium and will be converted into a research center instead—one barred from doing research on enrichment. In fact, Iran will not keep any fissile material at Fordow for 15 years.

Iran will instead make the Natanz facility the focus of all enrichment activities. There, it will use only its first-generation (IR-1) centrifuges to enrich for 10 years. The more advanced IR-2m centrifuges will be stored for that period, under IAEA monitoring. In fact, advanced centrifuge models (the IR-2, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8) will not be used for enrichment for 10 years.

In total, Iran will reduce its current enrichment apparatus by roughly two thirds. It will have only 6,104 installed centrifuges, as opposed to the current 19,000. All of them will be the IR-1 model.

Third, Iran will implement Modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements to its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, which requires it to give early notification that it is constructing new nuclear facilities.

Fourth, Iran will take steps to address concerns over the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program.

Fifth, Iran will redesign and rebuild the Arak heavy water reactor. The design will be agreed upon by negotiators from the six world powers, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States. The redesign will mean that the reactor will not be able to produce weapon-grade plutonium. Iran is also recommitting itself to not developing a reprocessing capability. (Reprocessing, the back end of the fuel cycle, is a vital component in developing a plutonium bomb.) The original core of the reactor will be removed and either destroyed or taken out of the country. Additionally, Iran agrees not to build a new heavy water reactor for 15 years.

A number of these steps will, in effect, be irreversible. They will not just limit Iran’s nuclear capability for 10 to 15 years, but will reshape it entirely and indefinitely.

So what is Iran getting in exchange?

First, it will receive sanctions relief. US and EU proliferation-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA verifies that the above steps have been taken.

Second, all UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program will be lifted simultaneously. A transparent procurement channel will be established, allowing Iran to get what it needs for civilian nuclear development while giving assurances to the world that the materials will not be diverted for non-peaceful use.

Third, the agreement “encourages” international cooperation to help Iran in research and development. This stipulation was a sticking point over the last couple of weeks. But as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said at the press conference announcing the deal, it will now allow countries that had been reluctant to engage with Tehran to help the country further its technological and scientific progress.

In the following weeks, the agreement will doubtless receive much criticism. Many will claim that one side or the other made too many concessions. But both sides stand to gain from the framework agreement, which should also be considered a victory for the global nonproliferation regime. Ahead of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that begins in late April, where no major achievements in nonproliferation are likely to be announced, the framework agreement is a very important success.

The negotiating partners will have to meet major political, legal, and financial challenges to turn the framework agreement into a final deal. For the moment, though, it represents a promising and beneficial achievement for all sides.