Action plan: Keeping Iran from the bomb

By Bulletin Staff | November 25, 2013

In the early hours of November 24, Iran signed an historic accord with the so-called P5+1—the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany—to freeze construction of its Arak plutonium reactor and constrain its nuclear fuel production. The interim agreement, reached in Geneva, goes well beyond what had been seriously proposed during past decades of nuclear discussions, and overnight, the international media narrative seemed to change. The Islamic Republic that had been “one year from the bomb” for more than a decade was suddenly “six months away” from making truly historic strides toward changing nuclear history.

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Known as the “Joint Plan of Action,” the agreement is intended to temporarily freeze parts of Iran’s nuclear program, while reducing operations in other facets. The deal is fairly straightforward: Iran will keep its existing usable centrifuges; however, the Islamic Republic can neither install new centrifuges nor start up centrifuges that are not in use. According to the agreement, Iran cannot enrich its nuclear fuel to contain more than 5 percent uranium 235—the level generally used in commercial nuclear power plants—and, with its entire stockpile of fuel enriched to 20 percent, it must dilute it or convert it to a form not considered to be weapons-grade. Over the upcoming six months, Iran will also allow daily camera checks at its nuclear facilities. If Iran takes these steps, experts estimate, the time it would take for the country to have a usable nuclear weapon—or “break out”—could be increased by weeks. In return, the P5+1 countries have agreed to loosen some economic sanctions, providing Iran with up to an estimated $7 billion in relief.

This six-month window is intended to give negotiators time to design a more comprehensive agreement to stop the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor and to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is one that is purely peaceful in nature.

The major powers and Iran have hailed the agreement as a major step forward, but not every country was ready to drop the ticker tape for the P5+1 parade: Unnamed Saudi officials told CNN that their government was very concerned that Iran “is not being sincere” in the negotiations, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately rejected the agreement, charging that it was an “historic mistake” that made the world a more dangerous place. 

The Bulletin turned to prominent nuclear weapons experts for their assessments of the Geneva accord. Though many agreed the deal was a confident first step, a number expressed concerns on what the deal lacked to be truly herculean, and others commented on the arduous road that lies ahead to reach a weapons-free Iran.

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Olli Heinonen, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and former deputy director-general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, senior fellow,

The recently concluded first step agreement slows down Iran’s nuclear program. This is important. It is also important to recognize that it is not a rollback.

Let us look at the current facts on the ground. With Iran’s inventory of 20 percent enriched uranium, it would take about two weeks using 6,000 IR-1 centrifuges, operating in tandem cascades, to produce enough weapons-grade material for one nuclear device. If Iran uses 3 to 5 percent enriched uranium as feed material at all its currently installed 18,000 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, the same result would be achieved in two months.

The current agreement retains Iran’s fleet of more than 18,000 IR-1 centrifuges. Operational restrictions are placed that allow 10,000 centrifuges to continue to enrich at up to 5 percent at any given point of time. These measures, together with a cessation of 20 percent enriched uranium production and conversion of the 20 percent-level stockpiles to oxides, extend the current breakout times by about two months.

The enrichment and inspection measures in this agreement cover Iran’s declared facilities. The presence of any undeclared facilities, however, changes the picture. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remains unable to provide credible assurances on the absence of undeclared nuclear facilities and activities.

The present deal—freezing construction of the Arak reactor and its fuel production—is welcome. If left unchecked, the reactor, which is envisaged to start operation by the end of 2014, would be able to produce more than one bomb’s worth of plutonium annually. At the same time, the deal is silent on the manufacturing of remaining key components of the reactor and its continued heavy water production. Technically, such efforts are not reasonable if the goal is to either dismantle the reactor or modify it to a more proliferation-resistant and smaller light water reactor as an alternative path of producing medical isotopes.

There are many strong views being aired that positively or negatively view the current interim deal. There also remains ample language in the current agreement that leaves space open for interpretation—another challenge for its implementation. Still, the agreement is where we are, and the proper focus should be using this first step to secure a more long-lasting deal that significantly rolls back Iran’s nuclear program.

While the final taste is in the end-goal pudding, we already need to start pre-tasting its recipe. 

Mark Hibbs, Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, senior associate,

The agreement reached in Geneva has been widely received with approval and some relief, including by myself, for very good reasons. The deal gives us a baseline for building confidence toward the longer-term goal of reducing the threat that Iran will become a nuclear-armed state. Without such an initial understanding with Iran on how to proceed in this direction, the ultimate logic of Iran’s uninterrupted nuclear development is that the United States and Israel will edge toward a war with Iran.

The agreement made in Geneva, however, stands between aspirations and hard realities. The aspirations are for an Iran that negotiates with the P5+1 powers a comprehensive and permanent solution to the crisis. The endgame would be an Iran that is in the NPT, in full compliance with its obligations, and that enjoys a “broader conclusion” from the IAEA that its nuclear program is fully understood and exclusively dedicated to peaceful use, and without a virtual nuclear weapon capability. In return, Iran would no longer be under sanctions, and, to the extent possible, it would have a cooperative relationship with the United States and other Western powers.

The hard realities include the possibility that, on the basis of its previous behavior, Iran may see the initial agreement as yet another opportunity to buy time, to continue developing and adding to its sensitive nuclear capabilities, and to leverage these assets in interminable negotiations with the powers that do not result in a final long-term accord commiting Iran to limits on the scope and extent of its sensitive nuclear activities.

If Iran sees the value of fully complying with the terms of the initial agreement, and the US administration is permitted by the US Congress to respond by negotiating, concluding, and bringing into force with Iran a long-term agreement, we may turn the corner on the Iran nuclear crisis. If instead Iran sees the initial agreement as a tactical opportunity to keep on a trajectory of accumulating more sensitive nuclear assets, the crisis will continue, and Iran’s leverage may increase.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, Forman Christian College, Lahore, Zohra and Z. Z. Ahmed distinguished scholar,

The deal is a triumph of peace over war, of diplomacy over angry fist-shaking, and of pragmatism over ideology. Expectedly, now that attacking Iran is off the table, the Israelis and Saudis are furious. The French are a bit miffed at being denied the glory of engineering the deal. But for a violence-weary world, it's terrific news.

Perhaps the deal is too little. One wishes that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program—the infrastructure it developed is certainly bomb-capable. In principle, Iran retains the option of exiting the NPT, throwing out IAEA inspectors, enriching its existing stock of 20 percent enriched uranium to 90 percent or beyond, building more centrifuges and cascading them, commissioning the Arak reactor and reprocessing the plutonium, and then speedily building its first nuclear weapon.

But pigs might first have to fly: If Iran ever exercises this option, it knows instant retribution will follow, the last thing President Hassan Rouhani's moderate government wants. Bent upon reversing the course set by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani's election has changed everything.

What Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls an "historic mistake" may well turn out to be the Obama administration's only success in Middle Eastern matters. The need of the times is to bring Iran into the fold, not isolate it. Isolation and anti-Americanism have helped Iran's backward-looking Shiite clergy at the expense of Iran's once-strong secular forces. Iran could well become the West's greatest ally in dealing with the violent Saudi-funded Takfir wal-Hijra, an al-Qaeda type of Sunni Wahabi fundamentalism that lies behind the September 11 attacks and the bloodbaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Libya.

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The agreement between Iran and the P5+1 must be seen for what it is: an agreement to talk on mutually acceptable terms toward mutually acceptable ends. In that sense, the deal might have ended with the preamble; but given the limited political tolerance for negotiations without concessions, both sides wisely made a serious down payment in the areas of restraint, transparency, and economic relief.

The agreement stabilizes the breakout timeline, enabling extended discussion free of new military or sanctions pressure. In the last moments, it appears that Iran has conceded most, without limiting its rights, in the areas that had previously blocked agreement. In particular, all proliferation sensitive construction at Arak shall cease, and there is no explicit recognition of Iran’s right to enrich beyond that already in the NPT. There is a clear statement that enrichment can be part of the end state, but that end state remains up for discussion.

The real work is in defining what sort of nuclear program Iran will have. This could be handled in dignified technical discussions, or it could degenerate into a battleground of politics by other means. Personally, I am confident there is a technical path that satisfies Iran’s legitimate needs and the reasonable political concerns of all sides.

Noticeably absent is an articulation of the extent to which Iran will be asked to repent for past possible military activities, but in the agreement Iran has demonstrated forward-looking transparency beyond what was needed to verify the terms agreed thus far. This underscores Iran’s newly cooperative predisposition in this regard and the hope for a new dawn.

This remains a fragile agreement. We need now to let the hard work begin and not sabotage it with pontifications about final outcomes.

Lawrence Korb, Center for American Progress, and former US assistant secretary of defense, senior fellow,

The accord that the United States reached with Iran offers very limited and reversible sanctions relief in return for Iran essentially halting its progress toward making a nuclear weapon. This is a necessary first step that creates six months of space to develop a broader, more comprehensive treaty that will make it impossible for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon in a short period of time without being detected.

This agreement also creates an opportunity for the United States and Iran to once again cooperate on issues of mutual interest and concern. This is what occurred in the 2001-2002 time frame when the United States and Iran worked together on evicting Al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan, an opportunity ruined when US President George W. Bush cast Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in January 2002.

Is this a perfect deal? Of course not. It was not meant to be. In fact, no nuclear arms deal that the United States has negotiated has ever been perfect. But it is not, as some critics complain, a bad deal. Those critics based their complaints on two main points.

First, Iran retains the ability to enrich uranium and therefore still has the ability to develop a nuclear weapon. True, but as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and others have pointed out: There is no way to completely eliminate every piece of Iran’s nuclear technology unless you wipe every brain in Iran clean. Moreover, the deal has extended the time period for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon by stipulating that Iran cannot add centrifuges and must dilute or convert its 20 percent uranium.

Second, reducing the pressure of sanctions will make Iran less likely to make a comprehensive agreement. Hardly. The sanctions relief is comparatively small, amounting to no more than $7 billion compared to the more than $100 billion in sanctions that are currently in place. Moreover, if Iran does not live up to the terms of this accord or fails to agree to a comprehensive accord, the sanctions will not only be re-imposed, but increased by Congress.

Emily B. Landau, Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv, director,

The interim deal between the P5+1 and Iran is not a disaster, but there is no cause for celebration either. It is an interim deal on the ongoing nuclear crisis that in its final form more or less fulfills the objective of President Obama: to be absolutely certain that when talking to the Iranians about the comprehensive deal, they are not busy advancing their program. The provisions are all geared to that goal, with the addition of some sanctions relief for Iran.

The problem with this deal is not its content, but rather the expectation that with the situation now frozen, the negotiators can set to work on negotiating the terms of the final deal. Unfortunately, the history of the last decade renders that expectation unrealistic. The more realistic scenario is that Iran will not sit tight, but will continue to argue and haggle with the P5+1 over every provision, and continue to press for additional sanctions relief. Even now, less than two days since the deal was secured, the US and Iranian versions that have been made public are not identical. This opens the door to competing interpretations and subsequent bickering.

Until Iran makes the strategic decision to back away from its military nuclear aspirations, it is playing a tactical game to secure maximum sanctions relief in return for minimal nuclear concessions. And the comprehensive deal? If people think the interim deal was hard to get, well, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The pressure of sanctions is what brought Iran to the table; letting go of the only leverage that the P5+1 have in these difficult talks before getting the comprehensive deal they want would be absolute folly. In fact, a disaster.

Andreas Persbo, Verification Research, Training, and Information Centre (VERTIC), London, executive director,

Over the weekend, the permanent members of the Security Council, the European Union, and Iran agreed on an historic contract. It is the first deal of its kind since the November 2004 Paris Agreement, to which it bears many similarities. This is not coincidental, as Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, was in charge of negotiations with the West during that time. The Geneva agreement represents a clean break with the previous Iranian administration, and is a bold attempt to reset relations with the West.

Like the Paris Agreement, which aimed to freeze Iran’s nuclear program in its nascent period, the Geneva accord applies a freeze to most of Iran’s nuclear activities in their advanced stage. Moreover, the new agreement implements a monitoring regime resembling that of the IAEA Additional Protocol. The parties have also agreed to set up a “joint commission” designed to facilitate the implementation of the accord, and to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency to resolve verification issues. In return, Iran gets some sanctions relief.

The Geneva accord is not the final say, but the beginning of a new relationship. It represents a fragile first step toward a final settlement. De-escalation takes time, months if not years, and the accord now needs space for patient, careful, and verified implementation. Iran’s nuclear file has been open for a decade. Surely, for six months forth even Iran’s staunchest opponents can afford to give Geneva a chance. There is much to gain, and little to loose.

Thomas Pickering, , former US ambassador to the United Nations, India, and Russia,

The nuclear deal curbs Iran’s progress in enriching material by limiting it to below 5 percent, converting into oxide or diluting its stockpile of 20 percent material, and freezing the size of its 3.5 percent stocks for the next six months. Regarding the Arak heavy water reactor, progress is essentially frozen for six months. Inspection is expanded to include daily inspections of Natanz and Fordow and—for the first time—at centrifuge production facilities. The number of centrifuges that Iran is allowed to have is frozen as well. In return, the United States will release some $6 to $7 billion in sanctions relief, freeing up about $400 million in funding for student tuition, aircraft safety repairs, and humanitarian efforts that are not banned by sanctions. The United States will release, in installments, up to $ 4.2 billion—that is, oil revenue that has been frozen in foreign financial institutions. But there is a deadline: After six months, without a follow-on agreement, this arrangement will lapse on both sides.

But what, exactly, does this deal mean? The hope is to establish—within the next six months—a permanent and comprehensive agreement that turns Iran’s program into a fully justified civil and peaceful effort, decreasing the possibility that the civilian nuclear program could be misused for weapons purposes. This deal lengthens the time that Iran would need for a fast breakout, while allowing for reversibility of sanctions if the deal is not being kept by Iran. Overall, this deal was a very good first step: The next ones will be even harder.

Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association, and former director of the Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, senior fellow,

The Geneva agreement represents an historic breakthrough in the long-standing impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. The agreement will halt or reverse the Iranian nuclear activities of most acute proliferation concern over the next six months and provide additional means for the international community to monitor those activities while a long-term comprehensive agreement is negotiated. During this time, the P5+1 will retain the core sanctions on oil and finances that will continue to provide Iran a strong incentive to resolve concerns about the nature of its nuclear program.

This first-phase agreement represents a win-win outcome, giving both negotiating teams the results most needed by their governments. Consequently, it carries with it the best chance of being faithfully implemented by the sides during the next six months in a manner that builds the level of trust critical to achieving an ultimate resolution. Although the P5+1 avoided the maximalist approach advocated by some in Congress and some regional governments, it still achieved more than had been proposed earlier this year by the six partners and more than many observers thought possible.

While there is no guarantee that the ultimate goal of securing a peaceful path for Iran’s nuclear program will be achieved, the past trajectory has been altered. Instead of Iran’s NPT breakout options becoming ever shorter, its middle-class suffering ever-greater duress, and the risk of war growing more likely, the parties can now move toward increasing confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and ending sanctions.

Ivanka Barzashka, Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College, London, and affiliate of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, research associate,

The breakthrough deal that the P5+1 and Iran concluded on November 23 was not intended as a comprehensive solution to all of the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. According to the White House, the agreement “does not represent an acceptable end state” but is meant as an interim step toward a long-term solution. Consequently, the deal should be evaluated as a confidence-building exercise, and as such is a huge success. Here is why:

The agreement, the first in nearly a decade of confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, is a win for diplomacy and proof that Obama’s strategy of direct engagement with Iran works. Enabled by high-level face-to-face meetings between Tehran and Washington, the deal was struck despite significant opposition by hardliners in the US, Iran, and Israel.

The P5+1 and Iran adopted tangible, though modest, confidence-building measures that demonstrate both sides are serious about negotiations. Tehran agreed to concrete technical steps that would reduce its nuclear weapons potential by limiting its nuclear capacity and allowing greater transparency.

The deal reflects reasonable compromises. For example, the P5+1 initially demanded that stockpiled, 20 percent-enriched uranium be shipped out of Iran, but exporting uranium was unacceptable for Tehran. Instead, the two sides agreed that Iran would convert 20-percent enriched uranium hexafluoride to uranium oxide or downblend it to below 5 percent—measures that still buy threat reduction without crossing Iran’s red line.

Finally, the agreement succeeds in building trust by leaving out the hard questions, such as Iran’s right to enrichment, which would be addressed during the next phase of negotiations.

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