The Iran interim agreement: An international precedent for nuclear rules

By Victor Gilinsky, Henry Sokolski | December 6, 2013

In the rush to analyze the interim agreement between the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, or P5 +1, and Iran, international observers have overlooked perhaps its most important aspect. Attention has focused on the effect this Joint Plan of Action will have on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but in the end the agreement’s chief significance may be in the precedent it sets for the rules that will apply to nuclear power worldwide.

The plan states that after the agreement is finalized “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).” Turn the language around, and it says that the rules that apply to Iran’s nuclear program will be the ones that apply to all other NPT parties.

Remarkable as it may seem for a treaty that went into force in 1970, this is the first time that the original five nuclear weapon states have drawn a line—albeit implicitly—between what is an allowed “peaceful” nuclear activity under the NPT, and what is not.

The treaty includes the promise—constantly cited by nuclear technology seekers—that all parties have “the inalienable right” to use nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes,” but does not make clear the necessary limits of that promise. The NPT is, after all, intended to keep countries from making nuclear bombs and to provide assurance to its members, through inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that their neighbors are complying.

The trouble is, when civilian nuclear activities parallel military ones too closely, a country can make the leap from one to the other before inspectors can sound a useful alarm. Such unsafeguardable activities should therefore not qualify as “peaceful” in the context of the NPT. Unfortunately, over the past 40 years, treaty members have failed to address squarely the conflict between the promises and restrictions of the treaty. A final Iran agreement will, in effect, take this issue on.

The joint plan bans Iranian centrifuge enrichment above the 5 percent uranium 235 level used for power reactor fuel. (Iran had been enriching uranium up to 20 percent to fuel its research reactor.) The aim is to make more difficult any jump to highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

At the same time, in view of the political realities, the plan concedes Iran will be permitted to enrich to some degree. After this agreement, the United States will find it much more difficult to gain “gold standard” civilian nuclear cooperation agreements, like those just reached with the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan, that require states to forego any uranium enrichment.

As a practical matter, there is not a great difference between 20 percent and 5 percent enriched uranium in terms of the potential to ramp up to produce highly enriched uranium (say, 90 percent) for bombs. Centrifuge enrichment lends itself to small-scale operation and is very flexible in output. It is simply a fact that centrifuge technology puts its owners within arm’s reach of highly enriched uranium. In acknowledgement of this point, the joint plan calls for daily inspection of Iran’s enrichment activities. The practice should apply to other countries operating centrifuge plants, for example, Brazil.

The plan bans access to plutonium, the other fuel that is also a nuclear explosive, by banning reprocessing of used fuel. In this case, such a ban is feasible because Iran has no reprocessing facilities. Also, and in contrast to enrichment, there is no plausible economic rationale for reprocessing—for Iran, or any other country. As reprocessing involves direct access to nuclear weapons-usable plutonium, it shouldn’t merit the NPT’s “peaceful” label. That non-peaceful judgment applies with even greater force to actual stockpiles of plutonium, such as those in Japan.

That view wasn’t, of course, the way the NPT members initially saw plutonium.

Exporters relied mainly on peaceful-uses promises of technology recipients. The exporters’ naiveté ended with India’s violation of such promises on the way to making its 1974 bomb. Exporters realized that effective nonproliferation had to include restrictions on available technology.

The United States and other top nuclear exporters formed the Nuclear Suppliers Group to restrict exports of sensitive technologies. The sensitive euphemism betrayed a hesitancy to publicly challenge the permissive interpretation of the NPT’s “inalienable right” language, or to address the inherent limitations of IAEA inspections. Even now, the interim agreement with Iran makes no explicit connection between restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing and the intrinsic limitations of IAEA inspection. Such a link would have put the agreement on a stronger footing.

On top of the reprocessing ban, the joint plan halts most work on a small reactor at Arak, which could produce one or two bomb’s worth of plutonium per year. Without a reprocessing facility, Iran would not be able to produce plutonium from the plant’s spent fuel.  The ban on this reactor, therefore, implicitly states that the international community also needs to guard against the possibility of a small clandestine reprocessing plant in Iran.

But if one concedes the possibility of such a clandestine plant—it wouldn’t be difficult to build or to hide until it operated—then one should not leave out, as the joint plan does, Iran’s power reactor at Bushehr. Like any other light water reactor—the main type used throughout the world—it could produce enough plutonium per year for a great many more bombs than Arak. It is a myth that plutonium from light water reactors cannot be used for weapons. If the fuel is removed earlier than normal, the plutonium it contains can be very satisfactory for weapons. In fact, in the l980s, the US Energy Department considered using a commercial LWR as a plutonium production reactor.

In short, light water reactors, even without declared fuel reprocessing facilities, are not the unambiguously benign propositions they are made out to be, and they require more inspection than is now common. The joint plan takes no note of this and instead looks forward to enabling “Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” which would include “acquiring modern light water power and research reactors”—as if such reactors are a cure-all for keeping civilian nuclear power activities from spilling over into military use. They aren’t, and the negotiators need to take a more sober account of that reality.

More important, they need to look beyond Iran, because the final agreement will create a powerful precedent. We, the authors, cannot emphasize too strongly that in view of the joint plan’s promise of equivalency between the rules for Iran’s nuclear program and “that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT,” the negotiation is not just about Iran. It is about the rules for nuclear power programs throughout the world.

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