Limit sensitive capabilities, across the board

April 3, 2015

Iran's negotiators have agreed to some real limits on their nuclear program, in exchange for some real relief from financial and economic sanctions.  The only question is: Can Iranian leaders resist snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?

The understanding reached in Lausanne this week appears fragile, seemingly crafted by the sheer will and determination of the parties to make some progress.  The Mogherini-Zarif statement, carefully worded, made little to no mention of the four issues that resisted resolution all week—the duration of the agreement, the disposition of low-enriched uranium stockpiles, research and development on advanced centrifuges, and the phasing out of sanctions.  This lack of specifics may not be too serious, however, in the context of an agreement characterized by President Obama as "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." 

This means that the next 12 weeks will provide little respite for the parties. Limits on the scope of centrifuge research and development are important, particularly if concerns remain over the duration of the agreement. The sequencing of sanctions relief is clearly important to Iran, which hopes to recover some of the economic losses of the last few years, but also important to Western negotiators because of the leverage that sanctions provide. The good news is that some progress on significant issues is evident: For example, the Arak heavy water reactor will be redesigned, so it does not produce weapons-grade plutonium; its spent fuel will be shipped out of the country, and Iran committed not to reprocess or build other heavy water reactors in the next 15 years. This pretty much cuts off the plutonium route to the bomb. On the highly enriched uranium (HEU) side, the statement also clearly defined Natanz as the only uranium enrichment facility allowed, and the Fordow facility will be converted to research (at least for the duration of the agreement). On the other hand, there are likely limits still to be worked out for research and development on laser enrichment.

While we would like to think that another Iran won't happen, Saudi hints that they will acquire the same capabilities as Iran suggest otherwise. Saudi Arabia would not have to violate its safeguards agreement to do that. In fact, Saudi Arabia could produce HEU under safeguards quite legally, even if it had no civilian use for the material. And, thanks to previous gaps in the nonproliferation regime, supplier restraints would not prohibit Pakistan, which is not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, from supplying Saudi Arabia with the dual use equipment it would need to produce HEU. 

It is time to face up to the fact that we need limits on sensitive capabilities like enrichment and reprocessing—limits that don't just apply to the "newcomer" states, but to all countries. Only a principled, non-discriminatory approach holds the prospect for success.