Iran’s Inflexibility on Enrichment a Barrier to Progress on Nuclear Deal

By Daryl G. Kimball

Officials involved in the high-stakes negotiations aimed at reaching a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program report limited progress after the latest round of meetings in New York.

Both sides, the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran, say that the most significant disagreement is over how to define Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity over the course of the multiyear deal.

Iran’s Foreign Minster Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani came to New York expressing hope for a deal, but, unfortunately, they say its up to the P5+1 to change its position on the uranium-enrichment issue.

While the P5+1 have put forward creative proposals, to this point, the Iranian negotiating team has resisted meaningful proposals to curtail Iran’s current uranium-enrichment capacity.

If Iran’s leaders really want to get “yes” on a comprehensive nuclear deal as they say the do, they will need to adjust their approach.

And adjust they can. Iran’s current position on uranium enrichment is not shaped so much by a serious calculation of Iran’s “practical nuclear energy needs” as it is based on their leaders’ political calculus. And it appears to be a result of their impulse not to appear to compromise in any way–even if it is in Iran’s interests to do so.

With less than two months to go before the Nov. 24 target date to reach a deal, it is past time for Iran to move beyond its well-worn talking points and begin bargaining on realistic options on the core issue of uranium enrichment.

Iran's Javad Zarif, the United States' John Kerry, and the EU's Catherine Ashton meet Sept. 25 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, U.S. Secretary of State’ John Kerry, and European Union High Representativ Catherine Ashton meet Sept. 25 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

 

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The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, September 25

IRAN-NUCLEAR-POLITICS By the research staff of the Arms Control Association. To get this P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert delivered to your inbox, sign-up now.

The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert will suspend its daily update until talks resume in August, but will update readers of the latest developments as necessary.  

Crunch Time 

Achieving progress this week in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 “is the key to reach a comprehensive agreement” before the Nov. 24 deadline, according to Michael Mann, spokesperson for EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, who spoke to reporters on Sept. 24.

With only two months to go, negotiators do not have time to waste. Unfortunately, our sources indicate that as of this week, the two sides remain at odds on key issues, the most important being defining Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity.

As we and others have written, a win-win solution is still within reach, but in order to do so, both sides must pursue realistic options-and soon.

Heads of state are also taking the opportunity to emphasize the importance of reaching a deal as the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly opens this week in New York.

In front of a global audience at the UN, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the “historic opportunity” to reach a nuclear deal. He told Iran that a comprehensive deal that “meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful” is possible. He urged Iran to take this “historic opportunity” to reach an agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani echoed those sentiments in his remarks to the General Assembly today. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sure to dedicate a portion of his remarks to the talks when he takes the floor next week.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 (China, Germany, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have been meeting since last Thursday to continue negotiations toward a comprehensive nuclear deal.

In addition to technical meetings and the full plenary sessions, a number of bilateral meetings are also taking place, including a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

A full plenary at the ministerial level is possible before the end of the week. Right now talks are expected to run through this weekend or early next week and then recommence in October.–KELSEY DAVENPORT, director of nonproliferation policy and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director.


Understanding What “Breakout” Is and Isn’t

One of the key goals of the P5+1 is to reach a nuclear deal with Iran that increases the amount of time it would take Iran to make a quick dash to a nuclear weapon, if Tehran made the decision to do so.

This goal is seemingly at odds with one of Iran’s key concerns, maintaining its uranium-enrichment program and expanding its enrichment capacity over time as it plans to build more nuclear power reactors. But there is a solution to the uranium-enrichment question that meets the core concerns of each side.

That solution, however, should be based on a realistic assessment of how long it would take for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, or “breakout” of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Arms Control Association Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann explains the factors that should be taken into account when calculating how long it would take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a bomb, weaponize the material, and deliver it.

Thielmann concludes that:

“Because Iran already has the capability to build nuclear weapons it follows that the realistic goal for the P5+1 in pursuit of a final deal is not to make breakout impossible but to make it a less viable option. Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action has already made breakout a more difficult and unattractive policy option for Tehran than it was a year ago. It appears that Iran is willing to accept even more expansive transparency measures in a future agreement.

If the P5+1 and Iran build on the progress from the negotiations earlier this year and seek creative, practical tradeoffs on the most difficult issue-defining Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity-there is at least an outside chance of reaching a compromise agreement that meets the needs of all parties. In the context of such an agreement, the effective breakout timeline would remain sufficiently daunting for Tehran to be delivered from any temptation to break out of the NPT.”

The full text of the Arms Control Association Iran Nuclear Policy Brief is available online.


Meanwhile, Back in Vienna…

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference is in full swing. While the importance of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran is a frequently mentioned topic for many member states in their statements to the conference, the bulk of the discussion about Iran’s nuclear program took place last week during the agency’s Board of Governors meeting.

IAEA_Headquarters_ViennaIAEA Director General Yukiya Amano presented the agency’s quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program last week and told the board that Iran had not yet provided IAEA investigators with information about two areas of past work allegedly related to nuclear weapons development, or the so-called “possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program.”

Last May, Iran committed to provide the information by Aug. 25 as part of a framework agreement wherein Iran agreed to cooperate with the IAEA to answer the agency’s outstanding concerns about its nuclear program.

On Thursday, Sept. 18, when Iran had the opportunity to address the board, Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA Reza Najafi said that Iran and the IAEA discussed the two outstanding issues at an Aug. 31 meeting and that Iran plans to have another meeting “very soon” in order to complete the actions. While he denied that Iran ever had a nuclear weapons program and said the evidence of PMDs has never been authenticated, Najafi said Iran is cooperating with the IAEA to clarify the “ambiguities.”

Once the issues are completed, Najafi said Iran will suggest new areas to complete the agency’s investigation.

Iran’s delay in providing information on the two PMD actions is a serious problem, and it is essential that Tehran work with the agency to complete these activities in a timely fashion.

However, this delay should not disrupt the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal can result in a more intensive monitoring and verification regime that helps to ensure that any activities with possible military dimensions that may have been pursued in the past do not continue in the future.


Disconnecting the Centrifuges Is Not Enough and Is Not the Whole Story

A Sept. 19 article in The New York Times suggested that the P5+1 wants Iran to disconnect the piping between the approximately 9,000 centrifuges that are installed but are not operating, and some of Iran’s 10,200 operating machines.

According to the article, this “creative” solution would allow Iran to say it did not dismantle its existing centrifuges while putting up a barrier that would prevent Iran from rapidly turning on the machines to begin enriching uranium. A spokeswoman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Iran has not accepted or dismissed the idea.

Any comprehensive agreement to help prevent a nuclear-armed Iran will require a verifiable, technically sound plan for taking Iran’s excess centrifuges out of commission. It would be irresponsible for the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators not to look into this option as a part of the overall formula for defining enrichment capacity.

However, The New York Times story failed to mention that this technical approach is likely just one of several elements in a formula aimed at reducing Iran’s overall uranium-enrichment capacity.

As a result, some members of Congress appear to have jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the P5+1 are simply proposing to disconnect the installed but non-operating centrifuges as the “solution” to the uranium-enrichment problem.

In reality, negotiators can and should develop a formula for defining Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity over the duration of a multi-year, comprehensive agreement that takes into account several key variables, including

  • the number of operating centrifuges;
  • the type and efficiency of the centrifuges;
  • the configuration of the centrifuges;
  • how non-operating centrifuges and parts are stored and where; and
  • the size and form (gas or oxide) of the stockpiles of enriched uranium available to run through the centrifuges.

The task of the two sides is to come up with an agreed formula that will increase the amount of time that it would take Iran to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so, while providing Iran with sufficient capacity to meet realistic future nuclear energy goals.


Looking Ahead …

Week of September 22 – Iran P5+1 Ministerial level meeting (likely)

September 22-26 – IAEA General Conference

October 20 - Arms Control Association Annual Meeting “Preventing Proliferation and Advancing Nuclear Disarmament,” in Washington, D.C.  RSVP today!  

November 24 – Target date for the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal

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The P5+1 and Iran Talks Are Complicated Enough Without Partisan Senate Pressure

By Kelsey Davenport

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif last September during the UN General Assembly. Kerry and Zarif met again Sept 21, 2014 to continue nuclear talks. (photo credit: Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif last September during the UN General Assembly. Kerry and Zarif met again Sept 21, 2014 to continue nuclear talks. (photo credit: Reuters)

In a Sept. 19 letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, 31 Republican senators requested that the administration reveal answers to very specific questions about the U.S. negotiating position on elements of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, even as the U.S. diplomats are negotiating with the Iranians in New York.

The letter, led by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) came on the heels of a report in The New York Times published Friday night that claims the administration has, as part of a comprehensive agreement, proposed disconnecting the piping that connects a portion of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges as opposed to requiring their dismantlement.. On Saturday, Kirk told news outlets that this solution was unacceptable to him.

While the negotiations are ongoing, Congress should not push the administration to stake out its positions. It is counterproductive and could undermine the United States and its P5+1 partners while the talks are ongoing.

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Myths and Misconceptions: The Right to Enrich

By Kelsey Davenport

As talks between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) resume in New York this week, myths and misconceptions about Iran’s nuclear program still persist, and threaten to derail negotiations.

Until the Nov. 24 deadline, the Arms Control Association will publish a weekly post debunking some of the most commonly held “myths” about Iran’s nuclear program and what a comprehensive agreement will seek to achieve.

Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility (image source: BBC).

Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility (image source: BBC).

MISCONCEPTION: An Iranian uranium-enrichment program in a final nuclear agreement goes against U.S. policy on the right to enrich.

Although Iran and the P5+1 have yet to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement, the parties have already agreed that Tehran will maintain a uranium-enrichment program as part of the final agreement.

The Nov. 24, 2013 Joint Plan of Action laid out the broad parameters for a final deal, including agreement by the United States and its partners that Iran would retain an enrichment program based on its “practical needs.”

This has caused some concern that the United States has reversed its long standing policy opposing an inherent “right to enrich” under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT.) Iranian leaders making inaccurate statements that the agreement recognizes Iran’s right adds to that confusion.

Acknowledging that a program exists, however, is not the same as acknowledging that a treaty affords a “right.” The United States has done the former, not the latter. And, after reaching the agreement last November, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that U.S. policy remains unchanged by the agreement. In an interview with ABC he adamantly said, “there is no inherent right to enrich.”

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The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, September 18

IRAN-NUCLEAR-POLITICS By the research staff of the Arms Control Association. To get this P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert delivered to your inbox, sign-up now.

The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert will suspend its daily update until talks resume in August, but will update readers of the latest developments as necessary.  

Off to the Races

Ministerial-level negotiations during July 2014 meetings between the P5+1 and Iran on its nuclear program. (Reuters)

Ministerial-level negotiations during July 2014 meetings between the P5+1 and Iran on its nuclear program. (Reuters)

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 resume today with the first full plenary since negotiations were extended in July. Negotiators are meeting in New York City on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and may remain through Sept. 27. While talks at the political-director level are on the books, it is likely that meetings will continue at the ministerial level next week, with Secretary of State John Kerry expected to join in and meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

U.S. President Barack Obama, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are also expected to travel to New York to speak at the opening of the 69th UN General Assembly session next week. The three leaders are likely to address the status of the nuclear talks. Speculation abounds about a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani after last year’s historic phone call, but it seems unlikely at this point.

–KELSEY DAVENPORT,  Director of Nonproliferation Policy 


Clock is Ticking

With just over two months to the Nov. 24 deadline to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement, negotiators have their work cut out for them. While negotiators made progress on key issues leading up to the decision to extend the talks, gaps remain.

One of the most significant gaps that remains is over the size and scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. Iran has said repeatedly that it wants to scale up its uranium-enrichment capacity to provide reactor fuel for its Bushehr nuclear power reactor in 2021 and other reactors it plans to build in the future. The P5+1, however, wants to limit Iran’s current capacity (10,200 IR-1 centrifuges) in order to increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to dash to a nuclear weapon, if Tehran chose to do so.

In a Sept. 16 speech at Georgetown University, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, and lead negotiator for the United States, said that she expects Iran to “try to convince the world” that the status quo or its equivalent should be acceptable on uranium enrichment, but it is not. The P5+1 has presented ideas to Iran that are “fair, flexible, and consistent with Iran’s civilian nuclear needs and scientific knowhow,” she said.

These goals, however, are not mutually exclusive. The right formula can meet the core concerns of both sides. The Arms Control Association and the International Crisis Group formulated a proposal to demonstrate that a solution is possible. A write up of the proposal is available online.

Negotiators also believe that the uranium-enrichment gap can be bridged and that a good deal is achievable by Nov. 24.

In a Nov. 17 interview with NPR, Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran is “ready for a good deal, and we believe a good deal is in hand.” Iran is willing to “stay with the negotiations until the very last minute,” he said.

Despite remaining gaps, progress has been made on a number of key nuclear issues. To recap, there is general agreement that

  • the Arak heavy-water reactor will be  modified to produce less weapons-useable plutonium;
  • the Fordow facility will likely be transitioned from producing enriched uranium to a research and development facility; and
  • increased monitoring and verification measures will be put in place, including the  Additional Protocol, which grants increased access to the International Atomic Energy Agency for monitoring and verification.

Rewind 12 Months….

On the sidelines of last year’s UN General Assembly, newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani’s negotiating team met with the P5+1 for the first time. At that time, Iran’s nuclear program was advancing and the international community was ramping up sanctions pressure. A decade of diplomacy had thus far failed to achieve concrete results.

But by November 24, 2013, just two months after the historic meeting, Iran and the P5+1 reached an interim agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action.

Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran’s nuclear program has remained frozen. Iran has not installed any further centrifuges and halted construction on the Arak heavy-water reactor.

Key elements of proliferation concern were also rolled back under the agreement. Iran stopped producing uranium enriched to 20 percent and its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium was blended down or converted to powder form. Iran agreed to daily access to its uranium enrichment facilities and allowed the IAEA to visit facilities it had been denied access to for years. In exchange, Iran received sanctions relief.

In short, over the past year, both sides followed through on their commitments. Twelve months from now, hopefully, we can look back and see what progress has been made on a comprehensive deal.


Looking Ahead …

September 15-19 – IAEA Board of Governors Meeting

September 18 – P5+1 – Iran talks resume at the political director level

Week of September 22 – Iran P5+1 Ministerial level meeting (likely)

September 22-26 – IAEA General Conference

November 24 – Target date for the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal

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Myths and Realities: Iranian ICBMs?

By Jonah Aboni

The Iranian nuclear program is a source for international concern. The concern genuinely stems from the suspicion that the Iranian nuclear program might not be exclusively peaceful. Consequently, the United States and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) have engaged in diplomatic talks to ensure Tehran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.

A comprehensive deal is within reach if the diplomats continue to engage in creative trade-offs and move towards bridging the gaps that exist and move away from their entrenched positions. However, myths and misconceptions about the negotiations and Iran’s nuclear program persist that threaten to derail the talks. Until the November 24 deadline, the Arms Control Association will publish a weekly post debunking some of the most commonly held “myths” about Iran’s nuclear program and what a comprehensive agreement will seek to achieve.

Iran tests a Shahab-3 during exercises in 2012. Photo Credit: AFP

Iran tests a Shahab-3 during exercises in 2012. Photo Credit: AFP

MYTH: Iran is developing long-range ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads

As the negotiations progress toward a comprehensive deal, rhetoric that is used by critics of the talks implies that Iran is developing long-range rockets to be armed with nuclear warheads. This is sometimes used to muddy the waters during the on-going negotiations.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was categorically wrong during a July 29, 2014 Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Iranian nuclear program when he said that Iran is “developing a long-range rocket that will be able to reach the United States and other places in Europe. That is what they’re developing and that’s what they head towards.’’

Rhetoric like this has the potential to damage the negotiations because in reality the facts don’t seem to support the claims.

There is no serious evidence to back up all the claims that have been made about Iran developing long-range rockets to deliver nuclear warheads. The U.S. intelligence community assess that Iran may be technically capable of developing an ICBM with sufficient foreign assistance, not that they are doing so. Iran has never tested any long-range rockets. Iran’s longest-range missiles are medium-range ballistic missiles, not the intercontinental-range missiles as critics will have us believe.

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IAEA Report Shows Iran’s Nuclear Program Remains Frozen

By Kelsey Davenport

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano talks to press during an Aug. 17 visit to Tehran. (photo: IAEA)

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano talks to press during an Aug. 17 visit to Tehran. (photo: IAEA)

Iran is making progress on the additional measures it agreed to take in July to roll back parts of its nuclear program, according to the most recent quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

These steps include moving part of Iran’s stockpile of uranium powder enriched to 20 percent even further from the potential option of producing weapons-grade uranium.

According to the Sept. 5 report, Iran is continuing to comply with the conditions of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), an interim deal that Iran and the P5+1 reached in November 2013. In total, these actions have halted Iran’s nuclear progress and rolled back key elements of proliferation concern. Iran and the P5+1 agreed on July 19 to extend the JPOA through November 24, 2014.

The report also confirms that Iran provided information to the IAEA on three of the five actions Tehran pledged to complete by Aug. 25, although two actions were not completed until Aug. 31. This includes an updated safeguards agreement for the Arak heavy-water reactor and access to Iran’s centrifuge production facilities.

Top Points:

  • Iran is continuing to implement all of its commitments under the JPOA.
  • Iran is making progress on the new actions it pledged to take as part of the agreement to extend its negotiations with the P5+1.
  • Iran has completed three of five actions it pledged to take as part of its cooperation with the IAEA’s investigation into past military actions.

The incomplete activities are two of the so-called possible military dimensions (PMDs) that the IAEA laid out in its November 2011 quarterly report.

Iran’s delay in providing information on the two PMD actions is a serious problem, and it is essential that Tehran work with the agency to complete these activities in a timely fashion.

However, this delay should not disrupt the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 that are set to resume on Sept. 18. Negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal can result in a more intensive monitoring and verification regime that helps to ensure that any  activities with possible military dimensions that may have been pursued in the past do not continue in the future.

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