Top diplomats from the United States, five other world powers, and Iran are racing against the clock to seal a long-sought, long-term comprehensive deal that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran, helps avoid a future military confrontation over its nuclear program, and leads to sanctions relief.
This special newsletter compiled by the research staff of the Arms Control Association is designed to provide occasional updates from various sources on the talks, as well as information to help provide journalists, policy makers, and the public with a better understanding of the key issues and options.
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This Week in Vienna
With about fourteen days before their July 20 target date, the P5+1 and Iranian negotiating teams are at full strength and are working full time. Over the weekend, EU deputy negotiator Helga Schmidt and Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Aragchi reportedly worked on a draft text. By the end of the week, the talks could be fortified with the arrival of some of P5+1 foreign ministers.
According to Western diplomatic officials, the arrival of P5+1 foreign ministers in the would, in part, be designed to gauge the status of the negotiations, identify major remaining gaps, consult on ways to bridge those gaps in the days leading up to July 20, and consider whether an agreement is close but will require more time to negotiate.
According to a July 2 Al-Monitor report, Secretary of State John Kerry may join the talks following his scheduled July 9-10 trip to China.
What the Heck Is SWU? (And Why You Need to Know)
Uranium-enrichment capacity is measured in separative work units (SWUs). More efficient centrifuges have a higher SWU capacity.
Any agreed limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity will likely be measured in SWU rather than in a specific number of centrifuges. The vast majority of Iran’s operating and installed centrifuges are the less-efficient, crash-prone IR-1s. It is still working on perfecting more efficient IR-2Ms and trying to develop more advanced models.
Each IR-1 centrifuge has an efficiency of approximately 0.8-1 SWU per year. Currently, Iran is operating about 10,200 IR-1 centrifuges, which is about 10,200 SWU per year. Iran is working on more-advanced models, including the IR-2M, which it had begun installing in production-scale cascades before the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action froze new centrifuge installation. The IR-2M is estimated to be three to five times more efficient than the IR-1.
For example, if Iran’s SWU capacity was capped at 10,200 under a comprehensive deal for a certain period of time, it could operate 10,200 IR-1 centrifuges, or 2,100 to 3,300 IR-2M centrifuges. Either configuration would keep Iran below that SWU cap.
Pivotal Issue No. 1: Defining Uranium Enrichment Capacity
If there is to be a comprehensive agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, the two sides must find a suitable formula that limits Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity in a way that precludes an Iranian dash to produce enough HEU for weapons without being detected and disrupted, but allows for Iran’s practical civilian nuclear energy and research needs over time.
Getting to “yes” on such an approach will require compromise and creativity on the part of both sides.
The P5+1 point out that an agreement that significantly reduces Iran’s present-day enrichment capacity would increase confidence Iran cannot make a dash for the bomb without being detected and still would provide Iran with more than sufficient capacity for its nuclear fuel needs, which are very limited for the next decade or more.
As the chart from ACA’s “Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle” report indicates, Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor already has enough material to fuel that reactor for years to come. If the Arak heavy water reactor is modified to use 3.5 percent enriched uranium fuel (which would severely cut its plutonium output), it might require no more than 1,000 SWU per year to meet its fuel needs.
Iran also operates a 1,000-megawatt electric light-water power reactor at Bushehr, which uses fuel supplied by Russia under a 10-year arrangement that could be renewed in 2021. The arrangement obliges Russia to continue supplying fuel unless Iran chooses not to renew the fuel supply contract. Iran is in talks with Russia to build and supply up to four additional nuclear power reactors and Russia is believed to be offering fuel supplies for those reactors too.
Yet, Iranian negotiators insist that Iran’s nuclear fuel needs may increase and say they cannot depend on foreign suppliers given the unreliability of these suppliers in the past. It is estimated that Iran would need about 100,000 SWU of enrichment capacity to provide fuel for Bushehr.
Are There Creative Solutions on Uranium Enrichment?
Although negotiators have not publicly acknowledged it, both sides are believed to be looking at several options that could help square the circle on the difficult uranium enrichment issue.
There are several straightforward steps that will likely be part of any agreement, such as:
- limiting uranium enrichment to levels of less than 5 percent;
keeping Iran’s low-enriched (3.5%) stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas to a minimum (less than 1,000 kilograms or so); and
- halting production-scale work at the smaller Fordow enrichment plant and convert it to a research-only facility.
- limiting Iran’s enrichment capacity for the next several (6-10 years) at current levels, or, ideally, below current SWU capacity (9,000), but allow for appropriate increases in Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity in the later stages of the deal if Iran provides sufficient information to the IAEA to show that any past experiments with possible military dimensions have been discontinued and if Iran demonstrates that it cannot obtain foreign nuclear fuel supplies for existing (or new) nuclear power reactors.
Iran could agree to phase out, remove, and store under IAEA seal its less efficient, first-generation centrifuges and, over a period of years, replace them with a smaller number of more-efficient centrifuges. During the transition period, the total operating enrichment capacity would be held below agreed limits, ideally less than Iran’s current capacity.
- Iran could agree not to assemble the more efficient centrifuges until there is a demonstrable need for commercial-scale enrichment. This would increase the time it would take Iran to operate the machines, providing added insurance against rapid breakout scenarios. To reduce Iran’s rationale for greater enrichment capacity to fuel future reactors, a comprehensive agreement could commit the P5+1 to provide fuel supply guarantees to Iran for any such needs. Such guarantees could include pre-delivery of reactor fuel for the Bushehr LWR before 2021.
Looking Ahead …
July 8 – 9:30-11:00 a.m. (EST) – “Iran Sanctions: What the U.S. Cedes in a Nuclear Deal” at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, DC. featuring Suzanne Maloney, Brookings Institution; Kenneth Katzman, Congressional Research Service; and Elizabeth Rosenberg, Center for New American Security. RSVP online. Webcast on the USIP website.
July 20 – Target date for the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal.
Follow The Negotiations via Twitter at #IranTalksVienna