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.
Tough Talk from Tehran – What Does It Mean?
Talks are still underway in Vienna as the countdown to July 20 drops to 11 days. Yesterday’s meetings featured a plenary session chaired by Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Arachi and Helga Schmid, deputy nuclear negotiator for the P5+1.
Negotiators seem undeterred by the tough talk from Supreme Leader Khamenei yesterday expressing his support for the Iranian negotiating team and their argument for the option for increases in Iran’s centrifuge capacity to meet future nuclear reactor fuel needs. Later in the day, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, gave a television interview in which he provided some clarification of Khamenei’s remarks.
While it is significant that Iran’s Supreme Leader spoke up on the topic, his comments do not break new ground nor do they set any new red lines. For weeks, Iranian officials have argued that their civil nuclear fuel needs may increase in the coming years and say they do not want to depend on foreign suppliers. Iran’s fuel needs would increase, they say, after 2021 when and if the Russia-Iran fuel-supply deal for the Bushehr light-water reactor expires.
As noted in the July 7 edition of The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, Iran’s claims about enrichment capacity are debatable and there are options to square the uranium enrichment circle that could address the respective political goals and core interests of both sides. — KELSEY DAVENPORT, ACA Nonproliferation Analyst
Pivotal Issue No. 2: The Future of the Fordow Plant
One of the key issues that must be resolved is the future status of Iran’s underground Fordow uranium enrichment facility. Yesterday, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, expressed Iranian support for a possible compromise solution on Fordow.
During earlier negotiations with Iran in the spring of 2013, the P5+1 wanted uranium enrichment at Fordow to end altogether and for the facility to close. The facility, buried deep inside a mountain outside of the city of Qom, is less vulnerable to an airstrike, which is likely one of the reasons why the P5+1 originally sought the closure of the facility.
Iran, however, has stated publicly that it will not accept closure of any of its nuclear facilities in a final deal.
Under the Joint Plan of Action, enrichment activities continue at Fordow, but the 696 operating IR-1 centrifuges at the facility were converted to produce 3.5 percent-enriched uranium rather than 20 percent-enriched material. It is likely that the P5+1 will oppose the continuation of any production-scale enrichment at the facility, to dispel any Iranian notion that it has a secure breakout option.
As noted in the June 2014 ACA report, “Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle,” the two sides might compromise by agreeing that Iran will effectively halt any enrichment activities at Fordow for production purposes and convert it to a “research-only” facility. Under this configuration, Iran could use the facility to develop and test advanced centrifuges, activities that currently take place at Natanz. The facility would still be subject to intensive IAEA monitoring. This compromise would keep the facility operating but significantly reduce the proliferation risk.
AEOI head Salehi said in comments reported by IRNA that Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Fordow could be repurposed for research and development. Salehi said: “One of [our] proposals is changing the Fordo site into a research and development and back up site for Natanz site.”
While nothing is certain until the ink dries on a comprehensive deal, Iran’s willingness to consider other options for Fordow is an encouraging sign.
Breaking Down “Breakout”
As the U.S. intelligence community has consistently noted since 2007, Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so.
That reality makes the calls made by more than a few U.S. lawmakers and some senior Israeli officials to “eliminate” Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity impractical and, perhaps, a bit naïve.
Instead, the realistic goal for the P5+1 in the negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear agreement is to make the potential pursuit of nuclear weapons a more difficult, more time-consuming, and more unattractive policy option for Iran
Seeking to identify adequate constraints on Iran’s nuclear program has prompted all manner of intricate calculations of the length of time it would take Iran to get a nuclear weapon.
These calculations all start with the time required for producing enough uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 90 percent U-235 for one bomb (25kg). Taking into account Iran’s current stockpile of low enriched uranium (8,784 kilograms) and 10,200 operational IR-1 centrifuges, Iran could theoretically produce 25 kg of UF6 in about two-three months at the soonest and if not detected and disrupted.
But such estimates fall short of providing a full understanding of what it would take for Iran to actually “break out” of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and build nuclear weapons. The success or failure of a breakout attempt would depend on the quality and scope of the international inspection regime, the ability of the international community to respond effectively to disrupt the breakout, and the number of weapons Iran would judge to be a credible deterrent.
If Iran tried to build a militarily significant nuclear arsenal, it would take considerably more than a year to amass enough material for additional weapons, convert the HEU from gaseous to metal forms, assemble and perhaps test a nuclear device, and mate the bombs with an effective means of delivery.
For further discussion, see: “The Trouble With ‘Breakout Capacity: How a widely misunderstood term could doom the Iran nuclear negotiations,’ by Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright, in Slate, June 18, 2014.
Looking Ahead …
July 10-13 (est.) – P5+1 Foreign Ministers join talks in Vienna
July 15 (13:00-14:30 CST) – Panel Discussion: “A Win-Win Solution for the Negotiations over Iran’s Nuclear Program” organized by Search for Common Ground and the Vienna International Center for Nonproliferation and Disarmament. Location: Donau-City Strasse 6, Andromeda Tower, Floor 13th 1220, Vienna Austria.
Speakers are: Dr. Frank von Hippel, Senior Research physicist and Professor of Public and International Affairs Emeritus at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security; Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association; Ambassador (ret.) William G. Miller, Senior Advisor for the US-Iran Program, Search for Common Ground. Register online or email your RSVP to: [email protected]
July 20 – target date for the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal.
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