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 Weekend In Vienna
Several P5+1 foreign ministers trickled into Vienna on Sunday to join the nuclear talks with Iran one week before the interim agreement expires. Speaking to the press ahead of his first meeting at the Coburg Palace where the talks are taking place, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “significant gaps” still remain, but he hoped to make progress while in Vienna.
Kerry was joined by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In separate comments to press, the ministers echoed Kerry’s general sentiments. Unsurprisingly, Hague identified one of the gaps as Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. He said Iran needs to be “more realistic about what is necessary” in the negotiations.
The Chinese and Russian Foreign Ministers did not attend due to other commitments.
Kerry’s day at the Coburg wrapped up with an evening bilateral discussion with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. While Kerry left the Coburg after the meeting, Zarif spoke to the press and said headway had been made and the two sides discussed “innovative” proposals for addressing some of the remaining gaps.
While Zarif did not give any details on what innovative proposals were discussed, you can read about some creative solutions on the uranium enrichment question in ACA’s recent report here.
Early Monday, Kerry and Zarif resumed their discussions.
—KELSEY DAVENPORT, ACA Nonproliferation Analyst
Pivotal Issue No 3: Blocking the Plutonium Path
While there are still differences on how to define Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, there has been progress on how to neutralize its plutonium production potential at the 40-MWt, heavy-water reactor at Arak. The interim agreement verifiably froze all major construction work on the project, which is more than a year away from completion.
For the P5+1, this reactor presents a serious, long-term proliferation concern because heavy-water reactors are well suited to the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Under the current design configuration, the reactor would produce enough weapons-grade plutonium per year once operational for about two nuclear weapons. The spent fuel would need to be removed from the reactor and allowed to thermally cool for several months, then the weapons-grade plutonium-239 would need to be reprocessed, or separated from the spent reactor fuel, before it could be used in weapons. Iran currently does not have a reprocessing facility and says it has no intention to build one.
Iran maintains that the Arak reactor is intended to produce medical isotopes, although its large size far exceeds what is necessary for isotope production. Additionally, because the Arak site represents Iran’s only indigenously developed and domestically constructed nuclear facility, Tehran strongly opposes any outcome that would require it to shut the facility and opposes converting it to a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor.
It is clear from diplomats on both sides of the negotiations that progress has been achieved toward mutually agreeable modifications to Arak that would significantly reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium in its spent fuel, while allowing Iran to use the facility for medical isotope production and research.
One of these design modifications would be to reduce the reactor from 40 MWt to 20MWt, 15 MWt or 10 MWt. This would reduce the annual output of weapons-grade plutonium from approximately eight to nine kilograms to around one kilogram. Approximately four kilograms of plutonium-239 are required for the construction of the core of a nuclear weapon. Some analysts suggest it would be useful to modify the reactor vessel containing the fuel rods to ensure the modification is irreversible, so that Iran could not increase the power of the reactor over time.
Another option that would reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium in the spent fuel would involve conversion of the reactor to use uranium fuel enriched to 3.5 percent or 20 percent instead of the natural uranium fuel that the reactor’s design currently requires. About 1,300 IR-1 centrifuges could produce enough material annually to fuel the Arak reactor operating at 20 MWt.
To reduce the Arak reactor’s proliferation potential even further, all spent fuel from the reactor could be verifiably removed for disposition in a third country, possibly Russia, to prevent it from becoming a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
For more information, see: “A Win-Win Solution for Iran’s Arak Reactor,” by Ali Ahmad, Frank von Hippel, Alexander Glaser, and Zia Mian in Arms Control Today, April 2014.
Iran’s Nuclear “Rights” and Responsibilities Under the NPT
Iranian leaders have argued for years that attempts to limit Iran’s nuclear program and impose sanctions infringe on Iran’s sovereign rights as a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Article IV of the NPT says that the states-parties have an “inalienable right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”
U.S. and other Western government officials, however, note that the NPT does not specifically give states parties a “right” to engage in sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle activities, including uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. They also point out that the treaty obliges non-nuclear-weapon states under Article II “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” and under Article III “to accept safeguards” in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency standards and practices “with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
Some critics of the November 24, 2013, interim agreement argue that “allowing” Iran to continue enriching uranium is counter to the U.S. policy position that does not recognize the right to enrich as part of the NPT, especially if states have engaged in illicit nuclear weapons-related research.
The P5+1 and Iran did not agree on the nature of Iran’s nuclear energy “rights” in their November 24 first-phase agreement, but the P5+1 recognized that Iran already has a nuclear enrichment program and would insist on retaining some enrichment capacity.
As part of the broad parameters of the final deal, the parties agreed to negotiate practical limits on the scope of the enrichment program and additional safeguards on ongoing Iranian enrichment activities at its Natanz and Fordow facilities in order to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential.
The Latest Reads…
Transcript – Background Briefing on P5+1 Negotiations by Senior U.S. Administration Officials, Vienna, Austria, July 12, 2014. http://1.usa.gov/1kUPhPt
Transcript – Meet the Press: David Gregory’s Interview with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif aired July 13, 2014 on NBC News. http://nbcnews.to/1oWzm5B
British Parliament committee endorses limited uranium enrichment for Iran: “In a lengthy report made available to Al-Monitor in advance and published early July 14, the 11-member committee-composed of representatives from Britain’s three main political parties-states that negotiations “are the most promising forum for reaching a settlement which assuages fears about the scope and intention of the Iranian nuclear program.” by Barbara Slavin, in Al-Monitor. http://bit.ly/1nxaiEp
Looking Ahead …
July 14 – Kerry and Zarif continue talks in Vienna; P5+1 and Iran experts continue work.
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: 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 15 (10:00am-11:30am DC time) – Briefing on a New Survey of U.S. Public Attitudes on Nuclear Negotiations conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. Location: Choate Room, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts, Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. Speakers: Steven Kull, Director, Program for Public Consultation; Nancy Gallagher, Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland; Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution. Register online.
July 20 – target date for the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal.
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