By Daryl G. Kimball
Today, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the Islamic Republic of Iran has begun to implement measures that will reduce its potential to produce material for nuclear weapons in accordance with the Nov. 24 “Joint Plan of Action” negotiated with the P5+1 states (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
In a short report issued today, the IAEA also noted that it has begun daily inspections at the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities. Similar reports will be issued approximately once a month to monitor Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
The IAEA’s report confirms that, as of 20 January 2014, Iran:
- has ceased enriching uranium above 5% U-235 at the two cascades at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) and four cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) previously used for this purpose;has ceased operating cascades in an interconnected configuration at PFEP and FFEP;
- has begun diluting UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 at PFEP;
- is continuing the conversion of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 into U3O8 at the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant (FPFP);
- has no process line to reconvert uranium oxides enriched up to 20% U-235 back into UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 at FPFP;
- is not conducting any further advances to its activities at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, FFEP or the Arak reactor (IR-40), including the manufacture and testing of fuel for the IR-40 reactor;
- is continuing to construct the Enriched UO2 Powder Plant for the conversion of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 into oxide;
- is continuing its safeguarded R&D practices at PFEP, including its current enrichment R&D practices, and continues not to use them for the accumulation of enriched uranium; and
- is not carrying out reprocessing related activities at the Tehran Research Reactor and the Molybdenum, Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope Production (MIX) Facility.
In exchange, the P5+1 will extend limited, reversible relief from certain existing sanctions. Meanwhile, the core of the existing international financial and oil sanctions regime against Iran will remain in place.
A Net Plus for Nonproliferation
By halting enrichment to 20 percent, converting and diluting the existing 20% enriched uranium stockpile, and freezing the number of centrifuges available for enrichment, the first phase agreement will, by the end of first six months, add several weeks to the amount of time that it would theoretically take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon.
By halting work at the Arak heavy water reactor project, the first phase agreement stops the clock on construction of this reactor, which has the potential to produce spent fuel from which plutonium could be extracted and used for nuclear weapons.
 Estimated times are based on calculations described in “Iranian Breakout Estimates, Updated September 2013,” by Patrick Migliorini, David Albright, Houston Wood and Christina Walrond, published by the Institute for Science and International Security, October 24, 2013. Centrifuge and stockpile numbers are based on the most recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program from Nov. 14. It is important to note that these are theoretical estimates that do not take into account the fact that IAEA inspectors and national intelligence agencies would very likely detect any effort to start enriching uranium above 20% well under a month with current IAEA monitoring tools and within a week or less with additional first-phase transparency measures in place.
Creates Time for Negotiations on a Comprehensive Solution
By pausing the most worrisome elements of Iran’s nuclear program, the first-phase agreement will also provide the time to negotiate a more permanent “final-phase” agreement that could significantly reduce Iran’s overall enrichment capacity and lead to even more intrusive IAEA inspections to guard against any possible secret nuclear weapons-related activities.
Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 on the final phase deal are expected to begin next month.
Iran will also meet with the IAEA early next month for important talks aimed at working through longstanding questions about past Iranian nuclear activities with “potential military dimensions.”
On Nov. 11, the IAEA and Iran agreed to a new approach to the long-stalled investigation about these experiments. Under the Nov. 11 framework, Iran also agreed to implement six other measures by Feb. 11, including IAEA access to the Arak Heavy Water Production facility (which occurred on Dec. 8) and access the the Gchine uranium mine, which is scheduled for Jan. 29.
Final Phase Talks: Risks and Realities
With the start of the implementation of the first phase deal, formally known as the Joint Plan of Action, the debate about the contours of the final phase agreement have already begun, and hardliners in the United States and Iran have already begun pushing maximalist positions that threaten to unravel progress.
Over the opposition of the White House, 10 Senate Democratic committee chairs, and the other P5+1 countries, Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and 57 other Senators have introduced a bill that would lead to new sanctions against Iran and would require that any final phase agreement must dismantle all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. If approved, the proposal would sabotage the first phase deal and severely complicate the final phase negotiations with Iran.
The controversial bill would require that Iran agree to zero uranium enrichment capacity — which is not attainable and is not necessary to prevent Iran from getting a weapon.
A more realistic and effective course of action will be required to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
To reduce Iran’s potential to produce fissile material for weapons, the P5+1 must focus on rolling-back the overall capacity of Iran’s enrichment program.
The Nov. 24 agreement does not explicitly recognize the right to enrich uranium, but it does recognize the fact that Iran has a uranium-enrichment program, and the two sides agreed to negotiate a “mutually defined enrichment programme” with “agreed limits on the scope and level of enrichment, activities, capacity…and stocks of uranium” that should be “consistent with practical needs.” Iran’s nuclear fuel supply needs currently are close to zero, but could grow in the coming years.
Reducing Iran’s overall enrichment capacity—from 10,000 operating and 19,000 installed centrifuges at two sites to 3,000 or fewer operating first-generation (or equivalent second-generation) machines at one site—would significantly increase the time necessary to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb.
The P5+1 may continue to press Iran to abandon the unfinished Arak reactor, but Tehran will likely resist such an outcome. One compromise effectively neutralizing Arak as a threat would be to convert Arak to a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor.
The final phase agreement should also lead to even more extensive IAEA inspection authority to guard against a secret weapons program under the terms of an additional protocol, which would give the IAEA access to undeclared sites and serve as a strong deterrent to any clandestine nuclear weapons work. To normalize its nuclear status, Iran must also address long-standing questions from the IAEA about suspected weapons-related experiments that may have been conducted in secret in the past.
Negotiating a comprehensive deal along these lines will be difficult. But a practical, diplomatic solution that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran is within reach. Now is the time to seize it.