Security Council Resolutions : Barrier to Iran Nuclear Deal?

This is not the first time that we may have trapped ourselves when drafting UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that were intended to trap another country—in this case, Iran. The present situation recalls in some respects the period around 1997 when most Security Council members would have liked to rescind, or at least amend, the sanctions adopted against the regime of Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War, as their effects were obviously getting out of hand: widespread corruption, and the dramatic deterioration of the Iraqi population’s state of health, to name a couple. But any change in the sanctions would have required unanimity from the five permanent members of the Council, and that was definitely out of reach. The situation led French President Jacques Chirac to express his frustration. “We want to convince, not coerce,” he said. “I have never observed that the policy of sanctions can produce positive effects.”
We have not yet reached such a dramatic juncture with Iran. But should it become useful to rapidly lift the sanctions imposed by the four UNSC resolutions between 2006 and 2010 in order to secure a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the Western negotiators may find themselves incapable of delivering and may instead try to kick the can down the road to some point in the distant future.
Aimed at halting Iran’s military, nuclear and ballistic activities, these UNSC resolutions are not the ones that hurt the most. More destructive are those unilateral measures imposed by the United States and the European Union, since they were designed essentially to destabilize the Iranian economy. But the UNSC sanctions carry with them a “pillory effect” that the Iranians perceive, quite correctly, as deeply humiliating. They also provide the legal bedrock upon which the European sanctions, in particular, have been constructed. The Iranians are therefore anxious to see them lifted as soon as possible through a decision by the Security Council to close the file it opened in 2006 and return it to the forum from which it should never have been taken: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The conditions for terminating these resolutions, however, are also overwhelming. In fact, the people who drafted them seem to have been pursuing two not necessarily compatible goals at the same time.
The first goal was to pile up all the preconditions that the authors believed were necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a deliverable nuclear device, including:
-       suspending all activities related to enrichment and reprocessing, including research, development, and construction of new facilities;
-       suspending all activities related to the construction of a heavy-water research reactor;
-       providing immediate access to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the IAEA in order to verify Iran’s compliance with the Security Council decisions and to resolve all outstanding issues related to the possible military dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian nuclear program;
-       promptly ratifying the Additional Protocol to Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA; and
-       suspending all efforts to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Considering the context in which these resolutions were adopted, there was little chance that the Iranians would comply with such an elaborate and comprehensive set of so-called “confidence-building measures,” which would have forced Tehran to abandon virtually all of its nuclear and ballistic-missile ambitions.
The second goal was substantively quite different from the first and indeed somehow contradictory. It aimed to push Iran into negotiations, as illustrated by the formula that was included in all the UNSC sanctions resolutions, which ritually expressed the “conviction” that Iran’s compliance “would contribute to a diplomatic, negotiated solution.” Moreover, if Iran suspended its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the Council declared its willingness in return to suspend at least some of its sanctions in order “to allow for negotiations in good faith” and “reach an early and mutually acceptable outcome.”
As we now know, a negotiation process ultimately was initiated, albeit through a radically different path, as the West dropped its demand that Iran fully suspend all its sensitive nuclear activities before entering into substantive talks. One can therefore assume that the second goal will be accomplished as soon as a comprehensive agreement, which will hopefully emerge from the current round of talks in Vienna, enters into force, thus rendering this dimension of the UNSC’s resolutions totally obsolete.
But of course, the resolutions’ first dimension—the exhaustive inventory of “confidence-building measures”—remains in place. Because confidence is essentially an elusive and subjective feeling, taking this path involves embarking on a long-term, winding and always reversible road, the end of which is only faintly discernible now. Such a process is also hardly compatible with the “on-off” mechanism of the Security Council: there is no chance that its resolutions, once cancelled, could be reintroduced. Hence the strong reluctance of the Western powers to commit themselves to such an outcome.
We also all know that the sanctions are much easier to adopt than to rescind, as they tend to create, in the meantime, their own logic and dynamics. They develop new balances of power and vested interests, if only among those in authority who have dedicated themselves so thoroughly to the sanctions’ implementation and enforcement. One has only to recall the notorious example of the general embargo imposed by the Allies against Germany during the First World War whose continuation for several months after the 1918 Armistice unnecessarily prolonged the suffering of the German people and deepened the bitterness of their defeat.
Are Iran’s negotiating partners ready to learn the lessons of history? The Gordian knot that the UNSC sanctions represent should be slashed asunder, if not immediately upon the signing of a comprehensive agreement with Iran, then at least after a moderately short period in which Iran’s determination to comply with its terms could be confirmed. Such a gesture could also be linked appropriately to the formal ratification by Iran’s parliament of the Additional Protocol that Tehran had signed during an unsuccessful round of talks back in 2003—the two moves being equally irreversible.

This would not mean that pending requests made to Iran, such as the ancient issue of the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of its nuclear program, would have to be abandoned. But it would mean that these requests would thenceforward be dealt with exclusively by the IAEA. It would also mean that the Council, in light of the progress achieved after the signing of a final deal, would no longer consider the Iranian situation a “threat to the peace” under the terms of the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, the only chapter that authorizes the use of coercive measures against a Member State in order “to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Iran Nuclear Talks : Reading the Tea Leaves

published on the Lobelog website on November 8, 2014
Secretary of State John Kerry has a hectic traveling schedule, and this month’s itinerary has been particularly focused on doing everything to ensure a good deal with Iran over its nuclear program is achieved by the deadline of November 24. A series of meetings between Kerry and some members of the P5+1 (France, Germany, UK, China, Russia, US) give us an idea of the extent of the last minute scrambling occurring behind the scenes to ensure all bases are covered prior to the official resumption of talks in Vienna on November 18.

Kerry met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris on Nov. 5 for a number of reasons, including answering France’s questions about the “framework” the US has presented to the Iranians in order “to meet their peaceful energy needs.” Two days earlier, this document was alluded to by President Obama in a news conference, and could be centered on an Iran-Russia deal, but there has been no confirmation of the details. While Kerry also likely asked for Fabius’ help in suspending or lifting (in due time) European sanctions against Iran, his main purpose for the meeting was to ensure that the French minister would not repeat his public tantrum from around this time last year when Fabius declared that the draft provisional agreement negotiated between the US and Iran in Geneva—and discovered at the last moment by other members of the P5+1—was some kind of a “sucker’s deal.” This time Kerry is taking no risks and Fabius is being kept carefully abreast of the latest developments between Washington and Tehran.

Meanwhile, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, met in Vienna Nov. 7 with the P5+1’s political directors. Again, the main purpose of the meeting was clearly aimed at making sure that everybody is informed and agrees with the recent turn of events.

Today, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a bilateral meeting in Beijing on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Kerry was probably keen to verify, one last time, that Russia is ready to accept on its soil the bulk of the low-enriched uranium (LEU) produced by the Iranians to reprocess it into nuclear fuel elements for Iran’s Bushehr plant. This operation would extend the “breakout time” necessary for the Iranians to accumulate the quantity of highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb, and therefore make an Iranian enrichment program with a few thousand centrifuges more acceptable to the American Congress and the Israeli government. Kerry is well aware that Russia’s full collaboration on this point is essential for the completion of an agreement and wants no last minute surprises.

Thus protected on his flanks by these two sessions, Kerry will meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in the company of Ashton, for two days in Oman, which hosted the initial US-Iran meetings that got us to this point, from Nov 9-10. This meeting will be aimed at narrowing the parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the official name of the final agreement.
Following Lavrov’s guarantee on the removal and processing of Iranian LEU, the number of authorized operating Iranian centrifuges should not be a major sticking point anymore. But one last big hurdle remains: the timetable for the suspension and lifting of sanctions. After his conversation with Fabius, and with the support of Ashton, Kerry is likely to confirm Europe’s readiness to lift or suspend a significant amount of its own sanctions at an early stage. As for the American sanctions, it must not have been difficult for him to convince his interlocutor that the only realistic solution is to strike a deal that would not need the formal approval of Congress. President Obama would then act through executive orders and, when necessary, waive Congress-approved sanctions as long as he is in office, leaving to his successor the responsibility of asking Congress to remove them for good. Kerry could also make the credible argument that—if the agreement was faithfully followed by both sides for the remainder of Obama’s term—it would be practically impossible for any future president and Congress to destroy the positive results that would have been achieved.

Following the trilateral meeting, a session at the political directors’ level will also occur in the friendly Sultanate of Oman, on Nov. 10. It will likely be devoted to drawing the conclusions of the just-completed ministerial session, and putting together all the elements of the final agreement. After a lapse of about a week, allowing for consultations in the capitals and the informing of the most interested observers (the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN secretariat, Saudi Arabia, Israel…) Iran and the P5+1 are scheduled to meet in Vienna on Nov. 18 for a marathon round just one week before the deadline for a final deal. This should be enough time to iron out the last details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and call upon the seven Foreign Ministers representing the parties to the agreement, as well as Catherine Ashton as the EU’s representative, to proceed together to the signing ceremony.

Iranian Nuclear Deadlock: In Search of the Magic Formula

A shadow of doubt is spreading over the negotiation between Iran and world powers as the gap over the key issue of the acceptable size and scope of the Iranian enrichment program slowly reveals itself as unbridgeable. The inability to solve this one issue, which exists among so many others, has resulted in the real risk that all the efforts deployed in the past year to reach a long-term agreement may have been in vain.

We should thank all those who have racked their brains to produce ingenuous formulas in order to break the present deadlock, particularly Robert Einhorn, former special advisor at the State Department, the International Crisis Group, and the Arms Control Association. Their proposals turn more or less around the same principle: less centrifuges now for more later. In other words, Iran should dismantle most of its installed centrifuges in exchange for the possibility of expanding its enrichment capacity when the international community’s confidence in Iran’s peaceful intentions is restored and a real enrichment need emerges.

We have no guarantee that such recommendations will make their way into the minds of the negotiators, who are immersed in their own information, constraints and tactics. Due to domestic politics, the Iranians will obviously have the greatest difficulty in dismantling even part of their active 9,000 centrifuges. As a result of all the spinning around the technically sound but somewhat politically inflated “breakout” issue—that is, the time necessary for producing enough highly enriched uranium for a first bomb—the West faces difficulty in accepting the Iranian enrichment program in its present format. It also worries that this still modest program could develop one day into industrial dimensions, which could theoretically result in dozens of bombs every year. Hence the present deadlock around the enrichment issue.

At the same time, there are solutions at hand for most of the other issues in this negotiation, which is why it would be highly unfortunate to see the whole process collapse over one missing piece. So the question is: what are the options for solving this ultimate problem and achieving a comprehensive agreement?


Firstly, Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany) must keep drafting their final agreement as if the enrichment issue was solved. Thus they should hopefully be able put together a text in which only a few formulas, a few figures, and perhaps a paragraph or two would be left in brackets. This method would give the critical observers of the negotiation (the US Congress, the Iranian Majles…) a chance to evaluate what could be gained from success, and what could be lost in the case of failure. In other words, the enrichment issue would be put into proper perspective within a wider context.

Temporary Limits

Coming to the substance of the issue, we already know that the Iranian side is ready to cap its enrichment activity at 5%, to submit it to reinforced safeguards from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and to transform most of its low-enriched uranium into dioxide—an improper form for immediate further enrichment. But pointing to any precise ceiling for the number of authorized centrifuges instantly raises opposing protests: too few for the Iranians, too many for the West.
The “breakout time” issue raised by the West could nevertheless be addressed by stating that Iran’s enrichment capacity should not allow it to acquire, for example, in less than six months an amount of 80-90% enriched uranium containing a “significant quantity” of uranium 235 (about 25 kilograms of the material necessary for one bomb, according to the IAEA definition). The six-month timeframe is proposed here because it has been evoked by Secretary of State John Kerry himself as a potential, if not readily acceptable, “breakout” delay. Such a formula would compel Iran to keep no more than about 9,000 operating centrifuges of its prevalent IR.1 model. But this upper limit would be reduced in due proportion if Iran chose to keep a significant stockpile of low-enriched uranium in hexafluoride form ready for further enrichment, or if it decided to replace these first-generation centrifuges with more advanced models. All existing centrifuges beyond the number determined by this formula would be kept in special storage as backup elements. All of this, of course, under the tight control of the IAEA safeguards department, which has all the necessary expertise for the fine-tuning of such rules.

Towards an Industrial Enrichment Program

Next is the question of how long this constraining framework will last. We know that Iran wants to develop its enrichment program into one of industrial scale in order to feed the Bushehr reactor, and any future nuclear power plants that are built, at least partially with indigenously produced low-enriched uranium. Until now, the discussion about the duration of the temporary limits to be imposed on the enrichment program has cited a number of arbitrary figures, ranging from three to 20 years. Would it be possible to address more precisely the “practical needs” (as cited in the Joint Plan of Action) of Iran’s nuclear energy program?

As regards the Bushehr reactor, we know that the Russians will supply the necessary fuel for at least eight more years. After that period, it would be necessary to know if Moscow would agree to permit the Iranians to feed the reactor with home-made fuel, possibly produced under Russian supervision. The same question would arise with the reactors that the Russians build in Iran if the ongoing negotiation between Moscow and Tehran leads to an agreement.

All in all, the most practical solution would be for Iran to accept limits on the number of its centrifuges (to thus ensure that it would be unable to produce the material necessary to build a bomb in less than six months) and thus forgo industrial-enrichment capacity until it develops a fuel-fabrication capacity (in cooperation with another country, if necessary) and builds one or two new reactors that will be fueled, at least partially, by indigenously produced low-enriched uranium. Concerning the new reactors, Iran could strike a deal with Russia (or, less likely, another country) to rapidly build two or more reactors on its Bushehr site—or possibly even more reactors elsewhere—that would be partially fed with Iranian-made fuel. In such a case, the “practical needs” horizon for an enrichment industrial capacity would be around seven years at the earliest. Or, absent an agreement with Moscow, Iran could decide to develop its own line of reactors. Given all the difficulties involved in developing indigenous reactors, the “practical needs” timeline would be substantially lengthened. The horizon for an enrichment industrial capacity in that scenario could hardly be shorter than 15 years.

So there is no reason to decide beforehand when exactly to lift the constraints on Iran’s enrichment activities without knowing the path that Iran will ultimately follow for the development of its nuclear energy program. The adoption of the two objective criteria mentioned above—the possession of a fuel fabrication capacity certified by the IAEA, and the on-going construction of new reactors to be fed, at least partially, with indigenous fuel—should be enough for finding at the present time an agreement between Iran and the P5+1.


The proposals presented here could be attacked by nuclear experts, since they tend to blur the hard facts and figures on which their flawless solutions are based. Scientific and technical data are, of course, the indispensable building blocks of a robust solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, but they should not become so intimidating that they end up controlling the course of the negotiation. Any agreement has to contain an element of risk and at least a minimal amount of mutual trust. Let us hope that the negotiators, on both sides, will find the inner strength to overcome their doubts and fears, while, of course, keeping their eyes wide open.

When Negotiating With Iran, Mind the Russians

Defining the size of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program has become a 
major sticking point in the negotiations between Iran and world powers 
expected to resume next month. The scale of this enrichment program, 
however, greatly relies upon undecided agreements between Tehran and 
Moscow on the long-term supply of nuclear fuel for the Russian-built 
reactors: a 1,000 Megawatt reactor already operating in Bushehr since 
2012 and two other reactors that will likely be built on the same site 
if the talks between Russia and Iran conclude successfully.

The decision to build several reactors on the Bushehr site basically 
conforms to general practice in the nuclear industry, as it generates 
important economies of scale. Tehran justifies its controversial 
enrichment ambitions by noting its intention to use, in the medium-term, 
domestically enriched uranium in its reactors.

Iran has already stored around nine tons of low-enriched uranium, about 
a third of the quantity necessary to run a Bushehr-type reactor for a 
year, consuming in the process about 40,000 Separative Work Units (SWU, 
a type of energy unit in the field of uranium enrichment). If Iran 
preserves its present capacity of about 10,000 SWU per year, 
corresponding to the 10,000 or so first-generation centrifuges currently 
in operation, it will need about eight more years to produce enough 
low-enriched uranium to operate a Bushehr-type reactor for one year. 
This brings us to around 2022, when the present contract for the 
delivery of Russian fuel for the first reactor in Bushehr comes to an 
end. It would also be around that time, according to best estimates, 
that two new reactors would have to be fed with an initial load of fuel 
to start functioning.

However, using such a stockpile of domestic uranium for Bushehr assumes 
that it would initially be incorporated in fuel elements complying with 
Russian standards. This would require Russia’s agreement and its active 
cooperation as long as Iran does not master the corresponding know-how. 
At first, this cooperation could take the form of fabricating the fuel 
in Russia using low-enriched uranium provided by Iran. In the second 
stage, the Russians could help the Iranians build and operate a fuel 
fabrication plant on Iranian soil. As for the introduction of 
Iranian-made fuel elements in the Bushehr reactor, this would once again 
require the agreement and the cooperation of the Russians, who could 
otherwise rightly withdraw their guarantee on the safe operation of the 

What will the origin of the nuclear fuel used in the operating Bushehr 
reactors be in, say, 2022? Moscow would like to supply the reactors with 
Russian fuel, as this would vastly enhance their economic benefits. But 
Tehran will want to use Iranian fuel in at least the first reactor, as 
this would justify the expansion of their enrichment capacities (it 
should be remembered that the Iranians, under the terms of the Joint 
Plan of Action, must demonstrate that the enrichment capacity they 
desire responds to “practical needs”). Ultimately, the Russians will 
have to respond at least partially to Iran’s expectations if they want 
to retain their chance to sell Tehran two new reactors.

Within this framework, a possible compromise could be, for example, 
entrusting the Iranians with the fabrication of fuel for the first 
Bushehr reactor and leaving the Russians to take care of the other two. 
A similar formula would let the Iranians produce about a third or fourth 
of the fuel necessary for the three reactors (after the initial loading 
of the second and third reactors) while the Russians maintained 
responsibility of the rest. This would compel the Iranians to reach an 
enrichment capacity of about 90,000 to 120,000 SWU per year by around 
2022. Adding Iran’s needs for its research reactors would bring the 
total required capacity to approximately 100,000 to 130,000 SWU per year.

This last figure is somewhat below the 190,000 SWU per year put forward 
by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian Organization for Atomic Energy, 
and quoted later by the Supreme Leader, but this discrepancy can 
probably be explained by different modes of calculation. Indeed, when 
one remembers that the production of highly enriched uranium for a 
nuclear explosive engine using the implosion method requires no more 
than 5,000 SWU, variations of capacities beyond 100,000 SWU per year are 
no longer relevant in terms of non-proliferation.

Of course, Russia could refuse to allow Iran to manufacture even part of 
the Bushehr fuel. This would greatly benefit the Americans and the 
Europeans, who would be happy to deprive Iran of arguments for 
developing a significant enrichment capacity. But in doing so, Moscow 
would likely forego the opportunity to sign a contract with Iran for the 
construction and operation of the two additional Bushehr reactors, which 
would result in a big loss for its nuclear industry.

On the other hand, if Russia were to announce its readiness to share the 
fuel fabrication process for Bushehr with Iran, that would be enough to 
validate Tehran’s view of its “practical needs” and justify an Iranian 
enrichment capacity of about 10,000 SWU per year for 6 or 7 years, 
eventually increasing to 100,000 and beyond. In this case, Western 
powers would find it extremely difficult to convince Tehran to limit its 
capacity to a few thousand first-generation centrifuges, corresponding 
to a capacity of 4,000 to 6,000 SWU — a long-sought goal.

All in all, one has to face the fact that Russian and Western interests 
diverge on the core issue of Iran’s enrichment capacity. If the 
Americans and Europeans want to keep the P5+1 unified, they should be 
especially thoughtful when considering Moscow’s dilemma in its bilateral 
trade negotiations with Tehran. Perhaps most importantly, these powers 
should prevent other subjects of contention, such as Syria or Ukraine, 
from interfering with the negotiations as a whole.

published by Lobelog 

"bad deal" better than "no deal"?

“No deal is better than bad deal:” that’s the mantra that has been heard ad nauseam in the recent past when referring to the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
But is it really so? Of course, everybody knows what “no deal” means. It is more difficult to discern at what point a deal becomes bad, rather than good, or even average. But plenty of experts are ready to help. A bad deal, they tell us, is a deal which would allow the Iranians to produce the material necessary for a bomb in less than six months. A bad deal is a deal which would not clarify once and for all what kind of research the Iranians have been pursuing in the past for manufacturing a nuclear explosive device. A bad deal is a deal which would allow the Iranians to pursue their ballistic missile program. And so on… One ends up understanding that any deal less than perfect would amount to an unacceptably bad deal.
But such an approach goes against any diplomatic process in which compromise and give and take are key notions. It leads to the conclusion that a perfect deal is a deal which does not have to be negotiated, a deal in which the winner takes all. And indeed, there are people who believe that non-proliferation is too important a question to be submitted to any kind of compromise. It deserves only perfect deals.
History, though, does not confirm this approach. The mother of all non-proliferation agreements, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), concluded in 1968, was in each and all its articles one big compromise. A few countries were allowed to develop nuclear arsenals, others not. The countries that agreed to forsake any military nuclear ambitions were allowed to bring their nuclear capabilities up to the thin red line beyond which could start the manufacturing of an explosive nuclear device. Nobody was happy at the result when the Treaty was signed and nobody is satisfied today by the state of affairs that has developed since.
Thus, the NPT was a deeply imperfect agreement, and indeed, a kind of bad deal. But would a “no deal” have been better? Obviously not. In a different field, the strategic arms limitation agreements concluded during and after the Cold War between the US and the USSR, later on Russia, and signed on the US side by Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Obama… were certainly deeply imperfect. But, again, would “no deals” have been better?
Considering the Iranian negotiation, one could risk being provocative by saying that almost any deal (at least in the ambit of the current negotiation) could be better than no deal at all. No deal means the unchecked development of the Iranian program, the continuing increase of its enrichment capacities and stock of enriched uranium, the completion of a reactor of the plutonium-production type, and eventually the resumption of active research on engineering a nuclear device. By way of consequence, it would mean a growing tension between the international community and the Islamic Republic, possibly culminating in strikes on its nuclear facilities and in armed confrontation.
Compared to such a prospect, a far less-than-perfect agreement could appear indeed as highly desirable. Let us remember that international relations are nurtured by iterative and evolutionary processes. “Solve-all”, perfectly designed agreements, the epitome of which could well have been the Treaty of Versailles, seldom produce brilliant and lasting results. What is critical is to grab at the right moment the maximum of what is within reach. The art of diplomacy lies precisely in the ability to first discern, and then to join and knit together the extremes of what can be willingly accepted by the conflicting parties. It incorporates also the humility of leaving to others the task of solving at a later stage questions not yet fully addressed or wholly answered, in the knowledge that new circumstances created by an agreement will create new possibilities for progress. It keeps in mind that even an imperfect agreement, if faithfully implemented by the parties, can be a kind of confidence-building machine, opening the way to further advances. This is precisely what happened with the November 24 Joint Plan of Action between the P5+1 and Iran: that accord was transitory and therefore essentially imperfect, but it created the proper atmosphere for a more ambitious step forward.
Given the current state of the negotiations, how can these general considerations be translated into concrete terms? Let us limit ourselves to the most difficult point; that is, the acceptable level of Iranian enrichment activities. Here, the obvious line of compromise turns around capping them for a few years at the present level of employed enrichment capacity – expressed in Separation Work Units (SWU) in order neutralize the consequences of the possible introduction of more efficient centrifuges. The figure to be retained would then be between 8,000 and 10,000 SWU per year.
For this, the Iranians have to admit that they do not need to develop an enrichment capacity on an industrial scale (about 50,000 SWU per year and over) as long as the main structures of their future nuclear power plants do not rise from the ground. And they should take advantage of this interval to develop more productive and more secure centrifuges than the primitive, outdated model that forms the bulk of their present stock of working centrifuges. They also need to progress significantly in the technology of nuclear-fuel manufacturing in order to be ready in due time if they want to meet at least partially the needs of their future nuclear power plants.

On the other side, the West should consider the enormous political difficulty the Iranian government would face if it had to dismantle even part of the nation’s hard-won enrichment capacity. It is true that accepting the preservation of this capacity at its present level would open the theoretical risk of the Iranians quickly acquiring significant quantities of highly enriched uranium, thus opening the way to the bomb. But considering the self-destructive consequences of such a blatant breach of agreement, the risk is very limited indeed, and by all means much more limited than the risks raised by the absence of any deal. Is this risk really unmanageable for the coalition of the world’s most powerful countries, given the sophistication of their diplomatic, intelligence, and contingency-planning capacities? Of course, such a compromise could be easily depicted with equal vehemence as a bad deal on both sides. And that is why it is probably the right compromise, and indeed a fair deal.

Iran Nuclear Deal: Uphill on the Homestretch? (LobeLog, May 5, 2014)

To date, negotiators on both sides of the talks over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which resume next week, have been remarkably discreet. Even at the political level, people have been unusually quiet. This is an excellent omen. In the past, too many opportunities have been nipped in the bud due to an excess of statements calibrated for domestic purposes (a special mention to Wendy Sherman, the chief US negotiator, for saying so little, amiably, in many background meetings with the press). The involvement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the negotiations has also been of inestimable value. The Agency offers unique expertise and notarizes regularly the way in which Iran complies with its commitments. It contributes therefore decisively to the smooth progression of the discussions.
Quite unexpectedly, Iran’s negotiators have been the driving force in this process. They have seized President Hassan Rouhani’s initiative to solve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program and have kept it ever since, setting the targets as well as the tempo. Iran’s foreign minister and lead negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on April 7 that the drafting of the final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) should start in May, and that all efforts should be taken to complete the negotiations by the official deadline of July. The Iranians seem set to resolve the conflict over their nuclear program as fast as possible, once and for all.
The Rouhani administration’s determination serves in pleasant contrast to the rather stiff and slow Iranian behavior that was especially exhibited during the Ahmadinejad era, but also, at times, in the most favorable of circumstances, during the 2003-05 period, when Rouhani was himself Iran’s chief negotiator. At that time, the Iranian diplomats on the frontline were subjected to a heavy-handed system of control, which tended to stifle their movements. Having learned from this experience, President Rouhani, elected last June, has obtained a carte blanche from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While the Leader did issue a set of red lines last month (English diagram), and has issued specific warnings every now and then, he has consistently supported Iran’s diplomats while keeping domestic criticism of Iran’s team at a manageable level.
Indeed, Rouhani may not own the horse, but he controls the reins. One of his first acts as president was transferring Iran’s nuclear negotiating file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Ministry of Foreign affairs. That enabled him to build a “dream team” of seasoned negotiators, perfectly comfortable with the codes and practices of their Western counterparts. Iran’s new and refined team has stood out in stark contrast to the collective clumsiness of the P5+1 negotiators, as in the early November 2013 episode, when four Western Foreign Ministers rushed prematurely to Geneva, spurring the media to believe, mistakenly, that a deal would be signed (it was signed 10 days later). But, as Marshal Foch used to say: “After leading a coalition, I have much less admiration for Napoleon…”
Getting to the heart of the matter, many points seem close to being settled. Iran is ready to cap at 5% its production of enriched uranium and to limit its current stockpile from further enrichment. The controversial underground facility of Fordow will probably end up as a kind of research and development unit. The Arak reactor’s original configuration allowed the yearly production of about ten kilograms of plutonium, enough for one or two bombs. Ali Akbar Salehi, chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), has hinted that this configuration could be modified in order to accommodate low-enriched uranium fuel rather than natural uranium. This would reduce Arak’s plutonium production capacity by a factor of five to ten. And Iran has already confirmed that it has no intention of acquiring the fuel reprocessing capacity indispensable for isolating weapon-grade plutonium.
Depending on the pace of sanctions relief, Iran also seems ready to return to a kind of de factoimplementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which would provide enhanced monitoring over all of Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran should be ready to initiate the Protocol’s ratification process as soon as the United Nations Security Council shows itself ready to remove the Iranian nuclear file from its agenda, thus erasing the burning humiliation of 2006, when it passed its first resolution on the subject.
The make or break issues
To date, five sticking points remain on the table.
The most difficult issue concerns the format of Iran’s enrichment capacity. The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), adopted last November, speaks of “parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities”. But the West has focused on “breakout time”, that is, the time needed to acquire enough highly enriched uranium for a first bomb if Iran decided to renege on its commitments. This delay has been estimated at about two months in the current state of Iran’s enrichment program. To extend it significantly, Iran would have to bring down the number of its centrifuges from the present 20,000 to 2-6,000.
A drastic reduction of the number of centrifuges, however, would be a deal-breaker for Iran. Following the conservative elements of the regime, the Supreme Leader has recently excluded any kind of bargaining on Iran’s nuclear achievements.
Fortunately, other solutions can alleviate the West’s concerns. First, having enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb does not mean having the bomb. Several more months would be necessary to make it ready. Second, one wonders why the international community would need more than one or two months to properly respond to an Iranian rush for a bomb. If it can’t make it in two months, why would it succeed in six? Third, this infamous breakout time could be extended without reducing the present number of centrifuges by using, as fast as possible, the low enriched uranium produced by Iran as fuel for nuclear reactors, rendering it unserviceable for further, weapon-grade, enrichmentHere, feeding the Arak reactor with domestic low-enriched uranium could solve a good part of the problem.
It is unfortunate, though, that the Iranians have made so little effort up to now to identify the “practical needs” mentioned, at their initiative, in the Geneva agreement. The spokesman of the AEOI has announced recently that a “comprehensive document” was being elaborated on the subject, and would be submitted for approval to the Iranian Parliament. But this process will probably extend beyond the time limit set for the negotiations.
In the meantime, we know that the Russians are bound to provide for eight more years the low enriched fuel necessary for the Bushehr nuclear plant. After this period, they will resist the introduction of Iranian fuel into the Bushehr reactor, as the selling of fuel is for the Russians the most profitable part of their contract with Iran. Their attitude will be the same when discussing the construction and operation of more reactors in Iran. By all means, new Russian reactors, or any reactors from other origins, will not be active before a decade. All of this is to say that if the current number of 20,000 centrifuges was accepted by the international community, the Iranians would have no “practical need” in the offing to justify a raise of this number in the years to come.
Another difficult point is the question of nuclear research and development. The West would like Iran to forsake such activities, especially in the field of centrifugation. Again, this is a red line for the Supreme Leader and the conservatives, as Iran’s engineers are working on models up to fifteen times more efficient than the present outdated model forming the bulk of its program. Here, a simple solution has been suggested by Salehi: instead of setting a cap on centrifuges, which could be circumvented by using more efficient models, the parties should define this cap in “separative work units”, the equivalent of horsepower in the field of enrichment. The introduction of more efficient centrifuges would thus reduce in due proportion the total number allowed.
A third difficult point is the ongoing exploration by the IAEA of the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. This demand, reiterated by the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council, has been fiercely resisted by Iran. In fact, it was the head of the US national intelligence community who said, in 2007, that the Iranian weaponization program was stopped before completion by the end of 2003. Ten years have since passed, and the people involved in that program must have been granted some kind of protection in exchange for their compliance, hence the inherent difficulty for the Iranians of authorizing outsiders to probe too deep into this subject. In former similar occurrences, such as with Egypt, South Korea and Taiwan, the IAEA has accepted not to divulge details on the wrongdoings discovered by its inspectors, once assured of the cancelation of these programs. A similar way out should be explored with Iran.
The fourth sticking point evolves around Iran’s ballistic missiles. The West wants to include them in the negotiations, as a source of worry identified by the UN Security Council, but this has been outright rejected by Iran. Recall that Iran has accepted to negotiate over its nuclear program as a civilian program placed under the aegis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Negotiations over missiles pertain to a different world, the world of defense and disarmament, in which negotiations are by definition collective, save for unilateral measures imposed upon a defeated countryIf there is a solution here, it would require a separate, multilateral discussion on the level and distribution of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, with the aim of convincing concerned states to join the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, adopted in 2002 in the Hague.
The last point, little talked about, but hardly the least difficult, concerns the duration of the future comprehensive agreement to be signed by Iran and the P5+1. Under the Geneva JPOA, this agreement, once fully implemented for the duration of all its provisions, will be replaced by the common regime applicable to all NPT members. Iran would then be freed of specific commitments such as the limitation of its enrichment activities, on which extensive IAEA controls, of course, would remain. Such a shift would mean that the International community would be fully reassured about the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.
However, to reach such an assessment, the general behavior of the Iranian regime and the quality of its relations with the outside world would be as important as the state of its nuclear program. How long should the assessment process last? These considerations cannot be put into writing. The Iranians will probably insist on no more than five years, while the West would be happy to see this regime of special constraints indefinitely extended. This point could be the last outstanding issue in the discussions. Hopefully, if solutions are found on all the previous questions, there will be a strong incentive to find a compromise here to ensure a final deal once and for all.