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.