Can We Trust Tehran?: The prospects of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran

An update to this article can be found at the end of this essay.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is convinced that Iran is determined to build a nuclear arsenal. Thus he considers the effort of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States), plus Germany, known as the P5+1 countries, to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran “a mistake of historic proportions.” Mr. Netanyahu firmly believes that the interim nuclear agreement, negotiated last November and completed in January, simply provides the Iranians additional time to develop a nuclear weapon.

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Considerable evidence gathered by the International Atomic Energy Agency over several years does seem to support Mr. Netanyahu’s claim that Iran’s ultimate objective is the creation of a nuclear arsenal. The I.A.E.A. has reported that the Iranians have developed computer models of nuclear explosions, conducted experiments on nuclear triggers and completed advanced research on a warhead that could be delivered by a medium-range missile to targets in the Middle East, including Israel.

Moreover, for years, the Iranians have concealed from I.A.E.A. inspectors this weapon-related work. They refused to permit I.A.E.A. inspectors unlimited access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, particularly the military installation at Parchin, where it is believed the Iranians worked on the components for a nuclear weapon.

Enrichment Efforts

There are several aspects of the interim agreement that upsets Mr. Netanyahu. For starters, it permits the Iranians to continue enriching uranium, the explosive component of a nuclear weapon. Enrichment is the process of increasing the proportion of uranium-235, an isotope that can sustain a fission chain reaction. A modest increase of U-235, to about 3.5 to 5 percent, is required for use in civilian nuclear reactors. For a nuclear weapon, uranium must be enriched to at least 90 percent, although a concentration as little as 20 percent can be used to construct a gun-type nuclear device, the simplest type of nuclear weapon.

Uranium is enriched by converting uranium oxide ore into gaseous uranium hexafluoride and then spinning it in a centrifuge. Many thousands of centrifuges are required to enrich uranium for use in a nuclear reactor, and many more to enrich it to the 90 percent proportion required for nuclear weapons. The I.A.E.A. reports that Iran has installed more than 19,000 first-generation centrifuges at two facilities, Natanz and Fordow, and 10,000 are operational. They also have set in place, but not put into operation, 1,008 advanced centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. Once operational, they would make enrichment to the 90 percent grade much easier and faster.

The Iranians, however, have deliberately refrained from crossing what is perceived as Israel’s “red line,” which Mr. Netanyahu has said would occur when Iran accumulated enough uranium enriched to 20 percent to achieve a “breakout” capability—that is, the capacity to rapidly enrich the 20 percent uranium into weapon grade material before other countries could detect it or react to stop it. Crossing that red line, Mr. Netanyahu implied, would precipitate an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Before the interim agreement was negotiated, the Institute for Science and International Security estimated that the Iranians could have reduced the breakout time to less than two weeks by mid-2014 if they had continued to add operational centrifuges at the pace they were doing it. However the new Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani has agreed to halt this effort—at least for the six-month duration of the interim agreement, which began Jan. 20—in order to end the international sanctions that are strangling Iran’s economy.

In signing the interim agreement, the Iranians have accepted a number of restrictions on their enrichment activities. For example, they may only enrich uranium to 5 percent. They must also neutralize its entire stockpile of near-20 percent uranium by diluting it below 5 percent or converting it to uranium oxide. They already have begun doing this. In addition, during the six months that the interim agreement is in effect, the Iranians have agreed to halt progress on their enrichment capacity.

An Alternative Route

Even if Iranian uranium enrichment is brought under control, there is another pathway to a nuclear bomb: plutonium. The Iranians have been constructing a heavy-water reactor near Arak. Heavy-water reactors are not necessary to produce electricity, but they are ideal for making high-quality plutonium, another fuel for nuclear weapons. Plutonium is one of the byproducts of a nuclear reactor. It can be extracted from spent uranium fuel rods and reprocessed for use in a nuclear weapon. Both India and North Korea crossed the nuclear threshold by following the plutonium path.

The Iranians, however, have assured the I.A.E.A. that they have no intention of building a reprocessing facility, and that the plutonium that will be produced in the Arak reactor will be used for medical isotopes. But independent nuclear experts say that the Arak reactor is poorly suited for that task. Instead, it would be highly capable of producing enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons every year.

Of more immediate worry to Prime Minister Netanyahu is the fact that once the Arak reactor is operational, possibly as soon as next year, it will be immune from attack, for a military strike on an operating reactor would cause widespread environmental damage. As a result, Israel would be deprived of its primary “stick”—the threat of military action—as a way of persuading Iran to forgo the development of a nuclear weapon. If Israel decides to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it must be done before the Arak reactor becomes operational.

To ease concerns about the plutonium potential of the Arak reactor, the Iranians have promised, in the interim agreement, not to produce fuel for the Arak facility, nor install additional reactor components or put the plant into operation. They also have agreed not to construct a reprocessing facility, without which they cannot separate plutonium from spent uranium fuel.

The Iranians also have committed themselves to an unprecedented degree of transparency and intrusive monitoring of their nuclear program. They have agreed to provide I.A.E.A. inspectors with daily access to their enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, and more frequent inspector access to the Arak reactor. They also will permit I.A.E.A. access to their centrifuge assembly facilities, as well as uranium mines and mills. Moreover, they have agreed to provide key data and information required by the additional protocol to Iran’s I.A.E.A. safeguards agreement. In turn, the I.A.E.A. has promised to “take into account Iran’s security concerns” through managed access to Iranian nuclear information and facilities.

In return for Iran’s acceptance of the restrictions imposed by the interim agreement, the P5+1 countries agreed to provide limited, temporary, targeted and reversible sanctions relief while maintaining the vast bulk of the existing sanctions, including those affecting oil, finance and banking. All totaled, the sanctions relief that Iran will receive under the interim agreement amounts to between $6 and $7 billion. The P5+1 also promised not to impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, if Iran abides by its commitments under this deal.

However, Mr. Netanyahu argues that even these very limited reductions of the sanctions imposed on Iran, without fully halting enrichment and dismantling Iran’s centrifuges, is a terrible mistake. “We have the Iranians in boiling water right now,” a senior Israeli official said in November. “Bring it to a simmer, and they will have a nuclear capability they can live with and the sanctions will erode.”

Role of Congress

It seems quite possible that Mr. Netanyahu has accepted the fact that he cannot derail the negotiations with Iran, so instead he is trying to sabotage them by ratcheting up the conditions the Iranians would have to accept in the final comprehensive nuclear agreement. He has insisted that the final agreement must require Iran to dismantle all of its nuclear projects and halt the development of ballistic missiles, an issue not addressed in the interim accord. Mr. Netanyahu also said the negotiators should demand that Iran renounce its “genocidal policy” toward Israel, including supplying thousands of missiles to Palestinian and Lebanese militants, and calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Obviously, Mr. Netanyahu’s demands will not be a part of the final agreement, but that will not disappoint him. The real target of his demands is not the Geneva negotiators but rather the supporters of Israel on Capitol Hill, who, he hopes, will scuttle the final agreement.

One way to obstruct a final agreement is for Congress to preemptively impose additional sanctions on Iran. A step in this direction was initiated in January by two senators with close ties to the pro-Israeli congressional lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois, introduced a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran and require the Iranians to dismantle their nuclear infrastructure. The bill gained the support of 57 other senators.

Apparently, President Obama’s threat to veto the bill if passed has stalled the effort to enact it. If enacted, the bill would not only violate the interim agreement’s provision prohibiting new sanctions during its six-month term, but in all probability also scuttle any prospect of a final deal—which seems to be the ultimate objective of its sponsors.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, has warned that the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran would not only bring about a termination of the negotiations, it “could actually accelerate [Iran’s] quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it,” he said.

The likely consequences of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be horrific. For one, many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located near cities, including Tehran. Attacking the facilities could result in substantial civilian casualties and prompt Iran to retaliate against Israel, perhaps by launching missile attacks on Israel’s cities and ordering Hezbollah and Hamas in neighboring Lebanon and Gaza to attack Israel.

In addition, if war breaks out, Iran has threatened to attack oil tankers plying the Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil traffic moves. A war in the Persian Gulf, analysts believe, could drive oil prices up by at least 50 percent.

Comprehensive Agreement

Continuing to negotiate with Iran, obviously, is much less risky than engaging in military action. There are also risks in continuing negotiations with Iran. The comprehensive agreement will have to constrain Iran’s nuclear program over the long term, provide verifiable assurances to the international community that Iran’s nuclear activities will be exclusively peaceful and ensure that any attempt by Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon would be promptly detected. Yet the comprehensive agreement also will have to avoid being too restrictive for even Iran’s current moderate government to accept.

One thing the agreement will have to do is recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, a right possessed by every signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including Iran. Contrary to the expectations of Mr. Netanyahu, Iran is not about to dismantle its entire nuclear complex after spending billions of dollars to build it.

However, in order to significantly increase the time necessary for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb, the comprehensive agreement will have to reduce Iran’s overall enrichment capacity. It has been suggested that the agreement might require a reduction from the current 10,000 operating centrifuges at two sites to 4,000 at one site, perhaps by closing the underground site at Fordow. However, in the last round of talks, which concluded on May 16, the Iranians insisted they will need as many as 100,000 centrifuges to produce fuel for their future nuclear reactors.

In addition, the comprehensive agreement will have to require Iran to abandon the unfinished Arak heavy-water reactor, or at least effectively neutralize it by requiring the Iranians to convert it to a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor. In response, the Iranians have stated that they are willing to make changes in the reactor to reduce considerably the amount of plutonium it can produce.

The Iranians also will have to accept even more extensive I.A.E.A. inspections, including giving the I.A.E.A. access to undeclared sites like the Parchin military base, where the Iranians are suspected to have tested components of a nuclear weapon. Finally, the Iranians must resolve other long-standing I.A.E.A. questions about suspected weapons-related experiments that may have been conducted in secret in the past. So far, however, the Iranians have not allowed the I.A.E.A. access to the Parchin site, where they have been very busy removing any evidence of past nuclear activities.

Only if these major issues are resolved, will it be possible to conclude a comprehensive agreement. Then, and only then, will it be possible to gradually release the $100 billion of Iranian assets frozen in foreign banks and lift the current economic sanctions—except those related to the procurement of nuclear and nuclear-related goods.

Obviously, the conditions set by the P5+1 for a final agreement are very tough for the Iranians—and especially Iranian hardliners—to accept. And there is no guarantee that they will. If the negotiations fail, the end result could be the overthrow of Mr. Rouhani’s moderate government and its replacement by a hardline government that will resume Iran’s path toward a nuclear arsenal. If this is the outcome, military action by Israel is likely, if not by the United States as well. Considering the dire consequences of a war with Iran, the interim agreement deserves a chance to work. Hopefully, a comprehensive agreement will be in place by the late July deadline set by the interim agreement or, if the parties agree to extend the negotiations, soon thereafter.

Update — Aug. 13, 2014

On July 19, after nearly three weeks of intense talks, Iran and the P5+1 negotiators agreed to extend the interim agreement and negotiations for another four months, until November 24. While progress was made on a number of issues, several important sticking points remained unresolved.

Perhaps the most important is the number of centrifuges that Iran will be permitted under the comprehensive agreement. The P5+1 want the current 10,000 operating centrifuges at two sites reduced to 4,000 at one site, perhaps by closing the underground site at Fordow. This would increase Iran’s breakout time—the amount of time required to produce one nuclear weapon—from the current estimate of two months to at least a year, thereby enhancing the prospects of detection by the I.A.E.A. However, the Iranians insist that they will need as many as 100,000 first-generation centrifuges to produce fuel for their future nuclear reactors.

Another hang-up remains the extent of I.A.E.A. inspections Iran will be willing to accept. The Iranians continue to refuse to address the I.A.E.A.'s concerns about the past and possibly on-going military dimensions of its nuclear programs.

In addition, there has yet to be a concrete pledge on the part of the Iranians to modify the Arak reactor in order to eliminate the possibility that it will produce weapon–grade plutonium. Ideally, that could be accomplished by requiring the Iranians to convert it to a light-water reactor, a step the Iranians do not appear willing to consider.

Still another unresolved issue is the duration of the comprehensive agreement.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman recently told Congress that “any nuclear agreement with Iran must have an extremely long duration.” U.S. officials have said that would have to be at least a decade. But Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed freezing Iran’s production capability for only three to seven years, then allowing it to resume production unimpeded.

Obviously, resolving these and other issues is not going to be easy. But the negotiators will attempt to do so when they resume talks in early September.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Atkinson
3 years 4 months ago
America is in no position to make or win any wars in the world, at this time in history America is just trying to defend itself against its failing world economy and the massive influx of Arab, Asian, Indian, Hispanic aliens integrated into its country and culture, This will be the determining factor to Americas future as a mix of worlds peoples, world religions, world economies, and world socialism, the outcome in the next 30 years will, if wars are not a part of its immediate future, a greater society giving great things to the world, and the universe.

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