Iran and the Bomb

Nov. 23, 2015

The Iran nuclear deal is finished. Yet work on the Iran nuclear deal has just begun.

This is how both these statements can be true: The sweeping agreement itself is signed and dotted, wrapped up during months of exhausting final negotiations in Switzerland and Austria.

Eating was one way the US delegation dealt with the stress of the talks, as diplomats chomped their way through pounds of strawberry Twizzlers, string cheese, and mixed nuts.

Shouting was another relief valve—at one point Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz were yelling so loudly at Iranian counterparts that aides rushed into their hotel conference room to tell them to keep it down, lest random guests hear their secrets.

But the deal—aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting international sanctions—has yet to be actually implemented. That is because it requires further actions by all parties before its provisions take full effect. Iran must now greatly reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, for instance, and dismantle or alter much of its fissile enrichment infrastructure.

Then, and only then, will the US and its European Union ease existing restrictions on business and financial interaction with Iranian parties.

The US figures that “Implementation Day,” as this moment is called in deal documents, will not arrive until the middle or end of 2016.

In addition, the agreement will require constant vigilance on the part of the US, its allies, and the international community. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be crucial to effective enforcement of curbs on Iran’s nuclear materials production and research.

It is not an end in itself. The deal is term-limited and most of its important provisions expire after 15 years. That means the US has gained only a period of time in which to convince Iran that a permanent abstention from nuclear weapons is in its best interest.

“Now comes the hard part” is a standard pundit line after diplomatic breakthroughs. In the case of the Iran agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), this truism might be particularly apt.

“Success will depend heavily on the policies the United States and its partners pursue in the aftermath of the agreement,” concludes a Center for a New American Security report on the Iran agreement and what comes next.

“Over the next 20 to 25 years, if implemented effectively, the agreement could succeed in permanently ending Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Alternately, if implementation fails, the JCPOA could pave the way for an Iranian bomb in 15 years or sooner.”

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action struck by the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran is a historic accord that aims to block Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon in return for the lifting of longtime international sanctions and access to piles of Iranian cash now frozen in world banks.

For the US, one of the most important goals of the agreement was to stretch Iran’s so-called breakout time—the time it would take if Tehran dropped all pretense of a peaceful nuclear program and raced to produce enough fissile material for a single bomb.

Before the beginning of nuclear negotiations, breakout would have taken Iran about two months, said Kerry at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in late July.

“We’ve now pushed the breakout time up to maybe six months or so. And with this agreement for 10 years the breakout time will be one year or more,” said Kerry.

Here are key aspects of the agreement, according to the White House:

• Uranium Limits. If Iran ever decided to break out and build a nuclear weapon, highly enriched uranium might well be its fissile material of choice. Prior to the signing of the deal, Iran had developed an extensive uranium-enrichment infrastructure that it has long insisted is necessary for a nascent domestic nuclear power network. Its stockpile of enriched uranium reached eight tons—some of it enriched to 20 percent U-235, the isotope necessary for a nuclear reaction. (Bomb grade HEU is 90 percent U-235.)

Under the JCPOA, much of Iran’s current enriching machinery will be dismantled. Of the 19,000 existing Iranian centrifuges—thin metal tubes that spin at fantastic speed to separate uranium’s natural isotopes—5,060 will continue to operate with uranium feedstock. All will be IR-1s, first generation centrifuges that are relatively inefficient.

This provision will remain in effect for 10 years. Beginning in year 11, Iran will be able to replace the IR-1s, one-for-one, with more advanced models.

All of these uranium-enrichment centrifuges will be located at Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Facility. About 1,000 centrifuges at the deeply buried Fordow site, built in secret and discovered by Western intelligence before Iran disclosed it to the IAEA, will remain in operation but be converted to non-nuclear research.

As to the level of enrichment, Iran has agreed to produce uranium with a concentration of U-235 no greater than 3.67 percent for at least 15 years.

Iran’s existing low-enriched uranium stockpile will similarly be sharply curtailed for the next decade-and-a-half. Tehran will reduce it to no more than 300 kilograms, all of it enriched only to the 3.67 percent level. Iran can either ship its surplus stock out of the country, or it can blend it down so that it contains the same levels of U-235 found in natural uranium.

• Plutonium Limits. The vast majority of existing nuclear weapons have a plutonium fissile core. Plutonium contains more explosive power than highly enriched uranium, ounce for ounce, and for advanced nations is easier and less expensive to produce since it is a byproduct of certain nuclear power reactors.

That is why the US and its allies have long been worried about the heavy water reactor Iran has been building near the city of Arak. Iran has said it exists to create radioisotopes for medical purposes but it is the type of reactor that can also produce weapons-grade plutonium. It is ringed with anti-aircraft defenses and was perhaps a sign that Iran was hedging its bets and intended to experiment with an alternative path for production of bomb material.

Under the agreement, Iran has promised to address that concern. It will redesign and rebuild Arak so that it will not produce weapons-grade plutonium, and it has agreed to remove the reactor’s original core and render it inoperable. It further promises to not build any new heavy water reactors for at least 15 years.

• Verification. Iran is a big country with difficult, mountainous terrain. It has concealed some of its past nuclear activities from the rest of the world, including the construction of nuclear infrastructure. Thus from the point of view of the US, the success of the agreement could depend on the skills and knowledge of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, which will get the tough job of verification.

The IAEA says it will increase the number of inspectors it deploys to Iran as a result of the agreement. It will also theoretically have somewhat better access to declared Iranian nuclear sites, because under the pact Tehran has agreed to the tighter inspection strictures contained in the so-called Additional Protocol to the Nonproliferation Treaty that it signed in 1968.

The new Iran agreement specifies that IAEA teams will have regular access to relevant buildings at the Natanz centrifuge site.

For 15 years the UN agency will also be able to check up on dismantled and stored centrifuge equipment. For 20 years, it will have access to centrifuge component manufacturing plants. For 25 years, it will have access to Iran’s uranium mines and mills and its heavy water plant.

Sites that Iran hasn’t declared part of its nuclear infrastructure are a different matter. Under the agreement, the IAEA would be able to check almost any location where it suspects covert nuclear activities are taking place—but only after a process that would render the inspections something less than snap assessments.

First, the IAEA would have to ask Iran for access. Iran then would either let the inspectors in or propose some alternative solution. If the parties can’t come to agreement after two weeks, the issue gets kicked up to a commission of members from Iran, the P5+1 powers, and the European Union.

The commission then gets a week to work. If a majority of members vote “yes,” Iran has to provide the requested access within a few days. The total time elapsed for the process might reach 24 days.

Critics say that would provide Iran plenty of time to scrub away signs of covert work. Supporters say that it is virtually impossible to clean up all indications of radioactive material, and that in any case the provision reflects a necessary compromise. Iran had long insisted it would never allow the IAEA into non-nuclear military bases.

“Ultimately, the robustness of the entire verification regime depends on all the working parts: information, technology, and access,” writes Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an assessment of the Iran agreement.

• Past Activities. Some years ago the IAEA obtained a sheaf of intelligence that indicated Iran had carried out a wide variety of activities related to the development of a nuclear warhead. These activities, or possible military dimensions (PMD), allegedly ranged from work on high-voltage detonators to a study of how to fit a nuclear bomb in a missile nose cone.

Beginning in 2011, IAEA officials have asked Iran to explain this information. For the most part the Iranians have not, saying the evidence is faked.

The agreement calls for Iran to clear up this dispute by the end of 2015. How the parties handle this could be a good indication of how smoothly implementation of the whole deal will run. In the past the IAEA has said it would not be able to completely certify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful without adequate details on the PMD.

Iran has a lot of work to do in the coming months. Dismantling centrifuges, ridding itself of large amounts of low-enriched uranium, and rebuilding the Arak reactor will take time.

Implementation Day for the agreement will arrive when the IAEA certifies that Iran has carried out its obligations. That could come at any point from the spring of 2016 onward, according to US estimates.

Meanwhile, the US and the rest of P5+1 have their own tasks to carry out. The first and perhaps most critical of these is to make sure Iran really does follow up on the deal’s requirements and to see that verification is done properly. That in turn will require bolstering IAEA resources and technical capability so it can do its job.

Given this context the US should get ready to respond to any disputes or controversy over Iran’s actions, according to Anthony H. Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That means preparing for a major effort at crisis communications to focus the world on Iran’s actions, if necessary.

“The enforcement of arms control agreements between largely hostile states is inevitably an extension of war by other means. Everything ultimately depends on how well and how diligently the US and its allies enforce it, and the credibility that a combination of all the JCPOA’s provisions, US and other friendly intelligence efforts, and work by the … IAEA over time,” writes Cordesman.

The US and its allies must also prepare to lift virtually all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran at the Implementation Day deadline. That is the core trade in the agreement, after all.

There is a “snapback” provision in the JCPOA intended to protect against Iranian backsliding. In essence, if the US charges Iran with serious violations, UN sanctions will be restored, unless the Security Council passes a resolution to block such an action. But the process would take at least 30 days and critics worry that once the sanctions are gone and Iran has begun to re-enter the normal world of commerce, it will be politically difficult to get restrictions back.

“Legitimate questions remain about whether businesses and government will conscientiously go along with the reimposition of sanctions, especially if they have established a strong commercial or political stake in remaining engaged with Iran,” writes Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “Much will depend on the seriousness of the Iranian violation that triggered the reimposition and the strength of the evidence that a violation had been committed,” Einhorn wrote in a study of key issues related to the Iran deal.

15 Years Out

Perhaps the biggest weakness in the Iran deal is that it is not permanent. As it stands, some of its provisions expire after 10 years. After 15 years Iran would be legally free to resume the production of as much low-enriched uranium as it wants, using more advanced centrifuges than the JCPOA allows. At some point thereafter its breakout time would decline precipitously, to as little as a few weeks.

Would Tehran then race for a bomb? Much would depend on whether Iranian leaders thought such an effort would enhance their nation’s regional security—and whether they believed they could get away with it without retaliatory attacks. At this point the consensus of US intelligence agencies is that Iran has decided to forgo nuclear weapons, though it has pursued them in the past. The trick will be convincing Iranian leaders that this attitude of restraint remains their best option—and US intelligence agencies have made some notoriously bad calls in the not-too-distant past.

It would be very risky for Iran to attempt a nuclear dash in 2030. One bomb is not a deterrent nuclear force, with delivery vehicles and command and control routines. That sort of infrastructure takes decades to build—and IAEA inspectors, not to mention US intelligence—will have had 15 more years to intensely scrutinize Iranian nuclear activities. The US military will have had 15 more years to work on capabilities to locate and attack deeply buried or hidden nuclear sites.

“It would have been preferable to have permanent or longer-term restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program to preserve a one-year breakout time well beyond 15 years. But preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is possible without longer-lasting restrictions—provided the United States and key partners maintain a strong and credible deterrent against a future Iranian decision to go for the bomb,” writes Einhorn.

This is the deal in place. Little else is certain.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” appeared in October.