- Policy Briefs
President Barack Obama publicly ruled out another extension of the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran if no agreement on the principles of an accord is reached by late March. In remarks at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on February 9, President Obama asserted that the Iranians had been presented with “a deal that allows them to have peaceful nuclear power but gives us the absolute assurance that is verifiable that they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon.” If Iran fails to agree to this “basic formulation,” the President continued, “I don’t see a further extension being useful.”
In his remarks, President Obama stated that the outstanding issues in the talks “are no longer technical” but rather a question of whether Iran has “the political will and the desire to get a deal done”: “We’re at a point where they need to make a decision.” If a framework agreement is reached by March 24, then negotiators will have until late June to finalize details.
Meanwhile, the outlines of the deal now being discussed were reported by the Associated Press on February 3. According to the AP, the United States and Iran are discussing a proposal that would allow Iran to continue running “most” of its almost 10,000 centrifuges but “reconfigure” them to reduce their output of enriched uranium. This proposal reflects a large shift in U.S. policy, from seeking to deny Iran a nuclear weapon capability to managing and limiting that capability—a shift that has drawn criticism from editorial boards and former government officials.
Under the terms of the reported compromise, Iran would keep online most of the 10,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges it is currently operating, but the centrifuge cascades would be re-piped to reduce their efficiency in producing enriched uranium. The agreement would also reportedly include other restrictions, such as a limit on Iran’s storage of uranium hexafluoride gas and a requirement for Iran to ship out most of its production of enriched uranium. The proposed reduction in centrifuge efficiency would be a more readily reversible measure than an outright reduction in the number of centrifuges.
It is unclear whether the proposed compromise would meet the Obama administration’s objective of imposing a “breakout time” of one year on Iran. That is, ensuring that Iran would need at least one year to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon. In a breakout scenario, if Iranian scientists were to restore their existing centrifuges to their current efficiency, Iran could theoretically produce enough highly enriched uranium using natural uranium feed for one bomb in about six months.
The critical question, therefore, becomes how long it would take for Iran to restore its centrifuge cascades. In testimony before Congress in December 2014, David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, stated that disablement steps on centrifuges (more extreme than those mooted in the compromise) “appear to be reversible in less than six months of diligent work.” Dr. Albright also observed that “there is no practical experience in disabling centrifuge plants” and that the timetable for restoration “could be shorter.” If the process of restoring Iran’s cascades back to their original configuration were, in fact, to take less than six months, the proposed agreement would fall short of the Obama administration’s one-year benchmark for breakout.
Concerns over the possible compromise were raised by the Washington Post’s editorial board on February 5 and by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Congressional testimony last month. The Post observed that the Obama administration, once intent on eliminating Iran’s enrichment capability, “now appears ready to accept an infrastructure of thousands of Iranian centrifuges.” Dr. Kissinger observed that the nuclear talks with Iran have evolved from “an international effort … to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option” to a “bilateral negotiation” between the U.S. and Iran “over the scope of that capability.” The impact of this shift, Dr. Kissinger observed, “will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.” He warned that other countries in the region will want to match Iran’s capability, which could result in several more virtual nuclear weapon states.
1. Assuming (1) it takes 4,000 SWUs to produce 20 kg of HEU from natural uranium; (2) Iran’s centrifuges achieve their current average annual output of about .8 SWUs; (3) Iran operates 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges— it would take roughly 6 months to produce 4,000 SWUs.