A Letter from the Wisconsin Project to President Obama: Key Elements for an Adequate Nuclear Deal with Iran

June 11, 2014

Publication Type: 

  • Roundtables

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Gary Milhollin and Valerie Lincy

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

As talks with Iran aimed at resolving the dispute over that country’s nuclear program approach a July deadline, we write to emphasize several key elements that must be part of any adequate final accord, and to urge you to ensure that these elements are included.  The elements were identified by an expert panel recently brought together by the Wisconsin Project.  The participants included David Kay, a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, John Lauder, who spent over 30 years working on nonproliferation and arms control at the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Singh, Managing Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and William Tobey, Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  Several of these experts will testify before Congressional Committees in the coming days and will reflect the key findings from our discussion.

The overarching question bearing on these talks is whether Iran is willing to confine its nuclear activities solely to civil purposes.  That question cannot be answered solely by Iran’s willingness to limit the scope of its work at declared nuclear sites.  It is of the greatest importance that, before any final accord is struck, there should be no doubt that Iran has made a fundamental strategic decision: to join the international community instead of defying it, and to get permanently off the path toward becoming a nuclear weapon state, virtual or actual.  Until Iran makes that decision, any accord will be but a tactical maneuver, used by Iran to soften the impact of existing sanctions, while preserving its ability to make weapons.

Four elements are needed to prove that Iran has peaceful intentions.  These same four elements are needed also to insure that Iran cannot make a quick dash for an atomic bomb.  They are:

  • A full explanation of past nuclear work that has according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “possible military dimensions” – work that has no place in a civilian program, but is essential to nuclear weapons; 
  • A complete declaration and robust inspection of Iran’s nuclear activities, material, and equipment going beyond the Additional Protocol;
  • An effective means of monitoring and controlling all of Iran’s procurement activities with possible nuclear applications; and
  • A large increase in Iran’s breakout time – the time needed to fuel a nuclear weapon.

Weapon development:  The IAEA, the United States, and other countries have compiled evidence linking Iran to nuclear weapons research.  Iran has explored technologies uniquely suited to fission bombs, and has refused to explain this research to the IAEA.  Until Iran explains who was involved, what actions were taken, and where they took place, there can be no international confidence that the illicit activities have ceased.  Nor can there be sufficient knowledge of what the activities may have achieved.  Thus, the explanation of Iran’s suspicious research must be part of a final deal.

Verification:  Critical parts of Iran’s nuclear program are still unknown to the international community, for example the location and extent of centrifuge manufacturing facilities.  A final deal must allow access to sites, persons, and records sufficient to insure that Iran’s program is fully understood.  That is, to determine that Iran has no “bomb in the basement,” nor the ability to produce one, and that Iran no longer conducts secret activities or has secret sites.  Such transparency does not now exist.  There must also be a mechanism to enforce this transparency, including a forum to discuss inconsistencies that arise.

Procurement:  Iran imported materials for its nuclear enterprise illicitly for many years and continues to do so.  A final deal must prevent such imports as part of a system to prevent the use of covert facilities to pursue nuclear weapons.  Proof of further Illicit imports should be considered prima facie evidence that Iran has violated the agreement, and resumed nuclear weapons work.  The best way to accomplish this is to set up an agreed channel for nuclear imports that would be exclusive.  No import outside the channel would be permitted, and such a channel would include a mechanism for regulating what Iran is allowed to buy.  The IAEA would be provided with a list of licitly procured equipment, and supplier countries could conduct end-use checks.  This type of arrangement will be essential if a final deal relaxes the rules now barring Iran from nuclear-related procurement, and allows Iran, for example to continue centrifuge enrichment.  Without such a mechanism, there would be a great risk that Iran could divert newly-permitted imports to secret sites.  No such mechanism currently exists.

Breakout time:   At the beginning of the year, Iran was estimated to be able to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon in two to three months.  Iran is also building a heavy water reactor that could produce enough plutonium for approximately two bombs per year.  A final deal cannot leave these capabilities in place.  If the reactor remains, its plutonium production should be reduced to a token level, with any plutonium contained in spent fuel removed from the country on a regular basis.  If enrichment is not eliminated, it should be reduced to a token level, with any enriched material being removed from the country.  A final accord must insure that Iran would require more than a year to produce the fuel for a nuclear weapon.  Development of more efficient centrifuges must also be permanently constrained.  Such machines could reduce Iran’s breakout time.

Last December, in remarks at the Brookings Institution, you said that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”  Since then, members of your cabinet have repeated that position.  These remarks have rightly reflected the fact that there will be a number of costs to striking any final deal, and therefore that it is essential to get a final deal that is adequate.  If, for example, Iran is allowed to retain uranium enrichment, U.S. allies will demand the right to have the same, which could lead to the further proliferation of this dangerous technology.  For example, South Korea and Taiwan have expressed interest in uranium enrichment in the past.  A deal will also bolster the regime in Iran, whereas a decades-long strategic goal of the United States has been to contain this regime.  And a deal will have to be monitored.  For nearly three decades, Iran broke its word to inspectors, conducted illicit research, and built secret sites.  It may do so again.  If it violates its obligations, what will be the remedy?  Sanctions, after being dropped under a final deal, will difficult to reinstate in time to be useful.

Our negotiators should take as much time as they need to obtain an accord that is adequate.  Above all else, we urge you to insist that any final accord must contain the essential elements we have described here, and which are set forth in our roundtable report, included with this letter.

Sincerely yours,

Gary Milhollin                Valerie Lincy
President                      Executive Director

Enclosure (A Final Deal with Iran: Filling the Gaps)