Evaluating a Nuclear Deal with Iran

Presentation for Congressional Staff at the Rayburn House Office Building
June 19, 2015

Publication Type: 

  • Speeches and Testimony


Valerie Lincy

Throughout the ongoing talks on Iran’s nuclear program, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control and Iran Watch have been supportive of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue but concerned about the potential ramifications for the future of the non-proliferation regime.  As an organization, the Wisconsin Project has had a long-standing and deep commitment to the principles of non-proliferation.

To be considered successful, a nuclear agreement with Iran must achieve the goals set by the United States: cutting off what the administration calls Iran’s “four pathways” to a nuclear weapon and keeping Iran at least one year from making a nuclear weapon. According to our calculations, which we have recently updated on Iran Watch, Iran could currently produce enough fuel for one bomb in about two months.

Three of the four pathways involve preventing Iran from using its declared nuclear facilities to make a nuclear weapon in a “breakout” scenario: Iran would use either the uranium enrichment plants at Natanz or Fordow to make highly enriched uranium for a bomb, or it would extract plutonium from spent fuel at the Arak heavy water reactor.  

What is needed to cut off the highly-enriched uranium pathways at Natanz and Fordow?  The deal should reduce the number of centrifuges enriching uranium and reduce the number of installed centrifuges.  Ideally, the excess centrifuges should be taken apart and removed from the country.  If that is not attainable, then the centrifuges should be dismantled and not merely disconnected.  The worst option would be to leave the centrifuges in the enrichment plants and simply disconnect them.  The dismantlement and removal of Iran’s centrifuges are important because if a deal falls apart, Iran would be left with most of its centrifuge infrastructure and could easily pick up where it left off.

The deal should also limit Iran’s work on its advanced centrifuges.  Iran must not be allowed to perfect these machines during the term of the agreement and then emerge at the other end ready to mass produce centrifuges that are twice as efficient as the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges currently operating.

The agreement should also reduce Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which currently stands at 8.7 tons.  This material is in gaseous form, which can be further enriched to weapon-grade.  According to the White House fact sheet released in April, the stockpile will be reduced to 300 kg.  What will happen to the 8-plus tons of excess enriched uranium gas?  Ideally, it should be removed from the country.  If that is not attainable, then it should be converted to a form that is difficult to re-convert and further enrich.  The worst option would be to dilute the excess uranium and keep it in gaseous form, as this would be the easiest for Iran to re-enrich.  This material, then, could be used to reconstitute the nuclear program if the deal falls apart. Iran’s current uranium stockpile, if further enriched, is large enough to fuel about 8 nuclear bombs.

All of these numbers are intimately related.  If Iran is permitted to keep more centrifuges, then the deal must correspondingly reduce the amount of low-enriched uranium it can stockpile, or else a 1 year breakout time will not be achieved.

To cut off the third pathway – the plutonium pathway – the deal should require Iran to reconfigure its Arak heavy water reactor to be smaller and produce less plutonium.  The White House fact sheet appears to accomplish this, as the reactor would be redesigned and the existing core destroyed or removed from the country.  According to the fact sheet, the spent fuel from the reactor will also be sent out of the country for the lifetime of the reactor, and Iran has also agreed not to do any spent fuel reprocessing indefinitely.

The fourth pathway involves Iran using undeclared sites to “sneakout” and make nuclear weapons.  Monitoring and verification are the best tools to guard against this outcome..  Specifically, the deal must include a combination of extra authority for on-site inspectors and also the use of remote monitoring and intelligence.

In April, the Wisconsin Project hosted a roundtable discussion on the subject of monitoring and verification in Iran, and the panel included former United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq as well as former U.S. government officials with non-proliferation expertise.   The roundtable discussion arrived at a set of findings on what a nuclear agreement with Iran must contain.  These requirements include:

  • The right to inspect any facility or location in Iran, including military sites.  No site can be of-limits. There are ways to manage access, in order to respect Iran’s sensitivities about military secrets, but the authority to inspect any site in Iran is essential.  A possible model for inspections in Iran is the Chemical Weapons Convention’s “challenge inspections,” which Iran has accepted.  Under the CWC, countries cannot refuse or excessively delay access.  Inspectors’ authority must go beyond the Additional Protocol’s “complementary access” procedures, which are restrictive in terms of what inspectors can do at undeclared sites.  Parameters for enhanced inspections must be set in advance and cannot be a source of dispute from day 1 of the agreement.
  • The right to see facility plans, procurement documents, lab notebooks, personnel files, as well as to interview personnel.  This type of information helps inspectors decide where to launch a challenge inspection.
  • Inspections teams led by the IAEA but augmented by expert personnel from the P5+1, including bomb experts, experts in centrifuge manufacturing, and officials with counterintelligence expertise. Iran must not have the right to veto individual inspectors.
  • The ability to use the latest technology for inspections and to upgrade what is used without a cumbersome approval process.
  • The use of intelligence information by inspectors to support implementation of the agreement.  
  • The right to verify all nuclear and dual-use imports, including at locations that have nothing to do with the nuclear program.  All procurement of this kind must take place through an established “white channel,” or “procurement channel,” and any procurement outside this channel should be considered a violation of the agreement.  The deal must create a bright line between legitimate and illicit trade, and Iran must not be allowed to continue its illicit procurement activities.

In order to fulfill U.S. objectives, the deal should also include the following:

  • A declaration by Iran about its past and ongoing nuclear work.  This does not appear to be a requirement at present but is important for several reasons.  Declarations have been an integral part of all arms control agreements.  The declaration would also be an early sign of whether Iran is accepting monitoring and verification in an honesty way.  It would allow countries to assess whether Iran is withholding information.  It also provides a baseline for inspectors on where to look and can also alert them to sites of potential concern.  A declaration would also provide information and assurance to countries, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are not part of the negotiations.
  • The requirement to cooperate with the IAEA in resolving questions about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program – that is, Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons related work in the past.  The “PMD” issue is important to resolve for several reasons.  Disclosures about the “PMD” issue from Iran would provide a basis for IAEA inspectors to access military sites where the work occurred, as well as access to related documents and personnel.  Ignoring “PMD” also undercuts the authority of the IAEA, which leads inspections in Iran and has been demanding answers to these questions for years.  A resolution would also provide public answers to these questions that can be scrutinized by other governments, NGOs, and by the public.  
  • A clear process for dispute resolution.  The deal must create some type of Joint Commission involving the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran, to which inspections teams can report violations, inconsistencies, and ambiguities.  The Joint Commission needs to work quickly: disputes cannot be allowed to languish unresolved.  The parties to the deal must avoid a long process that gets bogged down in deciding first whether there has been a violation and only then deciding how to respond. The Joint Commission should define specific categories of punishment to correspond with likely categories of violation.  Most violations will be small and non-egregious: ambiguities or creeping violations, rather than a major breach of the terms of the agreement.  The main option to respond to violations will be the re-imposition of sanctions, which some countries will see as disproportionate.  Therefore, the agreement need a pre-determined scale of response established in advance.  No country should wield a veto in this setting, or few disputes will be resolved.
  • Sanctions relief in stages.  The Iran deal under discussion is more akin to a “cash for access” arrangement than a Cold War arms control agreement, which were built upon the principal of reciprocity between the United States and the Soviet Union.  If the bulk of the sanctions on Iran are lifted early, then most of the “cash” will already have been handed over. This reduces Iran’s incentive to grant access to inspectors and leaves only a frail instrument — the re-imposition of sanctions when most have already been lifted — to punish violations.  Sanctions, therefore, must be lifted only gradually, as a confidence-building measure to reward compliance.  The nuclear-related sanctions, once lifted, will be difficult to reinstate, especially in response to minor violation.  Other sanctions on Iran must remain in place, especially those related to ballistic missiles and terrorism.  Since ballistic missiles will not be covered by the final agreement, sanctions on Iran’s missile program will be essential, including a willingness of the United States to sanction Iran’s foreign suppliers.

Even if the agreement meets all of the parameters set out above, there would still be negative consequences for striking a deal with Iran.

The “sunset clause” means that the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are not indefinite.  After 10 or 15 years, Iran can largely do what it wants in terms of enrichment and reactors.  If it develops a commercial-scale enrichment operation, Iran could become poised to produce nuclear weapons very quickly and have the status of a nuclear-weapons threshold state, like Japan.

The framework agreement also has left Iran’s missile program largely to the side.  Nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are part of the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions and are an integral part of a nuclear weapons program.  They have little military value other than as a delivery system for nuclear weapons.
The agreement will also have consequences for regional security and the broader non-proliferation regime.  Countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey may seek similar capabilities, or seek, at a minimum, to mirror Iran’s nuclear weapons threshold status.  Countries asked to accept the U.S. “gold standard” for nuclear cooperation agreements and forego uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing (like the United Arab Emirates), may be reluctant to do so.

The agreement could also set a dangerous precedent for the non-proliferation regime.  A country that is a founding member of the NPT and has violated its treaty obligation for years, including by conducting nuclear weaponization work, will be allowed to maintain uranium enrichment, which is among the most proliferation-prone technologies.