Plutonium in the Islamic Republic: Make-or-break issue or simply a decoy?

Iran will sway West to allow it permanent near nuclear break-out capability, if it exchanges reduced plutonium production capacity, dilution of medium-level enriched uranium for enrichment capabilities of low-level uranium.

Iran's Arak heavy water reactor 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's Arak heavy water reactor 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The latest reports from the negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program indicate that the Islamic Republic might be ready to make a key concession on slowing its path toward producing a nuclear weapon using plutonium.
The specific issue is what will happen with Iran’s Arak nuclear facility. If it is completed and operates as it is currently designed, it could produce enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon within eight months, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
There are many other issues that could mean a longer waiting period, but Arak is considered a serious enough issue to be a deal-breaker for the US, and was the issue that almost torpedoed the interim deal.
Iran’s decision to halt construction – at least internally – of the plutonium facility as part of the interim deal, and its recent announcement that it might be willing to redesign it to greatly decrease the speed at which it produces plutonium, indeed mark a potential negotiating victory for the West and a deal-breaker in a final agreement.
The latest issue of Arms Control Today, a publication of the Arms Control Association, features some of these compromise solutions. But has Iran used the matter of Arak as a decoy to distract the West from negotiating hard on the primary issue of uranium enrichment? With all the highly complex nuclear issues to negotiate regarding the country’s multiple nuclear capabilities, the interim and final deals in many ways will come down to old-fashioned bargaining.
While there are certain issues that are deal-breakers, the West’s negotiating position has shifted much closer toward that of Iran in recent years.
This is mostly a function of Iran successfully breaching past red lines without having faced consequences.
The shift is so prominent that some of those red lines might now be less important to the West than the goals of avoiding an overt Iranian weapons capability and being able to claim victory by at least extracting some high-profile concessions from Tehran.
For example, only a short time ago the West’s demands were for no more uranium enrichment by Iran at any level, the shipment abroad of much of the country’s enriched uranium stockpile, the dismantling of its long-secret underground Fordow facility, and the dismantling of the Arak facility – in a nutshell, eliminating both the present and future paths to a bomb.
Now it appears that the red lines amount to keeping Iran at least 6-12 months away from “break-out capacity” – where it could produce a bomb – and under heavy monitoring while at least reducing the threat presented by the Arak facility (without touching the Fordow facility).
This is where the Arak concession comes into play.
It is absolutely a serious concession and a deal-breaker on its own. But if Iran successfully trades a reduction of its plutonium production capacity and the dilution of its medium-level enriched uranium for being able to permanently continue enriching low-level uranium, it will have succeeded in having the West agree to it maintaining a permanent near-break-out capability (6-12 months, maybe less if clandestinely).
At the same time, the West will be able to truthfully claim it halted Iran’s path to a plutonium bomb and froze its path to using uranium, with the plutonium halt being the biggest proof it “won” and got the Islamic Republic to back down.
Many say that had the West not raised the stakes, Iran would have undoubtedly gone down both paths. But another, more likely possibility – since several basic aspects of the plutonium path to a weapon still do not exist, and most of what does exist is half-baked – is that the plutonium path is nothing more than a decoy.
Iran may have planned from the start that it would “concede” its plutonium path to prove its intentions were not weapons-related, while using it to at least keep its uranium option open, something that a few years ago the West would not have agreed to. If this is true, any future public dispute between Iran and the US over whether to reduce the Arak facility’s plutonium production, fully convert it to a light-water reactor (not usable for weapons-grade material) or totally dismantle it could be seen from this vantage point as being somewhat staged.
Regardless of whether or not it was a grand strategy from the start, even if the final deal stops Iran’s path to a plutonium weapon but preserves both a “modest” (a term used by US President Barack Obama) Iranian “right” to uranium enrichment and lets Iran keep some of its stockpile, the outcome would likely be a permanent near break-out capacity – which Secretary of State John Kerry essentially has confirmed to Congress.