Iran and the bomb: The future of negotiations

Look for Iran to haggle hard over plutonium reduction but offer a “historic” compromise late in the game, accepting the world powers’ position in exchange for maintaining more centrifuges.

Iranian security official at Bushehr nuclear plant. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian security official at Bushehr nuclear plant.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Not long ago, the West’s position on the Iranian nuclear program was a “no risk” policy. It demanded that Iran stop enriching uranium, ship its existing uranium stocks overseas, close its Arak plutonium facility, close its long-secret underground Fordow facility, come clean on all past violations and end its detonation and missile programs that could be used for nuclear weapons.
The problem was that Iran would not budge. Also, China, Russia and other countries whose economic support was enough to keep Iran afloat would not back this approach, and no country was ready to go to war to end the program before it became a greater risk.
In lieu of such a clean solution and with Iran driving forward to what most consider “breakout” capability, meaning the point at which it could immediately enrich existing uranium to weapons-grade, sanctions backed even by China and Russia were put together. This eventually brought Iran into the current negotiations.
A six-month interim deal in principle was reached in November 2013, with the six months starting in January 2014. When the interim period expired on July 20, the sides extended the negotiations for an additional four months. This was less than the six-months the interim deal allowed, though the US has notably refused to rule out further extensions.
For the interim deal, the world powers moved far from the “no risk” policy to one of “managed risk,” where the biggest issue was breakout time and centrifuges. In the new policy, Iran’s breakout time was pushed from a currently estimated two months to six months or one year – enough time to try both diplomatic and military solutions should Tehran try to turn the corner, and more time to detect violations.
On the ground, extending breakout time means, very simply, fewer centrifuges, the rotating cylinders whose force can lead to the enrichment of uranium. Iran has 9,000 first-generation centrifuges that are operational and at least 10,000 more that have been installed but are non-operational. It also has 1,000 second-generation centrifuges that have been installed but are as yet non-operational.
The toughest position the world powers might take could be to limit Iran to 2,000-4,000 first-generation centrifuges. This clearly would be a massive reduction in existing centrifuges, something Iran has refused to do on principle, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even blustering recently that the country would need as many as 130,000 centrifuges to cover its future civilian nuclear needs.
The envisioned 130,000 centrifuges, and keeping even the existing centrifuges, is a non-starter.
It would bring about increased sanctions even from some Obama administration officials who could be desperate for a deal. Yet freezing the number operational first-generation centrifuges at the current 9,000 or, in another proposed variation, allowing the current level of production with second-generation centrifuges, would be viewed by Iran as a big concession and might be accepted by the US and a sufficient number of other world powers.
Iran has shown a willingness to dilute or convert its existing stock of uranium such that there are scenarios in which many centrifuges could be maintained along with a 6-12-month breakout time, which is why the world powers might accept it. However, many are wary that such a continued level of uranium production would sabotage International Atomic Energy Agency efforts to keep an eye on the program while also being unrealistic as to expecting Iran to regularly dilute, convert or ship out newly enriched uranium.
In the uranium enrichment discussion, closing down Fordow – which Israel wants, something that would ensure there are no major facilities too far underground for it to hit – is off the table, though it appears Iran might be willing to reduce the facility’s enrichment capabilities.
Regarding a less-immediate but no-less-threatening Iranian path to the bomb through the production of plutonium, the West’s position has been that Iran needs to close its Arak facility or at least replace the heavy water and current large reactor core there with light water and a smaller core. The bottom line is that such a change would negate or substantially reduce Arak as a threat.
Iran has instead suggested voluntarily reducing plutonium production and the existing reactor’s power.
While these changes reduce plutonium production to a fraction of the current value, the bottom-line problem here, according to many, is that both of these voluntarily changes are reversible in a way that might not delay breakout time very much.
Look for Iran to haggle hard over this issue but offer a “historic” compromise late in the game, accepting the world powers’ position in exchange for maintaining more centrifuges. This could be a clever negotiating move since the uranium path to the bomb is far more developed than the plutonium path and could be hard for the West to refuse.
The strictest Western position would prefer a 20-year period of major restrictions and intrusive inspections, taking the issue to a completely different period and removing incentives to cheat, with the inspections expiring soon anyway.
Iran has suggested three to seven years, with seven appearing to correspond with the expiration in 2021 of a mammoth nuclear technology deal it signed with Russia.
Such a deadline would give Moscow a strong incentive not to confront Iran over any arising misdeeds so as to get a new deal.
This issue is much more symbolic in some ways, but it does dictate when the next “trouble” round is likely to arise, near the end of three years, 20 years or somewhere in between. Look for the sides to reach a compromise closer to Iran’s seven years because if the rest of the deal is considered viable, it will be hard for Western leaders to walk away from a seven-to-10-year deal, especially one that will not expire on the watches of current leaders.
The questions concerning coming completely (as opposed to partially) clean, Iran’s detonation program and its missile program are not being completely ignored, but they have already been mostly on the sidelines. This means the West is again likely to settle for less if the overall deal is viewed as viable.
Ultimately, the West, most notably the US – which made sure it could execute the deal under a more friendly Congress in November and before a likely less-friendly Congress takes over in January 2015 – is likely to push for a deal if it can get one that is not embarrassingly shallow and has some historic Iranian concessions. Whether that means it will partially bend to Iran on centrifuge numbers or whether Tehran will be forced to agree to a deal that more seriously blocks its path to the bomb will be answered in the coming months.