Iran Deal: Not as Bad as It Could Be, but Still Bad

by Fred Fleitz

It’s not a surprise that President Obama and Secretary Kerry are doing victory laps over the deal reached with Iran tonight. President Obama has been trying to get an agreement with Iran since he came to office and his administration has been desperate to get one over the last few weeks.

The claim that this deal will set back Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is false. While Iran has committed to downblend its 20 ​percent–enriched uranium to reactor grade, the main proliferation threat is Iran’s much larger reactor-grade uranium stockpile. Iran can convert either its 20 percent or reactor-grade uranium stockpiles into weapons-grade uranium in a couple of months, according to studies by the American Enterprise Institute, the Institute for Science and International Security, and the Nuclear Proliferation Education Center.

Increased monitoring will prevent Iran from enriching its reactor-grade uranium to weapons fuel for now, but this threat remains until its reactor-grade stockpile is removed from the country. There’s no indication Iran will agree to this.

Over the next six months, Iran will keep its reactor-grade uranium stockpile and has agreed to convert new uranium enriched to this level to uranium oxide so the amount of reactor-grade uranium will remain at the same level. This will not set back Iran’s reactor-grade stockpile, since uranium oxide can be readily converted back into a uranium compound (UF6) that can be further enriched to weapons grade.

The deal’s provision that Iran not add additional centrifuges is significant, although it will be allowed to replace damaged centrifuges. But why is Iran enriching uranium at all? Years of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanded Iran halt all enrichment. To get this deal, the Obama administration threw out this demand, a concession that undermines U.S. resolve.

A provision that Iran leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at the Natanz facility and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at the underground Fordow facility is significant, since it will not allow Iran to increase the rate of uranium enrichment. However, this concession is offset by the fact that Tehran already has a large stockpile of enriched uranium.

Other aspects of agreement are less significant than they seem:

Iran agreed not to install or use advanced centrifuges, but it has few of them now and they have encountered technical problems.

Iran agreed not to commission, fuel, or add fuel components to the Arak heavy-water reactor, which will be a source of plutonium for the next six months. But this reactor is at least a year away from start-up and its construction violates U.N. Security Council resolutions. This is clever language that allows work on this reactor to continue.

The White House statement that this agreement is an intermediate step that expires in six months and “and does not represent an acceptable end state to the United States or our P5+1 partners” is encouraging. The White House contends that a final agreement will require Iran to come into compliance with all U.N. Security Council resolutions and give the IAEA full access to all nuclear sites.

This step consisted of very mild concessions by Iran for sanctions relief.  The next step will be much harder and supposedly will require Iran to make much more significant concessions. While this agreement does not concede Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, it appears there will be some sort of Western concession, probably allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium to reactor grade.

A final agreement that resolves the threat from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons must include halting all enrichment, removing all enriched uranium from the country, dismantling all centrifuges, halting work on the Arak reactor, and allowing full access by the IAEA to suspected nuclear sites. There is no sign that Iran will agree to such conditions.

— Fred Fleitz analyzed WMD proliferation for the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. He is now chief analyst with LIGNET.com, a global intelligence and forecasting service.