Politics & Policy

Deflating the Hype on Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal

Inside Iran’s Natanz enrichment facilty in 2008.
The White House is exaggerating what it has achieved with the interim agreement.

At the start of any effort to solve a truly tough problem, there is a natural tendency to oversell what one has initially accomplished, to create the momentum needed to lock down what yet must be achieved. This certainly applies to the recent nuclear “interim agreement” with Iran — particularly the part that limits Tehran’s uranium-enrichment facilities, production, and stockpiles, which have already brought Tehran within six weeks of acquiring enough highly enriched uranium to make its first nuclear weapon.

The general aim of the negotiations is to “push the time line” (that is, increase the time Iran will need to make a bomb) up to six to twelve months. So far, it is unclear if much more has been achieved beyond pushing the time line a couple of weeks. What is particularly worrisome is how much the deal’s supporters have oversold what they have already achieved. Of course, it remains unclear how well or poorly these negotiations will ultimately perform in limiting Iran’s nuclear-weapons-related capabilities. But kidding oneself is a formula for mischief. In this regard, seven claims that plan supporters are making need to be put in check.

#ad#1. The restrictions in the interim agreement will “cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb.” This White House statement is aspirational at best; it’s certainly not correct. Although Iran will be forced to dilute its 20 percent enriched uranium down to “no more than 5 percent,” this requirement merely increases from six to eight weeks the time needed for Iran to obtain the nuclear material for a nuclear weapon. Iran will still be perilously close to being able to acquire nuclear weapons whenever it wishes. Far more extensive restrictions on its existing stockpiles of enriched uranium and the number of centrifuges it can use for enrichment would be necessary to change this.

2. The interim agreement “freezes” the amount of enriched uranium at what Iran currently has. The agreement allows Iran to continue production of 3.5 percent enriched uranium during the time the agreement is in force. Therefore, any characterization of the agreement as a “freeze” is inaccurate. Since 3.5 percent enriched uranium is the starting point for Iran’s production of nuclear material for nuclear weapons, the number of nuclear weapons that Iran can potentially produce will continue to grow during the course of this agreement.

3. Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium will not have increased by the end of the six-month period of the agreement. This statement from, again, the White House fact sheet is incorrect. Iran will continue to produce such material. What the fact sheet meant to say is that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched (3.5 percent) uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas would not increase, because it is expected that any additional uranium hexafluoride would be converted into solid ceramic uranium oxide. But this presumes, questionably, that Iran can develop the capability to convert the hexafluoride gas to the ceramic oxide in a timely manner (it does not have a conversion plant operating yet). It also presumes that the conversion process is irreversible, which brings us to the next point.

4. Converting Iran’s 3.5 percent enriched uranium to uranium oxide will “neutralize” this material — i.e., render it so it cannot be converted back into uranium hexafluoride gas, which could be fed into Iran’s centrifuges to make bomb-grade uranium. In the past, to fuel its research reactor in Tehran, Iran has converted 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride into oxide and converting this 20 percent oxide back into hexafluoride would indeed pose some difficulties owing to the risk that a potentially lethal nuclear chain reaction would occur. As a result, 20 percent enriched uranium oxide is considered by many to be fairly safe, though hardly neutralized. However, with 3.5 percent enriched uranium, it is much less likely that a nuclear chain reaction would occur in the reconversion process, and it should be fairly simple for Iran to use its existing facilities to convert the 3.5 percent enriched uranium oxide back to hexafluoride. The mistaken belief that converting enriched uranium into an oxide will permanently neutralize it, regardless of the uranium’s level of enrichment, suggests that, despite the highly technical nature of the centrifuge-enrichment process, U.S. negotiators failed to heed or avail themselves of the vast technical expertise that can be found in U.S. national laboratories.

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5. The interim agreement does not concede that Iran has a right to enrich uranium. Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama claim that the U.S. has not recognized this right, but that’s just a technicality — he means “not yet.” The U.S. seems willing to grant Iran this right once the follow-on comprehensive solution is reached between the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran. In two separate places the interim agreement says, “This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme.” Note that the text says “would,” not “might” or “could.”

#ad#6. The interim agreement and the follow-on comprehensive solution will result in Iran’s being kept farther from acquiring a bomb than it is now, and will do so indefinitely. Again, this is untrue. The interim agreement states that the follow-on comprehensive solution will “have a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon” and that, when that period has expired, Iran “will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon party to the NPT.” This means that Iran’s nuclear program will be under no special restrictions in, say, five or ten years. If the P5+1 allow Iran to keep its centrifuge-enrichment program, then not only could it build as many centrifuges as it wants, it could also import centrifuges, or centrifuge technology, as part of normal nuclear trade from countries such as Russia or Pakistan. Iran could then have a larger, more robust centrifuge-enrichment program and come much closer to acquiring nuclear weapons than it currently is.

7. However much the interim agreement or the follow-on comprehensive solution might allow Iran to enrich uranium, the concession would apply only to Iran. As already noted, at the end of the follow-on comprehensive solution, Iran “will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon party to the NPT.” One could easily turn this statement around, however, to read that any non-nuclear weapon party to the NPT “will be treated in the same manner” as is Iran. This should not be seen as a major stretch. After all, Iran has violated its IAEA safeguards by conducting clandestine centrifuge enrichment and defied multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt all centrifuge enrichment, and is allowed to have centrifuge enrichment, so on what basis can any country that has abided by its IAEA safeguard obligations be denied centrifuge enrichment?

Already South Korea, alarmed by North Korea’s recent nuclear-weapon tests, has been pressuring the U.S. to allow it access to the plutonium in the spent fuel of South Korea’s nuclear-power reactors, and to be allowed to enrich its own uranium as well. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, dismayed by the failure to prevent Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons, has expressed interest in building a large nuclear-power program, despite its vast reserves of oil and natural gas. No doubt Saudi Arabia would also want a centrifuge-enrichment program, to give it ready access to nuclear material for nuclear weapons.

From the comments above, the prospects for pushing Iran six to twelve months farther away from a bomb option are hardly bright. The only way to dim these prospects even more is to kid ourselves about what has been accomplished. That must stop.

— Greg Jones is a nuclear analyst and senior researcher at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Va. Henry Sokolski is the center’s executive director.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.

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