the Iran Deal

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Early Tuesday morning in Vienna, the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to an understanding to “significantly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade in return for lifting international oil and financial sanctions.” I haven’t seen the actual agreement[1], but there has been sufficient commentary by those who have that I have confidence in what I will say here[2].

Mr Obama made it abundantly clear that he would fight to preserve the deal in its entirety, saying, “I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal.” What this means is that all he needs is one-third plus one of one house of Congress (34 Senators will do it) – a veto is over-ridded by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress. He added that the accord was preferable to the alternate scenario of an unbridled Iran touching off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. “Put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East,” he said. He added that his successors in the White House “will be in a far stronger position” to restrain Iran for decades to come than they would be without the pact.

Not everyone was as pleased. Benjamin Netanyahu, called it a “mistake of historic proportions” that would ultimately create a “terrorist nuclear superpower.”

What this accord amounts to is kicking the can down the road to be addressed again in a decade or two. Our official bargaining position went from “preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” to “not on my watch.” Overall, the agreement isn’t as bad as I feared – but bad enough.

The objective of denying Iran a deliverable nuclear weapon has two obvious components – the physics package and the delivery platform. The surest way of preventing the development of the physics package is to deny them the ability to enrich uranium. This agreement does not do that. The surest way of preventing Iran from developing a delivery platform is to deny them the acquisition of long-range aerial vehicles. This agreement does not do that. One could limit Iran’s cascade array to a thousand or fewer centrifuges, rendering it extremely laborious to produce highly enriched uranium, and more so to produce enough to produce multiple warheads. This agreement does not do that. Another way to curb long-range delivery of a warhead is to halt Iran’s work on ICBMs and ban the development of an intercontinental bomber, manned or unmanned. This agreement does not do that.

What we’ve done is to legitimize the existence of Iran’s nuclear program with international regulation for ten- fifteen- and thirty-years (depending on what’s being regulated). After regulation falls away, Iran is then a legitimate nuclear power. We went from denying Iran membership in the nuclear club to welcoming them after an initiation period.

The agreement will require Iran to reduce its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) by 98%. They currently hold 8,714.7kg of LEU, meaning that they must reduce their inventory to a maximum of 174.294kg for the next fifteen years. They will, most likely, ship much of the excess to Russia, where it can quickly be re-acquired when this aspect of the agreement lapses. Iran acknowledges that will enrich to a maximum purity of 3.67% for 15 years.

OK, what does that mean? Well, a single warhead, by the simplest method of construction, would require ~52kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is at least 90%-pure U235. How much LEU does it take to produce 52kg of HEU? Around 750kg. So reducing Iran’s stockpile of LEU to <175kg will leave them short of the ability to “build one in the closet while no one was watching.” This assumes, of course, that Iran won’t have thousands of kilos of LEU hidden somewhere. If you’ve got 2,000kg of LEU, for example, you can get 52kg of HEU out of around 300kg of LEU – the process is more efficient with a larger than minimum feed stream. But that’s a problem for the IAEA inspectors.

Iran claims that the Arak Heavy Water Reactor will retain its heavy water nature. This is unmentioned in the New York Times review – it will be interesting to see the language on this. Heavy water reactors are “breeders” in that a natural by-product of their operation is plutonium, a more efficient and more toxic fissile material than uranium (and breeders can burn raw milled uranium – no enrichment required). This is vital because there is no mention of plutonium in any of the caps on low-enriched stockpile … only uranium.

Iran must reduce the number of centrifuges spinning at Natanz by 2/3. Depending on the actual language of the agreement, that would leave Iran with a cascade of between 5,994 and 3,330 centrifuges. That would extend to about a year the amount of time it would take Iran to make enough HEU for a bomb should it abandon the accord and race for a weapon – the “breakout time.” There is an additional rider in the agreement that prohibits Iran from producing or acquiring HEU or plutonium for fifteen years. “Verification measures,” Secretary Kerry said, would “stay in place permanently.” Iran says it will spin 5,060 at Natanz, and have some 1,044 others at Fordow on standby[3]. This makes Fordow a prime spot for inspectors. Iran claims it will have 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges with all necessary infrastructures will be kept in Fordu, two strings of which being on and rotating. Will the number of Fordu spinning centrifuges be stated in the language?

In year 13, 14, 15 of the agreement, the breakout time could asymptotically shrink toward zero, as Iran is expected to develop and use advanced centrifuges then. This is why the excess centrifuges, and their infrastructure, should be destroyed, not put in “guarded” storage. Making Iran acquire or manufacture the additional, more advanced centrifuges could add an another year to the breakout time.

Tehran and the IAEA had “entered into an agreement to address all questions” about Iran’s past actions within three months, and that completing this task was “fundamental for sanctions relief.” This is of little substantive value as we know that they’ve worked on all aspects of warhead design, including the re-entry vehicle. But it will test their veracity at an early stage. I haven’t heard whether the inspectors would be able to interview the scientists and engineers who were believed to have been at the center of an alleged effort by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to design a weapon that Iran could manufacture on short order. My guess is no, or under such supervisory control by the Iranians that the interview would be worthless. But again, I don’t know, as this part of the text wasn’t reviewed by the New York Times.

One of the last, and most contentious issues, was the question of whether and how fast an arms embargo on conventional weapons and missiles, imposed starting in 2006, would be lifted. This aspect – the arms embargo and the ballistic missile sanctions – were only made public last week. They initially were out of the discussion. Relaxing the arms embargo after five years means that Iran will be able to import and export arms again; releasing the sanctions for work on long-range ballistic missiles after eight years allows Iran to resume R&D on ICBMs. SecState Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, agreed that the missile restrictions would remain for eight years and that a similar ban on the purchase and sale of missiles would be removed in five years. Those bans would be removed even sooner if the IAEA is able to reach a definitive conclusion that the Iranian nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and that there was no evidence of cheating on the accord or any activity to obtain weapons covertly. These concessions were not part of the framework agreed to earlier. This is a mistake. Both of these restrictions should remain in place for the duration of the agreement. Additionally, according to Iran, neither the IAEA or any other person or institution will have the permission to access Iran missile systems or centers.

According to Iran, all the UNSC sanctions imposed on Iran will be removed in the first phase within the framework of Article 41 of the UN Charter under which all the previous sanctions will be declared null and void and all the financial and economic sanctions will be lifted. Diplomats also came up with unusual procedure to “snap back” the sanctions against Iran if an 8-member panel[4] determines that Tehran is violating the nuclear provisions. This is shameless prevarication – once sanctions are relaxed, there is no “snapping-back”. Sanctions are unpopular on their face, and after prolonged sanctions are removed, these corporations aren’t going to “snap back” to inactivity. Also, once the agreement clears the UN, and it will, all international sanctions are removed, leaving only the United States enforcing sanctions. The whole issue deflates once Turtle Bay declares that Iran has met its conditions, the sanctions go away. This has been flim-flam from the start.

In those places where what we’ve been told and what Iran is saying, I tend to think the Iranians are closer to the truth than the White House. I say this because the IRNA bulletin reads like it was lifted directly out of the text of the agreement – it wasn’t authored by a writer … the language is stiff technical. The memo ticks off 105 specific stipulations of the agreement, and they all read like legal documents.

If sanctions cannot be reinstated in response to violations, what will the P5+1 do in the face of Iranian cheating? And they will cheat – they’ve been cheating during the negotiations, why wouldn’t they after it’s signed? They constantly went over the cap on their uranium stockpile; Iran has a long history of trying to obtain nuclear technology, particularly by seeking ways to transport merchandise in circumvention of international sanctions; since November 2013, Tehran has sought industry computers, high-speed cameras, cable fiber, and pumps for its nuclear and missile program. It appears that Iran’s readiness to negotiate does not reflect any substantive policy change. Rather, it is a diplomatic tactical retreat forced by economic distress, not a strategic rethinking of its priorities. As critics have mentioned throughout the negotiations, once the sanctions are gone, Western leverage is gone. Think about it – this isn’t a treaty, so there’s no new international law involved; when sanctions are removed, there are no more constraints on Iranian activity; once European businessmen flood Iran looking for contracts, Iran will be immune from Israeli air strikes – it’s a no-loss environment for cheating.

Mr Obama will have to manage the breach with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states who have warned against the deal, saying the relief of sanctions will ultimately empower the Iranians throughout the Middle East. This will cause Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan to turn to the Russians, with whom dignitaries from those four Arab nations have met, for purchase, in whole or in part, a nuclear program with samples. This deal not only guarantees Iran a nuclear weapon, but creates five nuclear states in the Greater Middle East, joining Israel (the sixth).


[1] At this writing, the text was being downloaded in New York by the various news organizations, which will go through it with their legal staffs and then report on it, probably tomorrow morning.

[2] The facts and figures are from David E Sanger and Michael R Gordon, Iran Nuclear Deal Is Reached After Long Negotiations, in New York Times, July 14 2015.

[3] Iranian commentary from Summary of provisions of the CJPOA, Islamic Republic News Agency, July 14 2015.

[4] Britain, PRC, France, Germany, Russia, the US, the EU and Iran itself. A majority vote is required, meaning that Russia, PRC and Iran could not collectively block action. The investigation and referral process calls for a time schedule of 65 days.

2 thoughts on “the Iran Deal

  1. In reality, if this deal had not been made the strict sanctions that Iran is currently living with would not have stayed in place. If the United States had walked away from the negotiations as Netanyahu has suggested, the other countries who were negotiating with Iran would not have followed our lead and kept the current strict sanctions in place. That’s just a fact.

    • Interesting. I haven’t heard that anywhere else. For one thing, the EU and the UN hold the rights to most of the non-American sanctions on Iran, so it’s not as simple as, say, Spain, saying “I’m going stop my sanctions.” Doesn’t work that way. No matter … it’s whoever wins the 2024 election’s worry now. That’s just a fact.

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