Do We Have a Deal? Sticking Points Persist

In a Joint Statement on April 2, negotiators announced that Iran and the P5+1 countries have “taken a decisive step” and “reached solutions on key parameters” of a nuclear agreement.  But how “decisive” are the “solutions” announced with such fanfare in Lausanne, Switzerland?

Below are excerpts from the Joint Statement, followed by a description of what they could mean and what the U.S.  government says they mean.  The Joint Statement is vague; a fact sheet released by the U.S. government provides more detail, but that document has been questioned by Iranian officials.

It appears that many of the issues that have been sticking points since negotiations began remain sticking points.  They were papered over in the Joint Statement and will have to be resolved before the June 30 deadline for a final agreement.

1. Iran’s enrichment capacity, enrichment level and stockpile will be limited for specified durations, and there will be no other enrichment facility than Natanz.

Enrichment capacity:  Iran has apparently agreed to limit the number of first-generation centrifuges installed at the Natanz plant to 6,104, and to operate only 5,060.  This is down from about 15,420 installed at Natanz, of which 9,156 are enriching uranium.  So, while the U.S. says Iran has agreed to “reduce by approximately two-thirds its installed centrifuges,” it is cutting the number of operating centrifuges only by half.  As is currently the case, only first-generation IR-1 centrifuges will be installed or operating.  The 1,008 advanced centrifuges (IR-2m) at Natanz will be removed.

But what happens to all of the removed centrifuges?  According to the United States, they will remain in the country, in storage, and monitored by international inspectors.  This means that if the deal falls apart, Iran will be able to reconstitute its program rather than having to rebuild it.

According to the United States, Iran also would freeze its “centrifuge manufacturing base.”  This most likely means that no new centrifuges would be built during a period of time, though that period is not specified in any of the documents released so far.

Stockpile:  Then there is the question of enriched uranium, both the existing stockpile (about 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium) and ongoing production.  According to the United States, Iran has agreed to limit its stockpile to 300 kg for a period of 15 years.  Even if further enriched, this is not enough to fuel a nuclear weapon.

But what happens to the rest of Iran’s stockpile?  Will it be shipped out of the country, as reported previously, or will Iran dilute the material and keep it in the country?  This is a critical question.  The stockpile is sufficient to fuel about seven nuclear weapons, with further enrichment and processing.   If the material remains in the country (especially in diluted gaseous form), it could provide Iran with the building blocks for a small nuclear arsenal.

Enrichment level:  The United States says that Iran has agreed not to enrich above 3.67 percent, “for at least 15 years.”  This is a restriction Iran has been abiding by since early 2014, under the terms of the interim accord.  It is a level that is about 70 percent of the way to weapon grade.

2. Iran’s research and development on centrifuges will be carried out on a scope and schedule that has been mutually agreed.

Iran’s work on more advanced centrifuges is still a sticking point.  The Joint Statement confirms that this work will continue.  The U.S. fact sheet says that Iran will be allowed to “engage in limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges,” based on as-yet-to-be-agreed-upon parameters.  These centrifuges – which are far more efficient than the IR-1 model – would not produce enriched uranium for at least ten years.  Still, the research on advanced centrifuges will continue, which is problematic.  It is important that restrictions be placed on Iran’s work in this domain or Iran will be able to perfect these machines during the period of the deal, and emerge on the other end with more efficient machines.

3.  Fordow will be converted from an enrichment site into a nuclear, physics and technology centre. […] There will not be any fissile material at Fordow.

The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is a hardened uranium enrichment facility that was built in secret by Iran underneath a mountain.  It was designed to hold 2,976 centrifuges, though it currently houses 2,710 first-generation machines, of which 696 are operating.

Iran has agreed to convert Fordow into a nuclear research facility.  According to the U.S. fact sheet, Iran will remove almost two-thirds of Fordow’s centrifuges, leaving about 1,000 in place.  This would be a higher number of centrifuges than are operating at Fordow, but none would be enriching uranium.  Iran has agreed not to enrich uranium at the site for 15 years.

However, Iran will not be required to close Fordow.  After 15 years, Iran could convert the site back into an enrichment plant, at which point concerns about its protected location could reemerge.  Also, as with Natanz, the centrifuges will be dismantled and placed in supervised storage; they will not be removed from the country.

4.  An international joint venture will assist Iran in redesigning and rebuilding a modernized Heavy Water Research Reactor in Arak that will not produce weapons grade plutonium.  There will be no reprocessing and the spent fuel will be exported.

If completed, the reactor under construction at Arak could provide Iran with a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons.  According to the United States, the original core of this reactor will be either destroyed or removed from the country.  Iran will rebuild a reactor based on a design “agreed to by the P5+1.”  And Iran will not build any additional heavy water reactors for 15 years.

In addition, Iran has apparently committed not to reprocess spent fuel from this or any other reactor “indefinitely.”  Spent fuel from the Arak reactor will be shipped out of the country.

Even in modified form, however, it appears that Arak will remain a heavy water reactor, a design that poses proliferation risks and is not needed for Iran’s declared purpose of producing medical isotopes.

5.  A set of measures have been agreed to monitor the provisions of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] including implementation of the modified Code 3.1 and provisional application of the Additional Protocol.

The Additional Protocol allows for wider-ranging nuclear inspections, similar to those Iran has agreed to as part of the interim accord.  However, Iran is not being required to ratify the Protocol.  The Joint Statement describes the Protocol’s “provisional application,” and the U.S. fact sheet only says that Iran has agreed to “implement” the Protocol.  As with the uranium stockpile and the centrifuges, this means the restriction will be reversible by Iran.  Iran could simply decide to end implementation, which it has done before.  In 2003, Iran signed the Protocol and agreed to adhere to it pending ratification.  Ratification never happened and in 2006, Iran announced that it would no longer implement the Protocol.

Under the Additional Protocol, inspectors receive information and have access to all sites related to the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium mines and mills.  This is important, as it allows the Agency to track nuclear material at an earlier stage in the fuel cycle, and potentially to detect a diversion.  According to the United States, inspectors will have access to mines and mills for 25 years and to centrifuge production and storage facilities for 20 years.  The Additional Protocol also requires Iran to provide information about nuclear imports and domestic manufacturing, which will be crucial for verification.

However, short-notice access to some sites is limited under the Additional Protocol.  Access to additional buildings at a known nuclear site can still take time to authorize.  And access to an undeclared site is trickier.  In some cases, inspectors would need to get approval from the IAEA’s governing board before taking environmental samples at such a site.

Modified Code 3.1 imposes requirements on providing design information for new nuclear facilities to the IAEA.  Iran agreed to this requirement back in February 2003, but then reneged – a decision the IAEA contests.  The Code merely requires Iran to provide design information about new nuclear facilities “as soon as the decision to construct or to authorize construction has been taken.”  Therefore, Iran’s willingness to implement this Code is neither new nor groundbreaking.  It has little bearing on catching secret work.

Robust inspections and other types of verification are the sole means of providing assurance that Iran cannot “sneakout” and make nuclear weapons in secret.  Any good deal should therefore give international inspectors broad authority to access suspicious sites in Iran – not just declared nuclear sites.  Unfortunately, the information so far suggests that such enhanced authority will not exist.

6.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be permitted the use of modern technologies and will have enhanced access through agreed procedures, including to clarify past and present issues.

This is the part of the Joint Statement that relates – obliquely – to allegations that Iran carried out nuclear weapon-related research and experiments.  The IAEA has been investigating questions about “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program for years, and has largely failed to make progress because of Iran’s refusal to cooperate.  According to the Joint Statement, the IAEA’s investigation will proceed and Iran will presumably grant the Agency “enhanced access” in order to “clarify” these past “issues.”  But Iran has committed to do so in the past, without following through.

The U.S. government refers to the weapons work more directly but is just as vague about the cooperative measures that Iran will be required to adopt, and their timing.   According to the U.S. fact sheet, “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program.”

Understanding the status of past work in this area is a key to establishing how close Iran is to being able to make nuclear weapons.  Information about this work would support inspections and inform calculations related to Iran’s breakout potential.

7.  The EU will terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions and the US will cease the application of all nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions, simultaneously with the IAEA-verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments.

The timing of sanctions relief remains a sticking point in the negotiations, as Secretary Kerry indicated in his press conference on April 2.  Sanctions are the main form of leverage that brought Iran to the negotiating table.  Iran has sought the immediate lifting of sanctions, while the P5+1 has favored the phased removal of sanctions in order to maintain leverage and ensure compliance.   The Joint Statement indicates the European Union will remove its nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions, while the United States will stop enforcing its nuclear-related sanctions on third-countries and companies that do business with Iran.

But many questions remain.  When and how will these sanctions be lifted?  When and how will the IAEA verify Iran’s “implementation … of its nuclear commitments,” which is meant to trigger the sanctions relief?   How would sanctions be re-imposed if Iran violates the agreement?

According to the U.S government, sanctions will be “suspended” only “after” the IAEA has verified Iran’s compliance.  So, Iran will receive sanctions relief “if it verifiably abides by its commitments.”  This suggests a staged process that the Iranians have rejected.

The U.S. government also describes a “snap back” mechanism, which would re-impose European and U.S. sanctions “in the event of significant non-performance”— a provision not mentioned in the Joint Statement.

Sanctions relief remains a key issue that could potentially kill a final agreement.

8.  A new UN Security Council Resolution will endorse the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], terminate all previous nuclear-related resolutions and incorporate certain restrictive measures for a mutually agreed period of time.

As expected, a U.N. Security Council resolution of some kind will endorse the deal, lift existing U.N. sanctions, and reimpose some sanctions.  However, nothing will be resolved until the U.N. Security Council hammers out the diplomatic language of a new resolution.

The U.S. government describes some promising provisions for such a resolution.  These include the creation of a dedicated and monitored procurement channel for Iran’s nuclear program and the maintenance of international restrictions on Iran’s conventional arms and ballistic missiles.  A new resolution could also maintain the right to inspect suspicious cargo to and from Iran and an asset freeze on Iranian proliferators.