How to Evaluate a Nuclear Deal with Iran

If negotiators in Vienna reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, attention will shift toward Congress and its legislatively mandated review of the deal.  For an agreement to be considered successful, it should, at minimum, achieve the goals set out by the United States at the outset of the talks: blocking Iran’s “four pathways” to a nuclear weapon and keeping Iran at least one year away from being able to fuel a bomb.  What should members of Congress and others look for in evaluating whether an agreement meets U.S. objectives?

Three of the four pathways involve Iran’s use of declared facilities to make fuel for a nuclear weapon in a “breakout” scenario:

  1. Using the Natanz plant to make highly enriched uranium
  2. Using the Fordow plant to make highly enriched uranium
  3. Extracting plutonium from spent fuel produced at the Arak heavy water reactor

The fourth pathway is Iran’s potential use of covert facilities to develop nuclear weapons in a “sneakout” scenario.

1.  What is needed to block the highly enriched uranium pathways at Natanz and Fordow?

  • Reduce Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium gas, which currently stands at 7.5 tons.  According to the White House’s April fact sheet, Iran’s stockpile will be reduced to 300 kg.
  • The enriched uranium in excess of 300 kg should be removed from the country.  If that is not attainable, the stockpile should be converted into a more proliferation-resistant form.  The worst outcome would be to dilute the material but keep it as a gas, as this would be the easiest to enrich to weapon grade.​​​
  • ​​​​Reduce the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at both plants and reduce the number of installed centrifuges.  According to the White House’s April fact sheet, Iran has agreed to reduce from about 19,000 to 6,104 the number of installed centrifuges, and will be limited to operating 5,060 of these first-generation IR-1 machines. ​​​​
  • ​An acceptable cap on operating centrifuges is contingent on the size of the enriched uranium stockpile Iran is allowed to maintain.  The centrifuge numbers in the White House fact sheet are upper limits, assuming that the stockpile of enriched uranium is reduced to 300 kg.​​​​​​​
  • ​​​Ideally, dismantled centrifuges should be removed from the country.  If that is not attainable, the centrifuges should be dismantled, removed from enrichment plants, and continuously monitored.  The worst outcome would be to leave centrifuges in place and simply disconnect them, because Iran could easily resume enrichment using these machines if a deal falls apart.
  • Limit research and development on advanced centrifuges.  Iran must not be allowed to perfect these machines during the term of the agreement and then emerge on the other side ready to mass produce centrifuges that are far more efficient than the older machines currently operating.

2.  What is needed to cut off the plutonium pathway at Arak?

  • Redesign the heavy water reactor to be smaller and produce less plutonium, with spent fuel from the new reactor shipped out of the country.
  • The terms in the White House fact sheet appear to address these concerns, as the reactor would be redesigned and its existing core would be destroyed or removed from the country.  Iran reportedly has agreed to ship spent fuel out of the country for the reactor’s lifetime and to refrain from reprocessing spent reactor fuel indefinitely.

3.  What is needed to block Iran from using undeclared sites to “sneakout” and covertly make nuclear weapons?

  • The best way to prevent a “sneakout” is through robust monitoring and verification.  An agreement must include expanded authority for on-site inspectors, the use of advanced monitoring equipment, and input from national intelligence services.
  • Specifically, a deal should include the following for international inspectors:
  • The right to inspect any facility or location in Iran, including military sites.  No site can be declared off-limits.  Inspectors’ access can be managed to a degree, to respect Iran’s sensitivities about military secrets, but any suspect site or location in Iran should be made available to inspectors.  Inspectors’ authority must go beyond the terms of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, which grants inspectors limited authority at undeclared sites.
  • The right to see facility plans, procurement documents, and personnel files and to interview personnel.  This information will be essential to help inspectors decide where to launch an inspection.
  • Augmentation of IAEA-led inspection teams with expert personnel from the P5+1 (for example bomb experts, experts in centrifuge manufacturing, and officials from counterintelligence experience).  Iran must not be allowed to veto individual inspectors.
  • The ability to use the latest technology for inspections and to periodically upgrade equipment with open-source technology without a cumbersome approval process.
  • A commitment from the P5+1 to provide intelligence to support inspectors help verify implementation of the agreement.
  • The right to verify all nuclear and dual-use imports, including at locations that have nothing to do with the nuclear program.  All procurement of this kind must take place through an established “white channel.”  Any procurement outside of this authorized channel should be considered a violation of the agreement.

4. What else should the agreement include to fulfill U.S. objectives?

  • A declaration from Iran of its past and ongoing nuclear work.  Such a declaration would be an early sign for inspectors of whether Iran is accepting monitoring and verification in an honest way or withholding information.  A declaration would also provide a baseline of information for inspectors as they monitor Iran’s nuclear program and seek out sites of potential concern.
  • Cooperation with the IAEA in resolving its investigation into the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.  The IAEA’s investigation is essential for understanding the country’s past nuclear-weapons-relevant work, and would offer a basis for inspectors to access military sites where such work occurred and to examine relevant documents and interview personnel.
  • Provide Iran with sanctions relief in stages.  The deal under discussion is more akin to “cash for access” arrangements than a reciprocal arms control agreement.  Therefore, if the bulk of the sanctions on Iran are lifted early, then most of the “cash” will already have been handed over.  This reduces Iran’s incentive to grant access to inspectors and leaves only a frail instrument — the re-imposition of sanctions when most have already been lifted — to punish violations.  “Snapback” is a misnomer, as U.N. and E.U. sanctions will be not be easy to re-impose once lifted, absent a major violation.
  • Other sanctions on Iran, such as the arms embargo and sanctions related to ballistic missiles and terrorism, must remain in place.  Since ballistic missiles will not be covered by the agreement, sanctions on Iran’s missile program will be essential, including a willingness of the United States to sanction Iran’s foreign suppliers.

5.  What are the negative consequences of an agreement, even if it includes all of the parameters outlined above?

  • The sunset clause in the agreement means the restrictions on Iran’s program are not indefinite.  They would last 10 or 15 years.  Iran’s Supreme Leader has called for building a vast uranium enrichment program, in which case Iran would become a threshold nuclear weapons state.
  • The agreement does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program.  Restrictions on Iran’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are part of U.N. Security Council resolutions.  These missiles are an integral part of a nuclear weapon program; they are the primary delivery vehicle for such weapons with little other military value.
  • The agreement sets a bad precedent for the nuclear non-proliferation regime.  Iran is a founding member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  It violated its treaty obligations for years and will be allowed to maintain a uranium enrichment program, which is among the most proliferation-prone technologies.  The United States will have a more difficult time convincing countries to adhere to a “gold standard” and forgo uranium enrichment and reprocessing.  More countries could become nuclear weapon, or nuclear weapon threshold states.