Rift widens on Iranian nuclear deal as Israel, Arabs warn against allowing enrichment

Correction: Earlier versions of this article, including the Thursday print edition of The Washington Post, misstated one of the conclusions of an independent analysis released Wednesday. The study calculated that Iran is now capable of producing enough weapon-grade uranium to fuel an atomic bomb in less than six weeks, using the equipment and know-how it already has.

October 24, 2013

The Obama administration on Wednesday acknowledged a widening gulf with key Middle Eastern allies over nuclear talks with Iran, as Israeli and Persian Gulf Arab leaders pressed for drastic cuts to Iran’s atomic infrastructure that Tehran has insisted it will never accept.

The differences came into stark relief as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to lecture Secretary of State John F. Kerry at a joint news conference, warning against a “bad deal” that would allow Iran to retain any capability to make enriched uranium.

Iran, which last week began a new round of nuclear talks with the United States and five other world powers, says it will never agree to give up its right to make uranium fuel for peaceful nuclear energy.

“Iran must not have a nuclear weapons capability, which means that they shouldn’t have centrifuges for enrichment,” Netanyahu told reporters after a private meeting with Kerry in Rome. “ . . . I think a partial deal that leaves Iran with these capabilities is a bad deal.”

Administration officials say any agreement with Iran must include a combination of strict curbs on its nuclear activities and aggressive monitoring to ensure that Iran cannot use its nuclear facilities to make weapons. A report released Wednesday by independent nuclear experts said Iran’s ability to achieve a nuclear weapons “breakout” could be significantly impeded by imposing restrictions limiting the size of its uranium stockpile and the number and type of centrifuges it operates.

Still, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies have joined Israelis in expressing growing dismay over U.S. suggestions that Iran could be allowed to
retain a limited capability to enrich uranium as part of a comprehensive agreement ending the
decade-old nuclear dispute.

Kerry’s visit with Netanyahu on Wednesday was seen in part as an effort to reassure Israelis that a deal with Iran would not come at the expense of security for Israel or other U.S. allies in the region.

Kerry said the administration would “pursue a diplomatic initiative, but with eyes wide open,” insisting that Iran would have to prove its peaceful intent in order to receive any relief from economic sanctions that have sent Iran’s economy into a deep recession. “We are adamant that words are no substitute for actions,” Kerry said. “We will need to know that actions are being taken which make it crystal clear — undeniably clear, fail-safe to the world — that whatever program is pursued is indeed a peaceful program.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday acknowledged disagreements with the Saudis over the administration’s policies in both Syria and Iran. “We work those out in a candid and forthright way as we maintain the basic foundation of this very important relationship,” he said.

At the crux of the disagreement over Iran is whether a deal can be struck that allows Tehran to enrich uranium for non-weapons purposes under controlled conditions that make it hard, if not impossible, to cheat.

To Israelis officials and many foreign-policy conservatives in Congress, the only fail-safe solution would be to require complete dismantlement of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which has grown since 2003 to include two enrichment plants containing tens of thousands of fast-spinning centrifuges to make nuclear fuel. Iran’s current, 11-ton stockpile — the result of decades of investment amounting to much as $200 billion, according to some estimates — consists of low-enriched uranium of the type used in nuclear power plants and medical research reactors. With additional processing to enrich it to weapons grade, the uranium could provide Iran with enough fuel for roughly 15 nuclear bombs.

Proponents of the no-enrichment approach note that Iran has no inherent need to make its own nuclear fuel, which can be easily purchased from other countries. Michael Singh, a former Middle East adviser to the George W. Bush administration, wrote in an essay that Iran’s insistence on a right to enrichment has endangered its national security as well as its economy.

“The West is offering Iran something it desperately needs — sanctions relief — in exchange for something it has little ostensible use for — enrichment and reprocessing — given its disavowal of nuclear weapons,” Singh wrote.

But other experts say a “maximalist” approach to nuclear talks could drive Iran to abandon negotiations, increasing the chance of a military confrontation. A hard-line approach could also erode international support for tough sanctions on Iran, said Clifford Kupchan, an Iran expert and former State Department official.

“Iranian diplomats will begin traveling around Europe and Asia saying, ‘We went the extra mile and the West went a half a ­kilometer — so let’s start trading.’ And they would get some sympathy with that,” said Kupchan, an analyst for Eurasia Group, a consultancy.

The analysis released Wednesday by independent nuclear experts concluded that restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capability could stretch out by many months the amount of time the country would need to make an atomic bomb in secret, if it decided to do so.

The study calculated that Iran is now capable of producing enough weapon-grade uranium to fuel an atomic bomb in less than six weeks, using the equipment and know-how it already has. But after hypothetically removing some of Iran’s centrifuges or imposing other restrictions, the experts were able to stretch the forecast to three months, six months or longer.

A six-month window would be needed to ensure that Western governments could detect and stop a clandestine effort to make a bomb, said the study by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based research organization.

“Negotiation should be guided by the need to lengthen [nuclear] breakout times,” said the study, whose authors included two engineers familiar with centrifuge design.

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