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Iran's Nuclear Program

James Acton
Associate, Nonproliferation Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Friday, September 25, 2009 12:00 PM

James Acton, associate in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was online Friday, Sept. 25 at Noon ET to discuss Iran's disclosure of a second uranium processing facility.

James Acton is an associate in the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment specializing in nonproliferation and disarmament. A physicist by training, Acton's research focuses on the interface of technical and political issues, with special attention to the civilian nuclear industry, IAEA safeguards, and practical solutions to strengthening the nonproliferation regime.

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Frederick, Md.: Why did only three of the G-20 leaders make today's statement? Do we have a sense of where the other world leaders are on this subject? Who are the important world powers to watch?

James Acton: Well, the negotiations are being handled by the P5+1 (known as the E3+3 to Europeans). They are China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US--and they are the states to watch.

Angela Merkel associated herself with President Obama's statement. It's interesting that Russia and China didn't. They are playing a wait and see game at the moment.

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Boston: So does the discovery of this second enrichment facility finally convince Russia and China that Iran's peaceful assurances can not be taken at face value? Will they finally support us on further economic sanctions after the December deadline? Even if Iran allows inspectors into both known sites, how can other countries ever be sure there isn't some other weaponization activity going on elsewhere in the country?

James Acton: I suspect that Medvedev's comment yesterday--that sanctions are required under "special" circumstances--was a reference to this facility and may indicate a willingness to sanction Iran further if talks break down. We'll have to see where China is on this.

However, there is a way that Iran can rebuild confidence. If it suspends its enrichment programme and cooperates fully and proactively with IAEA inspectors (which would involve allowing them to visit any site in the country) then more sanctions would not be necessary.

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Detroit, Mich.: It has been clear for several years from news reports (often not in American papers) that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb despite its statements to the contrary. We keep saying that this is intolerable, threaten sanctions, and Iran keeps on developing. Apparently, Israel is being told by the U.S. to avoid military action, despite the fact that the leader of Iran has multiple times talked about the illegitimacy of Israel and the need for it to no longer exist. There are times in history when negotiations cannot work and military action is needed. Isn't this a time? What gives us the right to tell Israel to avoid military action when its actual existence is threatened by Iran?

James Acton: I agree 100% the Iran case is deeply worrying. I agree that it wants the ability to build a nuclear weapon at short notice, if not a weapon itself.

However, I disagree that the military option is a solution. The problem with the military option is that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon after being attacked (very likely) we are in a much worse position.

Israel says publicly that strong multilateral sanctions are the best solution--and it is right.

But I want to emphasize again that the ball is in the Iranian court. If Iran cooperates fully and proactively with the IAEA and abides the Security Council resolutions, a good outcome is still possible.

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Princeton, N.J.: Is there a shred of evidence that Iran has, can now or will soon be able to enrich uranium to the 90+% required for weapons?

James Acton: There is no essential difference between the technology required to enrich to 5% and 90%. Once Iran has mastered the technology to produce low enriched uranium, it can reconfigure the equipment to produce HEU relatively simply. There is some technical debate among experts about how long it would take to do so--but none that it is possible.

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College Park, Md.: What tools does the U.N. have available to them to address the Iranian nuclear issue? Calls to live up to their treaty obligations have not been effective. Sanctions, at least up to this point, haven't work either. I heard of the possibility of cutting off gasoline deliveries since Iran doesn't have refineries but this will hurt the Iranian people more quickly than it will change the government's better. Military strikes, even if precisely targeted on the enrichment facility, could create a conflict in the middle east that would make Iraq and Afghanistan look like a spat between neighbors. As someone who has a professional interest in this area, what options do you see?

James Acton: Enforcement is very difficult and there are no perfect solutions. I agree the military option is not an option here. Statements don't work either. So, that pretty much leaves sanctions.

Sanctions can serve not only to hurt the regime directly but convince it that the world is united against it. This would be a powerful message to send to Iran (which unlike North Korea does not want to be a pariah). Iran really was thrown off guard when Russia and China agreed to some sanctions a few years back.

That said, designing sanctions can be very difficult. For example, the problem with gas sanctions is not only that they hurt the people (as you say) but that the Republican Guard ends up making a lot of money on the black market.

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Rockville, Md.: Why is the U.S., France and Britain sweeping Israel's nuclear activities under the carpet? As far as I can remember, not one inspector has ever visited a single Israeli installation. The world is tired of this double standard between the Iran and Israel and this needs to stop NOW!

James Acton: Israel, along with India and Pakistan, did not sign the NPT. They have no legal obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons. This is not that they should not work, in good faith, towards the President's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. They absolutely should. But they are very different from Iran which has flagrantly and repeatedly breached its obligations. If you want to live in a world governed by the rule of law, then it's necessary to enforce those rules.

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Cleveland: How does the U.S. justify developing a next generation of nukes, which I believe is a violation of the treaty? Couple that with their attempt to deny Iran its right to nuclear power while enabling Israel, Pakistan and India to opt out and weaponize. Has the treaty been reduced to another weapon of American power?

James Acton: First, no-one is denying Iran's right to nuclear power. The E3+3 have repeatedly stated their willingness to help Iran acquire nuclear reactors.

Second, I agree that the nuclear-weapon states have not done enough to live up to their disarmament obligations in the NPT (though hopefully this is changing).

However, this does not excuse Iran's violations of its international obligations, which have been repeated and serious. If you want to live in a world governed by international law, in which states don't use force unilaterally, then excusing Iran hurts your objective.

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Baltimore, Md.: What was behind the timing of Iran's disclosure?

James Acton: If media reports are correct, Western intelligence agencies had known about this facility for some time. Iran got wind of this and decided to make the announcement itself.

However, given the E3+3 are meeting with Iran on 1 Oct. This provides an interesting backdrop for the meeting!

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Germantown, Md.: Will this announcement help push Russia and China toward sanctions?

James Acton: Please see my answer to Boston.

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College Park, Md.: Thank you for your reply to my earlier question. What forms of sanctions do you think should be up for discussion by the west? I had not considered the gasoline black market before but recognize that this effect is likely. It's also likely that just as we possess strategic fuel reserves, Iran likely does as well.

James Acton: To be honest, I don't know. I'm not an expert on designing sanctions. Powerful financial sanctions that target the regime directly sound good but I don't know enough to know exactly what you want to target...

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Washington, D.C.: It's been argued that Iran was legally within its rights to terminate implementation of the IAEA's Additional Protocol, which Iran signed, but did not ratify, in 2003. So, why is Iran now considered to be in violation of the modified "Code 3.1" of its Subsidiary Arrangement--which requires signatories to report the construction of new nuclear facilities to the IAEA--if, like the AP, Iran signed, but never ratified, the revised code?

James Acton: So, this is where it gets very technical. Some background first...

Iran's original agreement with the IAEA (its so-called Subsidiary Agreements) specified that new facilities should be declared to the IAEA 180 days before nuclear material was introduced. However, in 2003 Iran, by an exchange of letters, Iran agreed to the modified "Code 3.1" which obliges it to report new facilities as soon as the decision to build one is taken. When Iran agreed to this in 2003 it was the last state with significant nuclear activities to do so.

In 2007 Iran tried to claim that its modified Code 3.1 wasn't binding because it hadn't been ratified. However, this argument is wrong because exchange of letters is the standard procedure for modifying Subsidiary Arrangements.

I am almost certain (although would like to double check) that Subsidiary Arrangements (unlike Safeguards Agreements and Additional Protocols) are not ratified by national legislatures. So it is absurd to claim that changes to Subsidiary Arrangements need ratification.

Finally, I'd point out that under para 39 of Iran's Safeguards Agreement it cannot unilaterally modify a subsidiary arrangement.

has tried to claim that Code 3.1 isn't binding but this agreement can only be modified with the permission of both the IAEA and Iran. So, the new facility is indeed a violation of Iran's safeguards agreement. They can only be changed with the permission of both the state and the IAEA.

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