David Albright is president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
Iran has pledged, for six months, to halt advances in major parts of its gas centrifuge program, to stop essential construction of the Arak plutonium-producing reactor and to eliminate its most dangerous stock of low-enriched uranium — that near 20 percent — through dilution or conversion into oxide form. Iran promised not to install or stockpile centrifuges during that period and has said it will not enrich in any of its already installed advanced centrifuges, which can enrich three to five times faster than its first-generation (IR-1) centrifuges. It has agreed not to build any more centrifuge plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have greater access to Iran’s nuclear sites and information; overall transparency stands to increase significantly. All these conditions mean that, in the short term, Iran’s nuclear program will pose fewer risks.
Under these conditions, Iran’s nuclear “breakout” time would lengthen for the first time since its capability began approaching dangerous levels in the past year. If Iran used all of its installed centrifuges, the time it would need to produce a weapon would expand to at least 1.9 to 2.2 months, up from at least 1 month to 1.6 months. With IAEA monitors checking at Natanz and Fordow every day, this increase would allow the United States and its allies time to respond before Iran produces enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb.
Iran will also be delayed in reaching the point where it has sufficient centrifuges and enriched uranium to produce, undetected, enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb. The Institute for Science and International Security estimated in July that, absent a deal, Iran could achieve this critical capability in mid-2014. The interim deal will delay Iran from achieving this destabilizing threshold, even if the deal’s constraints end after six months.
The interim plan aims to resolve two key issues before a comprehensive deal can be finalized. U.S. officials have said that all IAEA concerns about Iran’s past, and possibly ongoing, work on nuclear weapons and other alleged military nuclear activities must be satisfied. Iran has stalled on this for years. Iran is also expected to address satisfactorily all provisions of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Normally, this would mean that Iran would also need to suspend its centrifuge program for some period. Alternatively, it could mean that if Iran accomplishes enough tangible steps to alleviate concerns about its nuclear program and a suspension is seen as unnecessary to satisfy these resolutions, the United States might support undoing the resolutions at the Security Council.
Despite all the potential progress, tough issues remain. The Geneva agreement does not grant Iran the right to enrich uranium, but it accepts that in a comprehensive agreement Iran will maintain a mutually defined centrifuge program with mutually agreed parameters. Iran conceded that for a not-yet determined period any such program would be subject to limitations on the number of centrifuges, the location of any centrifuge plants, the level of enrichment and the size of stocks of enriched uranium.
Important questions remain about the limitations in a final deal: What would be the exact limits on the size and scope of Iran’s centrifuge program? Iran has 18,000 to 19,000 installed centrifuges. Under a final deal, would Iran have, say, 5,000 to 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges and a breakout time closer to six months? How long would these limits last? Would the enrichment plant at Fordow, buried deep in a mountain, close?
The interim deal froze essential work at the Arak reactor, but its fate remains unsettled. Will that reactor be shut down or converted into a light-water reactor? If it operates as a heavy-water reactor, one day Iran could secretly separate weapons-grade plutonium produced there for nuclear weapons.
To be credible and justify significant sanctions relief, any long-term deal would need to ensure that Iran’s centrifuge capacity is highly limited and that these limits will further increase breakout times, preferably toward six months. It should be limited to one enrichment site, which means Fordow should be closed. These limitations should last for more than a decade. Stocks of domestically produced enriched uranium should be minimized, particularly since Iran would be able to buy enriched uranium fuel commercially far cheaper than it could make it. The Arak reactor will need to close or be converted to a more benign reactor.
Iran will also need to accept greater IAEA inspections to ensure that it is not cheating on a long-term agreement.
Given its track record, Iran can be expected to resist these limitations, but U.S. officials must remain firm. The Geneva deal should be lauded for the strong limitations it places on Iran’s nuclear capabilities for the next several months. But if there is to be a genuine, final settlement of the Iran nuclear issue, the real struggle is just beginning.