A Good Deal, a Long Time Coming
The deal recently concluded between Iran and the so-called "P-5 plus 1" nations (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) is designed to prevent Iran from being able to rapidly acquire fissile material in quantities suitable for use in a nuclear weapon. According to President Obama, the agreement is a "good deal" that "shuts down Iran's path to a bomb." The devil is in the details, of course, which won't be finalized until June 30, but at first blush the deal emerging out of Switzerland accomplishes that which it was intended to. Critics maintain that Iran will be able to readily defeat restrictions imposed by the deal in order to realize its nuclear aspirations. The key to any agreement will lie in the verification measures implemented to ensure compliance. But the fact remains that the technical framework put in place by this deal severely constrains Iran's ability to enrich uranium which, while falling short of an outright ban on enrichment (something Iran would never agree to), more than meets the goals and objectives set by the United States and the other nations involved in the negotiations.
The main worry among those fixated on Iran's nuclear program is the so-called "breakout" time needed by Iran to convert a permitted "peaceful" nuclear enrichment program into one capable of producing sufficient fissile material for use in a nuclear weapon. According to Iran's critics, the 19,000 centrifuges operated by Iran today give Tehran a "breakout" window of 2-3 months. Under the terms of the deal just recently finalized, Iran would reduce its holdings of operational centrifuges to 6,104, of which only 5,060 could be used for enrichment (the remaining would be used for research and development purposes.) The remaining 12,000-plus centrifuges would be placed in storage monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), charged with overseeing Iran's nuclear programs, and used as replacements as needed. More importantly, Iran will be limited to using first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, which are inefficient in terms of their enrichment capability, further retarding any potential Iranian nuclear "breakout" scenario. Likewise, the amount of low enriched uranium Iran would be able to keep on hand has been capped at 300 kilograms, a meaningless figure when it comes to producing fissile material for a bomb.
Restricting Iran to the IR-1 centrifuge is a major concession on the part of Iran, and goes far in making this a viable deal when it comes to any "breakout" scenario. Determining the enrichment level achieved in a given centrifuge operation involves a process which combines the amount material being fed into the centrifuge, the amount of energy used to separate the usable U235 isotope from the U238 isotope found in natural uranium. This energy is calculated in terms of separative work units, or SWU's. The IR-1 centrifuge operates at around .7 SWU (the more advanced designs operated by Iran which are prohibited by the deal operate at between 3-6 SWU's.) This means that the Iranians must insert an even greater amount of natural uranium feed in order to achieve their intended level of enrichment, which in the case of Iran's declared nuclear energy requirements, is a level of 3.7%, the amount allowed by the new deal. The inefficiency of the IR-1 centrifuge, combined with the limits on the number of centrifuges Iran will be able to operate, all but guarantee Iran will not be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for use in a nuclear weapon.
The key to verifying the nuclear deal lies in the implementation of the so-called "Additional Protocol" governing enhanced safeguards inspections and the "Modified Code 3.1" governing declarations of nuclear activity required by Iran. As part of the deal, Iran has agreed to ratify and implement both of these measures, as well as other verification enhancements, such as monitoring of its centrifuge production and uranium mining and processing, that fall outside the scope of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which governs the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In exchange for adhering to these stringent verification measures, Iran's nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapons state party to the NPT.
This has been the goal of Iran since December 2003, when it signed a similarly negotiated deal -- the "Tehran Declaration" -- with the EU-3 (France, Germany and Great Britain.) The "Tehran Declaration" certified Iran's right under Article IV of the NPT to pursue the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes. In exchange, Iran agreed to voluntarily suspend its enrichment activities while the IAEA conducted enhanced inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities for the purpose of establishing a "baseline" of declared nuclear activity, after which Iran would resume its enrichment activities under full IAEA safeguards inclusive of an "Additional Protocol" and "Modified Code 3.1" -- the very monitoring and verification conditions at the heart of the current negotiated deal.
Despite Iran's adherence to the terms of the "Tehran Declaration" and the IAEA's subsequent acknowledgement that it was able to monitor and account for the totality of Iran's declared nuclear material and activity, the order to lift Iran's voluntary suspension of enrichment activity never came. Instead, building upon documents obtained from a laptop computer of questionable providence, the United States created the specter of an undeclared Iranian nuclear weapons program, and parlayed this phantom menace into a decision by the IAEA to renege on the "Tehran Declaration" and instead declare Iran's temporary voluntary suspension of its enrichment activity to be permanent.
Iran withdrew from the "Tehran Declaration," citing the failure of the IAEA to live up to its commitment to lift the suspension of enrichment once an acceptable safeguards inspection regime was in place. Iran declared that its compliance with the suspension of enrichment was voluntary, inextricably linked to a larger framework agreement represented by the "Tehran Declaration." The IAEA's decision to permanently suspend Iran's enrichment activity, in Iran's view, violated the "Tehran Declaration." Iran then resumed its enrichment operations under the original safeguards regime. The IAEA has since insisted that Iran's signing of the "Additional Protocol" in December 2003 was legally binding, Iranian sovereignty and constitutional due process notwithstanding.
This disagreement, spurred on by allegations of an undeclared Iranian nuclear weapons program made by the United States, led to a cycle of diplomatic reproaches that ultimately saw the Iranian nuclear file passed from the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council. A series of stringent economic sanctions were imposed on Iran in an attempt to compel Iran to cease its enrichment activity. Iran has consistently refused to buckle under this pressure, and instead insisted on its right to enrich uranium under Article IV of the NPT. It is also important to point out that it was not Iran, but rather the EU-3 (duly prompted by the United States) that violated the "Tehran Declaration." The current nuclear negotiations not only bring Iran back to the status that existed at the time of the "Tehran Declaration's" brief period of implementation, but go beyond by monitoring Iran's centrifuge production and its entire uranium fuel cycle, from mining to reprocessing.
The nuclear deal as negotiated is a far cry from the kind of irresponsible capitulation critics of the negotiations charge. The high-profile criticism coming from Israel and Congressional Republicans channel the most extreme examples of the last weapons of mass destruction (WMD) witch-hunt -- involving Iraq -- which culminated in a war that killed thousands, cost trillions, and destabilized and further radicalized a region of the world essential to international prosperity. Armed with the knowledge that the case against Iraq's WMD was, at best illusory and, at worst, a complete fabrication, Americans should be hesitant about accepting at face value claims of Iranian nuclear malfeasance that are unsustained by fact and are at odds with history. History does matter, both in terms of how we got to where we are, and in predicting where we are going. When it comes to Iran and its nuclear program, the world would do well to take a different path than that chosen for Iraq, and let inspections, not bombs, do the work of disarmament.