From recent declarations of President Barack Obama, echoed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and various American and French officials, one can foresee the initial bargaining position of the Western members of the P5+1 group in the upcoming negotiation with Iran aimed at “a long-term comprehensive solution” to the nuclear crisis.
“We know they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program, they certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program, they don’t need some of the advanced centrifuges that they currently possess in order to have a limited, peaceful nuclear program” stated President Obama on Dec. 7.
“…So the question ultimately is going to be, are they prepared to roll back some of the advancements that they’ve made that could not be justified by simply wanting some modest, peaceful nuclear power, but, frankly, hint at a desire to have breakout capacity.”
In the same vein, Laurent Fabius wrote about one week later: “It is unclear if the Iranians will accept to definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon or only agree to interrupt the nuclear program… What is at stake is to ensure that there is no breakout capacity”.
Addressing the two routes to the bomb
It is certainly a legitimate goal to try to erect around the Iranian nuclear program a tight barrier on the two ways that could lead to acquiring a bomb: the enrichment of uranium at the highest levels at Natanz and Fordow, and the production of weapons-grade plutonium by running a research reactor such as the one presently under construction at Arak. But the formulas put forward by President Obama and Foreign Minister Fabius have little chance of persuading the Iranian government. Significantly, they are not reflected in the Nov. 24 agreement that laid the groundwork for the negotiation to come. The final part of the agreement addresses these two points, but in a different way. Regarding enrichment, it asserts the necessity of defining an enrichment program “consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity… and stocks of enriched uranium.” Concerning the production of weapons-grade plutonium, it affirms the will to “fully resolve concerns related to the reactor at Arak”.
The route to the uranium bomb
What is really at stake? Starting with enrichment, it has been estimated by some that the Iranian enrichment program, with its 19,000 centrifuges, its stock of around seven tons of uranium enriched up to 5% plus a few hundred kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20%, would be able to produce the fissile material necessary for a bomb in just a few weeks; that is, 20 to 25 kilograms of 90% enriched uranium. That would be too short a time for inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to detect such a breakout and for the international community to react effectively. To be on the safe side, according to these estimates, it would be necessary to roll back Tehran’s program. Iran should not possess more than a few thousand centrifuges of its current prevalent model, the IR1, and should not be permitted to produce more efficient models. And it should not retain more than a minimal stockpile of low-enriched uranium available for further enrichment.
But what is the practical value of such estimates? First, having the material for the bomb does not mean having the bomb. Several months, possibly a good year or more, would still be necessary to manufacture and test a first nuclear explosive device. Second, to maintain a minimal deterrent effect after an initial test, at least two or three bombs should be kept in stock. To obtain such a deterrent, however, would significantly add to the time needed for enrichment to 90%. Some argue that as soon as this highly enriched uranium would be produced, and subsequently diverted, it would escape the safeguards of the IAEA, making it much more difficult for the international community to react. But why? The whole country would still be there, both as a possible target for increased sanctions and more. And if a few weeks are theoretically enough for a successful breakout, a few days should be enough to deploy and deliver an adequate response.
Forbidding Iran to develop more efficient models of centrifuges than its first-generation, low-yield, IR1s does not seem realistic either. Such a ban on research can be imposed on a defeated nation. In 1945, Germany, for example, was required to abandon all of its R&D in the field of aircraft engines. But Iran is not in such a position. The limitation of Iran’s enrichment capacities should be addressed, not in terms of numbers and models of centrifuges, but rather in terms of total enrichment capacity (calculated in the nuclear jargon, in separative work units). Once such a ceiling is fixed by mutual consent between Tehran and the P5+1, Iranians scientists and engineers should be left free to make their own technological choices.
As for the small underground enrichment facility of Fordow, it will be hard to convince Iran to close it. Fordow is placed under the same IAEA safeguards as any other Iranian nuclear facility, and being buried 70 yards deep makes no difference. It would make a difference in case of air strikes, but Iran, which is party to the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), has no reason to facilitate the destruction of its nuclear facilities, especially by a non-signatory of the NPT, or by any of the five members of the NPT authorized to keep their nuclear arsenals.
On the other hand, it is Iran’s urgent duty to address the widespread suspicions raised by the vagueness of its ambitions when it comes to its nuclear power and research program. Professor Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, recently announced that Iran should produce 150 tons of nuclear fuel to supply five nuclear power plants. Would it be possible to know how exactly, in what time-frame, through which procedures and on what budget such projects are to be implemented? When one knows that 150 tons of idle low-enriched uranium, through further enrichment, is theoretically capable of producing about 150 bombs, the international community is entitled to have access to and thoroughly assess Iran’s plans in this regard.
The route to the plutonium bomb
A word about the plutonium route. The Arak reactor has a design similar to various existing reactors used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, be it in Israel, India or Pakistan. Even if this reactor has little chance to be operational for another three or four years, the concerns about it are legitimate. Furthermore, to recoup the plutonium generated in the reactor’s core, the Iranians would have to build and operate a dedicated side facility. Until now, they have foregone such a possibility. All in all, even with the worst intentions, Iran could hardly produce the first six or seven kilograms of plutonium necessary to build one bomb before the end of the decade. And even so, because of the specific challenges presented by the plutonium route, the time span between the beginning of a possible breakout and the acquisition of a first batch of plutonium would be significantly greater than that of the uranium route.
True, the Arak reactor, once in operation, could not be destroyed without incurring unacceptable nuclear-related damage to the surrounding populations. But this cannot justify a legally indefensible preventive strike on a construction site that has been placed under IAEA safeguards. All in all, the proliferation risk raised by the Arak reactor looks much less pressing than the one generated through uranium enrichment. But it is also true that the best way to permanently alleviate this risk would be to modify, while there is still time, the design of the reactor in order to reduce its capacity to produce weapons-grade plutonium without affecting its other capacities. This is possible with international cooperation, and money.
Suspicion against suspicion
Let us go back to basics. In 1968, the newly signed NPT drew a clear line between licit and illicit nuclear activities for those countries willing to renounce the acquisition of a bomb. For better or worse, that line was drawn at the point before the actual manufacture of a nuclear explosive device. But this was not enough to dispel suspicions of possible breakouts by unruly countries. It has therefore been tried repeatedly — and now again with Iran – to prevent countries from developing the capacities that could theoretically lead to the construction of a bomb. But nations in the forefront of such endeavors have often been among the same ones authorized by the same NPT to retain their nuclear arsenals. It has thus been tempting to interpret their efforts to limit the development of nuclear programs of other nations as an attempt to consolidate their own strategic advantage, especially as they have shown limited enthusiasm for following through on their own NPT commitments to nuclear disarmament. Still another source of suspicion has arisen from the fact that the six members of the P5+1 together comprise the world’s major source of enriched uranium. Their efforts to limit the enrichment capacities of other nations may thus come across as an effort to preserve their own commercial interests.
Even putting aside sources of contention between Iran and the great powers and its regional rivals beyond the nuclear realm, one can see why mutual suspicion still looms so large, even after the breakthrough of the Nov. 24 agreement. To overcome it, vision, restraint, and steady diplomatic work will be critical on both sides in the months to come.