The landmark framework agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries last week appears to be the most successful manifestation of international nuclear diplomacy of the second nuclear age. Widely acclaimed as the best possible outcome to a long nuclear impasse between Iran and the international community that appears to have blocked Iran’s ability to produce fissile material in significant quantities, it is essentially a comprise for both sides.
For over two decades, Iran was seeking to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle while not withdrawing from the NPT—which gives the right to a signatory state to all aspects of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes under Article IV. Although Iran has been consistently claiming to be pursuing only a nuclear program solely geared towards peaceful applications—energy, medical isotope production and civilian research and development—several inconsistencies in its proclaimed intentions and actual fuel cycle activities were discovered by IAEA inspections. These also included exploratory forays into weaponization or possible military dimensions of the program and undeclared activities in the field of centrifuge enrichment and reprocessing. Such activities only pointed towards a secret effort at developing a capability that could have quickly enabled Iran to weaponize its fissile material stockpile once a significant quantity of weapon-grade material, particularly HEU, had been produced.
However, under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has committed to a number of concessions—primarily a cap in uranium enrichment activities and a virtual roll back of the plutonium program—that relate to Iran’s existing nuclear fuel cycle activities.
The terms of the JCPOA are laid out comprehensively here. But what does this deal achieve? It essentially implies the following:
1. Iran has been stripped of its right to produce plutonium or develop any reprocessing activities. The removal of all spent fuel from its redesigned Arak heavy water reactor would prevent Iran from obtaining the spent fuel required for reprocessing and separation of plutonium. While LEU, or even HEU, has widely accepted peaceful applications as power or research reactor fuel, plutonium can only be used in Mixed Oxide Fuels for Breeder Reactors or Advanced Heavy Water Reactors. Iran has no access to or declared plans of seeking or developing these advanced reactor technologies. From a proliferation perspective, this is very important, given that plutonium would have enabled Iran to develop compact, sophisticated, and miniaturized warheads for various delivery systems compared to HEU, with which miniaturization is considered more difficult. And, HEU-based weapons are generally considered to be heavier and bulkier. Thus Iran’s path to a first-rate operational deterrent has been effectively blocked for the foreseeable future.
2. Iran has been asked to restrict its centrifuge program for ten years at only Natanz, centered on 5060 IR-1 centrifuges that are far less efficient compared to advanced models. Thus an IR-1-based centrifuge program translates into 4,048-5,060 SWU/year, which is barely sufficient for one Significant Quantity (SQ), or 1-device equivalent weapon-grade HEU production capacity. Interestingly, Iran had staked its claim to building an industrial-scale enrichment capacity that could supply the fuel requirements of its 1,000 MWe Bushehr LWR power reactor. To meet this goal, Iran was seeking to develop and install tens of thousands of advanced centrifuge models to enrich natural UF6 coupled with a commensurate fuel fabrication capacity for PWR fuels. Limiting Iran’s potential to 5,060 IR-1 machines from the current 19,000 machines (which include IR-2 and 3 machines) will serve to block all future qualitative and quantitate expansion in enrichment capability. In addition, capping the level of enrichment to under 3.75% LEU, instead of the near-20% LEU hexafluoride, would also reduce Iran’s breakout potential from a few weeks to almost a year or more. From a nonproliferation standpoint, this would provide the IAEA with sufficient time to detect and the West to respond accordingly should Iran attempt to produce weapon-grade material using the same number of centrifuges through batch recycling of feedstock and/or re-configuration of cascades.
3. Ironically, if Iran had been able to install its desired number of centrifuges for fuelling a 1,000 MW power reactor, such an enrichment capacity of 190,000 SWU would have made economic sense. The existing and reduced numbers are only useful for fuelling a weapons program and are a fraction of the capacity required for a purely civilian and peaceful program.
4. The capping of enrichment capacity also indicates that Iran has been allowed to retain a token front-end fuel cycle infrastructure, while it has been denied the right to master the back-end fuel cycle activities related to spent fuel management and reprocessing. Any level of enrichment capacity, either using gas-centrifuge or diffusion technologies or laser enrichment, depends on the availability of feedstock in significant quantities and of the right quality. Iran’s uranium enrichment feedstock production comprising its processing (mining & refining) leading up to the critical step of (uranium conversion) producing the natural uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) that is enriched through gas-centrifuge cascades is produced at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility. Its current yearly output is estimated at 200 tons of UF6—sufficient for 50,000 SWU—or feeding an enrichment plant that can produce 10 weapons-worth of HEU. Therefore, a scaling down of Iran’s gas-centrifuge program as per the JCPOA would also result in a corresponding reduction of Isfahan’s yearly output to one-tenth of its original capacity. Similar restrictions are also likely to be applied to uranium processing activities unless Iran wishes to or is allowed to accumulate yellow cake/uranium ore concentrate during the nuclear freeze time-period stipulated under the framework agreement.
5. Iran is also required to agree to unprecedented and intrusive inspections by the IAEA for a fully transparent, timely, effective, and complete verification of the JCPOA. In return for achieving trust based on such a mutually acceptable and practical verification regime, economic and trade sanctions on Iran are expected to be lifted. This would open up unparalleled foreign investment, which could potentially help Iran achieve a higher growth rate and integrate itself into the global economic system.
Not everyone will ever be satisfied with the JCPOA in its present form and the merits and demerits of the framework agreement will continue to be hotly debated, pending the conclusion of a final agreement by June 30, 2015. Critics are pessimistic about the extent to which this agreement has or might be able to meet the nonproliferation objectives of conservative lobbies. To be fair to them, despite a radical freeze in the scope and scale of Iran’s existing nuclear activities under the JCPOA, Iran still does and will continue to retain a basic front-end fuel cycle capability.
Over the past two decades, Iran has acquired the technology, materials, infrastructure, and know-how to master the complete fuel cycle. It has succeeded in developing an indigenous nuclear industrial base that has produced a critical mass of trained manpower, which can potentially be employed to a crash weapons program at any stage should Iran decide to defy intrusive safeguards and build the bomb, with or without the NPT.
In this respect, Iran has acquired the nuclear option while remaining a part of the NPT and has triumphed in securing its right to master certain elements of the fuel cycle—particularly front-end activities that are permissible under the NPT. Therefore, Iran can be considered a country in possession of a latent nuclear capability. Yet, there are several other countries that have similar status, such as Japan. Under the weight of international sanctions, Iran has felt the consequences of economic isolation. Its leadership appears to be have realized that nuclear capability alone would not offer it the leverage and influence in the international system that it so desires, compared to a more integrated Iran.
Nonetheless, Iran’s neighbors are not likely to acquiesce and absorb the de-facto recognition of even a basic and latent Iranian nuclear capability that might never be diverted to a weapons program. Being signatories of the NPT themselves, they can demand access to similar fuel cycle technologies at par with Iran—all under safeguards—so as to achieve a commensurate level of hedging nuclear capability. Alternatively, they can seek negative security assurances from allies and other world powers to address their perceived security threats. In the final analysis, once the technical details of the JCPOA are finalized, it has turned out to be the best possible compromise that could have been achieved short of plunging the region into another and potentially catastrophic conflict.