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Iran Nuclear Deal: Uphill on the Homestretch?

Iran’s latest nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 powers have thus far proceeded smoothly, though lingering questions remain over breakout capacity, possible weaponization, and the duration of any concluded agreement.

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To date, negotiators on both sides of the talks over Iran’s controversial nuclear program have been remarkably discreet. Even at the political level, people have been unusually quiet. This is an excellent omen. In the past, too many opportunities have been nipped in the bud due to an excess of statements calibrated for domestic purposes (a special mention to Wendy Sherman, the chief US negotiator, for saying so little, amiably, in many background meetings with the press). The involvement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the negotiations has also been of inestimable value. The Agency offers unique expertise and notarizes regularly the way in which Iran complies with its commitments. It contributes therefore decisively to the smooth progression of the discussions.

Quite unexpectedly, Iran’s negotiators have been the driving force in this process. They have seized President Hassan Rouhani’s initiative to solve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program and have kept it ever since, setting the targets as well as the tempo. Iran’s foreign minister and lead negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on April 7 that the drafting of the final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) should start in May, and that all efforts should be taken to complete the negotiations by the official deadline of July. The Iranians seem set to resolve the conflict over their nuclear program as fast as possible, once and for all.

The Rouhani administration’s determination serves in pleasant contrast to the rather stiff and slow Iranian behavior that was especially exhibited during the Ahmadinejad era, but also, at times, in the most favorable of circumstances, during the 2003-05 period, when Rouhani was himself Iran’s chief negotiator. At that time, the Iranian diplomats on the frontline were subjected to a heavy-handed system of control, which tended to stifle their movements. Having learned from this experience, President Rouhani, elected last June, has obtained a carte blanche from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While the Leader did issue a set of red lines last month (English diagram), and has issued specific warnings every now and then, he has consistently supported Iran’s diplomats while keeping domestic criticism of Iran’s team at a manageable level.

Indeed, Rouhani may not own the horse, but he controls the reigns. One of his first acts as president was transferring Iran’s nuclear negotiating file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Ministry of Foreign affairs. That enabled him to build a “dream team” of seasoned negotiators, perfectly comfortable with the codes and practices of their Western counterparts. Iran’s new and refined team has stood out in stark contrast to the collective clumsiness of the P5+1 negotiators, as in the early November 2013 episode, when four Western Foreign Ministers rushed prematurely to Geneva, spurring the media to believe, mistakenly, that a deal would be signed (it was signed 10 days later). But, as Marshal Foch used to say: “After leading a coalition, I have much less admiration for Napoleon.”

Getting to the heart of the matter, many points seem close to being settled. Iran is ready to cap at 5% its production of enriched uranium and to limit its current stockpile from further enrichment. The controversial underground facility of Fordow will probably end up as a kind of research and development unit. The Arak reactor’s original configuration allowed the yearly production of about ten kilograms of plutonium, enough for one or two bombs. Ali Akbar Salehi, chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), has hinted that this configuration could be modified in order to accommodate low-enriched uranium fuel rather than natural uranium. This would reduce Arak’s plutonium production capacity by a factor of five to ten. And Iran has already confirmed that it has no intention of acquiring the fuel reprocessing capacity indispensable for isolating weapon-grade plutonium.

Depending on the pace of sanctions relief, Iran also seems ready to return to a kind of de facto implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which would provide enhanced monitoring over all of Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran should be ready to initiate the Protocol’s ratification process as soon as the United Nations Security Council shows itself ready to remove the Iranian nuclear file from its agenda, thus erasing the burning humiliation of 2006, when it passed its first resolution on the subject.

The make or break issues

To date, five sticking points remain on the table.

The most difficult issue concerns the format of Iran’s enrichment capacity. The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), adopted last November, speaks of “parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities”. But the West has focused on “breakout time”, that is, the time needed to acquire enough highly enriched uranium for a first bomb if Iran decided to renege on its commitments. This delay has been estimated at about two months in the current state of Iran’s enrichment program. To extend it significantly, Iran would have to bring down the number of its centrifuges from the present 20,000 to 2-6,000.

A drastic reduction of the number of centrifuges, however, would be a deal-breaker for Iran. Following the conservative elements of the regime, the Supreme Leader has recently excluded any kind of bargaining on Iran’s nuclear achievements.

Fortunately, other solutions can alleviate the West’s concerns. First, having enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb does not mean having the bomb. Several more months would be necessary to make it ready. Second, one wonders why the international community would need more than one or two months to properly respond to an Iranian rush for a bomb. If it can’t make it in two months, why would it succeed in six? Third, this infamous breakout time could be extended without reducing the present number of centrifuges by using, as fast as possible, the low enriched uranium produced by Iran as fuel for nuclear reactors, rendering it unserviceable for further, weapon-grade, enrichment. Here, feeding the Arak reactor with domestic low-enriched uranium could solve a good part of the problem.

It is unfortunate, though, that the Iranians have made so little effort up to now to identify the “practical needs” mentioned, at their initiative, in the Geneva agreement. The spokesman of the AEOI has announced recently that a “comprehensive document” was being elaborated on the subject, and would be submitted for approval to the Iranian Parliament. But this process will probably extend beyond the time limit set for the negotiations.

In the meantime, we know that the Russians are bound to provide for eight more years the low enriched fuel necessary for the Bushehr nuclear plant. After this period, they will resist the introduction of Iranian fuelinto the Bushehr reactor, as the selling of fuel is for the Russians the most profitable part of their contract with Iran. Their attitude will be the same when discussing the construction and operation of more reactors in Iran. By all means, new Russian reactors, or any reactors from other origins, will not be active before a decade. All of this is to say that if the current number of 20,000 centrifuges was accepted by the international community, the Iranians would have no “practical need” in the offing to justify a raise of this number in the years to come.

Another difficult point is the question of nuclear research and development. The West would like Iran to forsake such activities, especially in the field of centrifugation. Again, this is a red line for the Supreme Leader and the conservatives, as Iran’s engineers are working on models up to fifteen times more efficient than the present outdated model forming the bulk of its program. Here, a simple solution has been suggested by Salehi: instead of setting a cap on centrifuges, which could be circumvented by using more efficient models, the parties should define this cap in “separative work units”, the equivalent of horsepower in the field of enrichment. The introduction of more efficient centrifuges would thus reduce in due proportion the total number allowed.

A third difficult point is the ongoing exploration by the IAEA of the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. This demand, reiterated by the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council, has been fiercely resisted by Iran. In fact, it was the head of the US national intelligence community who said, in 2007, that the Iranian weaponization program was stopped before completion by the end of 2003. Ten years have since passed, and the people involved in that program must have been granted some kind of protection in exchange for their compliance, hence the inherent difficulty for the Iranians of authorizing outsiders to probe too deep into this subject. In former similar occurrences, such as with Egypt, South Korea and Taiwan, the IAEA has accepted not to divulge details on the wrongdoings discovered by its inspectors, once assured of the cancelation of these programs. A similar way out should be explored with Iran.

The fourth sticking point revolves around Iran’s ballistic missiles. The West wants to include them in the negotiations, as a source of worry identified by the UN Security Council, but this has been outright rejected by Iran. Recall that Iran has accepted to negotiate over its nuclear program as a civilian program placed under the aegis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Negotiations over missiles pertain to a different world, the world of defense and disarmament, in which negotiations are by definition collective, save for unilateral measures imposed upon a defeated country. If there is a solution here, it would require a separate, multilateral discussion on the level and distribution of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, with the aim of convincing concerned states to join the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, adopted in 2002 in the Hague.

The last point, little talked about, but hardly the least difficult, concerns the duration of the future comprehensive agreement to be signed by Iran and the P5+1. Under the Geneva JPOA, this agreement, once fully implemented for the duration of all its provisions, will be replaced by the common regime applicable to all NPT members. Iran would then be freed of specific commitments such as the limitation of its enrichment activities, on which extensive IAEA controls, of course, would remain. Such a shift would mean that the International community would be fully reassured about the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.

However, to reach such an assessment, the general behavior of the Iranian regime and the quality of its relations with the outside world would be as important as the state of its nuclear program. How long should the assessment process last? These considerations cannot be put into writing. The Iranians will probably insist on no more than five years, while the West would be happy to see this regime of special constraints indefinitely extended. This point could be the last outstanding issue in the discussions. Hopefully, if solutions are found on all the previous questions, there will be a strong incentive to find a compromise here to ensure a final deal once and for all.

François Nicoullaud is a former French diplomat.

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