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6 Steps to Sealing the Nuclear Deal With Iran

Major world powers and Iran are attempting to negotiate a final resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Photo Credit: AFP


The stakes could not be higher, or the issues tougher, as the world's six major powers and Iran launch talks on February 18 on a final resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. 

The goal "is to reach a mutually agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran's nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful," says the temporary Joint Plan of Action, which calls for six months of negotiations. If talks fail, the prospects of military action and potentially another Middle East conflict soar. 

Six issues are pivotal to an accord. The terms on each must be accepted by all parties - Iran on one side and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States on the other - or there is no deal. The Joint Plan notes, "This comprehensive solution would constitute an integrated whole where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." 

1. Limiting uranium enrichment

Iran's ability to enrich uranium is at the heart of the international controversy. The process can fuel both peaceful nuclear energy and the world's deadliest weapon. Since 2002, Iran's has gradually built an independent capability to enrich uranium, which it claims is only for medical research and to fuel an energy program. But the outside world has long been suspicious of Tehran's intentions because its program exceeds its current needs. Iran's only nuclear reactor for energy, in the port city of Bushehr, is fueled by the Russian contractor that built it. 

Centrifuges are the key to enriching uranium. In 2003, Iran had fewer than 200 centrifuges. In 2014, it has approximately 19,000. About 10,000 are now enriching uranium; the rest are installed but not operating. To fuel a nuclear power reactor, centrifuges are used to increase the ratio of the isotope U-235 in natural uranium from less than 1% to between 3% and 5%. But the same centrifuges can also spin uranium gas to 90% purity, the level required for a bomb. 

Experts differ on how many centrifuges Iran should be allowed to operate. Zero is optimal, but Iran almost certainly will not agree to eliminate totally a program costing billions of dollars over more than a decade. Iranian officials fear the outside world wants Tehran to be dependent on foreign sources of enriched uranium, which could then be used as leverage on Iran - under threat of cutting off its medical research and future nuclear energy independence. 

Most experts say somewhere between 4,000 and 9,000 operating centrifuges would allow many months of warning time if Iran started to enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels. The fewer centrifuges, the longer Iran would need to "break out" from fuel production to weapons production. 

So the basic issues are: Can the world's major powers convince Iran to disable or even dismantle some of the operating centrifuges? If so, how low will Iran agree to go? And will Iran agree to cut back enrichment to only one site, which would mean closing the underground facility at Fordow? 

A deal may generally have to include: 

-Reducing the number of Iran's centrifuges,

-Limiting uranium enrichment to no more than 5%, and

-Capping centrifuge capabilities at current levels. 

In short, as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger say, a deal must "define a level of Iranian nuclear capacity limited to plausible civilian uses and to achieve safeguards to ensure that this level is not exceeded." 

2. Preventing a plutonium path

Iran's heavy water reactor in Arak, which is unfinished, is another big issue. Construction of this small research reactor began in the 1990s; the stated goal was to produce medical isotopes and up to 40 megawatts of thermal power for civilian use. But the "reactor design appears much better suited for producing bomb-grade plutonium than for civilian uses", warn former secretary of defense William Perry and former Los Alamos Laboratory director Siegfried Hecker. 

For years, Iranian officials allowed weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, intermittent access to Arak. Inspectors have been granted more access since the Joint Plan of Action went into effect on January 20, but satellite imagery can no longer monitor site activity due to completion of the facility's outer structure. 

The reactor will be capable of annually producing nine kilograms of plutonium, which is enough material to produce one or two nuclear weapons. However, the reactor is at least a year away from operating, and then it would need to run for 12 to 18 months to generate that much plutonium. Iran also does not have a facility to reprocess the spent fuel to extract the plutonium. In early February, Iranian officials announced they would be willing to modify the design plans of the reactor to allay Western concerns, although they provided no details. 

3. Verification

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