The framework for a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5 +1 — the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the European Union — was announced in early April, and subsequently the U.S. Senate put forth a bipartisan bill that would give Congress leverage in agreeing to any final terms and formally lifting sanctions. Much remains in the delicate balance, of course, as opposing forces both in Iran and the United States contend with one another. The underlying facts of the situation remain confusing, and the potential terms of a final deal are subject to partisan spin of all kinds.
An April 2015 report from researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “Decoding the Iran Nuclear Deal: Key questions, Points of Divergence, Pros and Cons, Pending Legislation and Essential Facts,” provides useful insights across a wide range of issues, from the technical to the strategic. The editor of the report is Gary Samore.
The basic facts about Iran’s nuclear program are as follows:
Iran has mastered the technology and know-how to build and operate centrifuges to enrich uranium, the most meaningful hurdle on the path to producing enough nuclear material for a weapon. To date, Iran has installed 19,000 centrifuges at its declared facilities (Natanz and Fordow) and produced enough low enriched uranium for 6 to 7 bombs (after further enrichment).… By the time of the interim agreement in November 2013 (known as the Joint Plan of Action, or JPOA), Iran had installed about 18,500 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, of which about 10,000 were enriching uranium. In addition, Iran had installed an additional 1,000 more-advanced IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz. As a result of this enrichment activity, Iran had accumulated 6 to 7 bombs worth of low enriched uranium (7,000 kg) and 195 kg of nearly 20% enriched uranium remaining in the form of UF 6.
In 2004, Iran began construction of a 40 megawatt-thermal heavy-water moderated research reactor at Arak, based mainly on design assistance it received from Russian entities. The reactor was slated to be completed in early 2014, but has suffered delays and Iran halted most construction of the reactor under the terms of the JPOA. Once operational, the IR-40 would be capable of producing 8 to 10 kilograms of plutonium per year, enough for 1 to 2 nuclear weapons. However, in order to utilize the plutonium for a weapon, Iran would still have to build a reprocessing plant to be able to separate plutonium from spent fuel.
The report’s authors furnish insight into the issue of Iran potentially “breaking out” and enriching enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon. “Break out” has been much discussed in popular media and among policymakers, but it is not the most “likely” scenario if Iran were determined to produce a nuclear weapon. Rather, the authors note, “sneak out” is a more plausible danger:
Breakout time is an estimate based on assumptions and calculations, such as centrifuge performance and the efficiency of the centrifuge cascades in a particular configuration. Actual breakout time could be longer or shorter. Moreover, breakout time only refers to the time required to produce the necessary fissile material for a nuclear device, not the time required to manufacture the device itself, much less a warhead suitable for missile delivery. Breakout time is a useful concept for measuring Iran’s enrichment capacity, but it does not represent the most likely scenario for Iran to seek nuclear weapons since international inspectors could quickly detect Iran’s efforts to produce weapons grade uranium, which could trigger military attack or other international action. To avoid that risk, it is much more likely that Iran would try to “sneak out” by building a secret enrichment facility, so that it could produce weapons grade uranium without detection. Therefore, a robust verification and monitoring system to help detect covert facilities is an essential element of any nuclear agreement.
The report also usefully lays out the arguments for and against the proposed nuclear framework and deal. These pros and cons are extensive and speak to a number of issues at play, including overall answers to the question of whether or not the framework represents a “good deal”:
[I]t will reduce the risk of Iran getting a bomb better than any of the realistic alternatives. Iran has agreed to physical limits on its ability to produce weapons-grade materials that will assure a break-out timeline of roughly a year for the next 10 years, as well as additional restraints and verification measures to monitor compliance and detect cheating. If the U.S. rejects the deal and returns to sanctions, Iran is certain to return to what it was doing before the interim agreement: installing additional centrifuges, enriching uranium, increasing its stockpile of enriched material, developing more advanced centrifuges, and completing the Arak heavy water reactor. The agreement does not solve the problem, but it reduces the risk for now and buys substantial time to resolve the threat in the future.
[T]he parameters do not prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons over the long term. Iran is allowed to retain too much nuclear infrastructure and the restrictions do not last long enough. The limits on Iran’s enrichment program taper off after 10 years and are completely removed after 15 years. If it is unacceptable for Iran to have a large scale enrichment program now, why would it be permissible a decade or so from now? How could the U.S. have any confidence that the nature of the Iranian regime and its interest in acquiring nuclear weapons — which goes back 30 years — will change in 10 years? In addition, the verification provisions are not strong enough, especially provisions requiring Iran to fully account for past weaponization activities.
The report also provides the text of many of the key documents and detailed but accessible explanations of the technical aspects of nuclear processing and production.
Keywords: nuclear weapons, nuclear power, Middle East