At a press conference this afternoon, President Obama lauded the preliminary agreement reached with Iran to reduce the risk of an Iranian nuclear weapon, saying “this is a good deal.” He claimed it will keep Iran at least a year away from constructing a nuclear weapon and will be subject to intrusive and unprecedented inspections and verification. This preliminary agreement is the outline for a comprehensive agreement due by June 30.
The details of the framework agreement as spelled out in a White House fact sheet and President Obama’s speech raise many questions about a final deal. It is troubling that no final agreed-upon text has been released and that Iranian and EU officials were vague in their statements about the framework.
Earlier today on National Review, Patrick Brennan wrote about tweets by Abas Aslani, the head of an Iranian government news agency, that show how the Iranian view of the agreement differs from the Obama administration’s view. Aslani tweeted, for instance, that Iran will continue to develop advanced centrifuges during the duration of the deal and “all economic sanctions by EU, US will be lifted immediately including financial, banking, insurance, oil.”
Here are my initial thoughts about the preliminary agreement, based on our knowledge of it at this hour.
According to the White House fact sheet, Iran will go from 9,000 operational centrifuges to 6,104. Of these, 5,060 will enrich uranium for ten years. All centrifuges will be Iran’s first-generation IR-1 design. The remaining 10,000 operational and non-operational centrifuges will be put in storage and monitored by the IAEA. These machines will be used to replace operating centrifuges.
This agreement will allow Iran to continue uranium enrichment, an activity that the United States has refused to agree to in nuclear-technology cooperation agreements with its friends and allies because it is so easy to use a peaceful enrichment program to make weapons fuel. There is no practical reason for Iran to conduct uranium enrichment with 6,000 centrifuges. It would take about 200,000 centrifuges for Iran to enrich enough uranium to fuel its Bushehr power reactor. 5,000 centrifuges are far too many for other peaceful purposes such as producing medical isotopes or fuel plates for the Tehran research reactor. Moreover, it would be far more economical for Iran to purchase reactor fuel rods, fuel plates, and medical isotopes from other countries.
The Obama administration hopes to address the risks of Iranian uranium enrichment by having intrusive IAEA inspections and by requiring Iran to “reduce” or “neutralize” its enriched-uranium stockpile. From the president’s statement and the White House fact sheet, it appears that Iran is refusing to send its enriched uranium to Russia as the U.S. had proposed. Also, the U.S. fact sheet says only that Iran’s current enriched-uranium stockpile will be reduced; it does not say what will happen to uranium enriched during the agreement.
We also don’t know what the words “reduced” or “neutralized” mean. The Obama administration previously claimed that the risk of Iran’s enriched-uranium stockpile had been reduced because some of it had been converted to uranium powder. Experts later discounted this claim because this process can be reversed in about two weeks.
If Iran’s enriched-uranium stockpile remains in the country and is only reduced to powder, Iran will retain the capability to make eight or more nuclear weapons in about three months. Former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen recently published a chart on Iran’s nuclear “breakout” time that shows how Iran could make enough enriched uranium for one weapon in twelve weeks from reactor-grade uranium using 6,000 centrifuges, and how it could do so in 16 weeks using only 1,000 centrifuges. Click here to view.
The decision to let Iran keep its previously secret, heavily fortified Fordow enrichment facility is a major American cave. President Obama said in 2012 about this facility: “We know they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful [nuclear] program.”
The preliminary agreement legitimizes — and even allows the advancement of — Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. It does not appear to delay the breakout time for an Iranian nuclear weapon. Incredibly, no enrichment equipment or facilities will be disassembled or destroyed. Given Iran’s long history of cheating on nuclear agreements and covert nuclear activities, allowing it to do any uranium enrichment is very dangerous. This is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has said that Iran’s enrichment program has only one purpose: to make nuclear bombs. This is reason enough for the U.S. Congress to reject this agreement and impose new sanctions until Iran complies with U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring it to halt all uranium enrichment.
Inspections and Verification
President Obama said today: “Iran will face strict limitations on its program, and Iran has also agreed to the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history. So this deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.” According to Obama, “If Iran cheats, the world will know it.”
Although the verification measures detailed by the president go beyond what Iran is currently subject to, Tehran has never fully cooperated with IAEA inspectors. Moreover, this verification plan does not permit snap inspections and unfettered access to all Iranian nuclear facilities, including military bases where Iran is believed to have conducted nuclear-weapons work. The agreement also is vague on requiring Iran to answer questions about past weapons-related work. Iran agreed to a twelve-step program with IAEA in late 2013 to address these questions but has addressed only one of them.
It is hard to trust the Obama administration and Iran on verification and compliance. Iran violated the terms of the interim agreement that set up the nuclear talks, but the Obama administration repeatedly has claimed it was in compliance. President Obama again made this false claim in his speech today.
Verification of a final agreement must require Iran to answer all outstanding questions about weapons-related work and allow unfettered access by the IAEA to all facilities where nuclear activities are believed to have taken place. The preliminary agreement appears to give Iran a pass on previous nuclear-weapons work and set up a verification plan that will not detect all weapons-related activities.
Arak Heavy-Water Reactor
According to the White House fact sheet, Iran will remove the core of this reactor and install a new core so this reactor will not produce weapons-grade plutonium. This reactor will remain a heavy-water reactor and will be operated for peaceful purposes.
Iran has agreed not to reprocess the spent fuel of this reactor to produce plutonium indefinitely, will sell its excess heavy water not needed for the redesigned reactor, and will not build more heavy-water reactors for 15 years.
Heavy-water reactors are a very serious proliferation risk because they are a source of plutonium. If this reactor remains a heavy-water reactor, it will be a plutonium source. Iran constructed this reactor in defiance of IAEA resolutions. Allowing Tehran to operate it undermines the credibility of the Western states who pushed these resolutions and increases Iran’s expertise in operating and building plutonium-producing reactors.
According to the fact sheet, U.S. and EU sanctions will be lifted after the IAEA verifies that Iran has complied with “all of its key nuclear-related steps.”
Iranian cheating on nuclear agreements has usually been slow and subtle. It is unlikely to engage in any unambiguous cheating that will force the Obama administration to restore sanctions if they are lifted. Moreover, once sanctions are lifted — especially EU and U.N. sanctions — it will be very difficult to reimpose them. The framework seems to set fairly easy benchmarks that would allow most sanctions against Iran to be lifted quickly. This would be a boon for the Iranian economy and would generate significantly more funds that Iran could use to bolster its ever-increasing efforts to interfere with its neighbors and spread its influence in the Middle East.
An American Capitulation
This framework appears certain to lead to a deal that will significantly advance Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, though agreement is supposed to reduce the threat from Iran’s nuclear program. By allowing Iran to improve its expertise in uranium enrichment and plutonium production and by legitimizing its nuclear program, a deal based on this framework will increase the risk from an Iranian nuclear weapon. Such an agreement will probably further destabilize the Middle East and could lead to a regional nuclear-arms race.
President Obama’s claim that the only alternative to this agreement is war with Iran is false. Continuing the status quo would be a much better outcome than an agreement that paves the way to an Iranian nuclear bomb.
The president claimed that the United States will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy if Congress kills this deal. I believe the opposite is the case. Our Middle East friends and allies are likely to reject this preliminary agreement as a sell-out to the Iranian mullahs that puts their security at risk at a time when Iranian influence is growing in the region.
For the sake of American security and the security of America’s Middle East friends and allies, Congress must do what it can to kill any nuclear agreement with Iran based on the deeply flawed framework unveiled today.
-Originally published in the National Review