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The “Interim” Iranian Nuclear Deal: Déjà vu all over again?

Since agreement was reached in Geneva on November 24 on an “interim” deal between Iran and the “P5+1” negotiating group, much has been said in the Western press in favor of the agreement by the governments involved, and by their political supporters, while more conservative and hawkish commentators have not been too sparing in their criticism.  Most critiques of the deal so far have involved fairly high-level concerns, among them: (a) the dangers (at this point in the nuclear game) of placing any meaningful trust in the Iranian regime; (b) the fact that neither this interim arrangement nor the eventual “final” deal it envisions will stop Iran from enriching uranium and thus maintaining some capacity for “breakout” from the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); (c) the very limited degree to which the timelines of such potential “breakout” are extended by the measures in this interim deal; and (d) the dangers that may be created by the tricky-to-restore partial relaxation of sanctions now being given Iran in exchange merely for an easily-ended temporary halt.

Having this morning seen that Iranian officials are now alleging that some of the numerous “facts” set out in the Obama Administration’s recent White House “fact sheet” about the Iranian deal are not actually true in light of the actual terms of the “Joint Plan of Action,” however, I thought it might be useful to offer NPF readers a look at the actual terms of the agreement with Iran that was announced earlier this week.  To my eye, the agreement falls rather short of its billing.  Let’s explore this a bit.

I.               But First, a Digression

Before going further, however, it’s worth flagging an ongoing terminological and politico-symbolic controversy.  For the past several years, the European members of the group of governments negotiating with Iran – a group that consists of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – have been encouraging everyone to call this group the “EU Three Plus Three” countries (“EU3+3”), reflecting the fact that there are three European Union states and three additional countries involved.  The rival approach is to call the negotiators the “P5+1,” since it consists of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (“P5”) plus one additional country (Germany).

Both “EU3+3” and “P5+1” are perfectly accurate descriptions of the countries involved, but each carries different political baggage.  The “EU3+3” label is obviously meant to suggest that Europeanness is somehow the most salient characteristic of the group, while to say “P5+1” seems to emphasize that the most significant thing is the fact that the permanent members of the Security Council are involved.  One could surely make arguments in support of either approach, and indeed the text of the Joint Plan of Action itself opts for “EU3+3.”  Most press coverage I’ve seen this week, however, plumps for the term “P5+1.”  In the battle for public spin, Europeanness apparently doesn’t count for too much.  I’ll come back to this later.

II.             Evaluating the Geneva Deal

Anyway, what are we to make of the deal announced this week?  When the Iranian deal was first made public, the New York Times set forth a number of key points about its advantages, arguments that obligingly track what the White House has put out about the deal.  Each of these contentions is worth examining, especially in light of what the “Joint Plan of Action” actually says.

Limits on Enrichment Facilities and Centrifuges

According to the New York Times, “Iran … agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that would be sufficient for energy production but that would require further enrichment for bomb-making. To make good on that pledge, Iran will dismantle links between networks of centrifuges.”  This closely follows what the White House pronounced: namely, that Iran will “[h]alt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical connections required to enrich above 5%.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite what the actual agreement provides.  It does note that Iran “will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months” of the interim deal.  But it does not provide – as some Obama Administration officials told the Washington Post – that “Iran’s total stockpile of nuclear fuel would be frozen at current amounts.”  Nor does it clearly provide for the dismantlement of connections between centrifuge cascades, or even discuss such connections at all except specifically at the Fordow enrichment plant.

Despite Administration assurances to the Washington Post, the Geneva text doesn’t refer to a freeze at current enrichment totals, and indeed seems clearly to envision that additional enrichment of uranium to five percent levels will continue.  Only enrichment above five percent purity will be halted for the duration of the interim deal.  As for dismantling connections, a footnote on the second page of the Joint Plan says simply “No connections between cascades,” but it is not clear that this requires that any actually be dismantled (rather than simply not built).  In any event, that footnote clearly applies only to Fordow, not to the much larger facility at Natanz – where it would seem the Iranians are free to connect whatever they like, provided that they adhere to the other strictures of the agreement.

Iran promises not to “make any further advances of its activities at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plan, [and] Fordow,” but it is not obliged to stop the enrichment work it is already doing, provided that this work does not produce uranium beyond the five percent level.  In fact, at one point, the Joint Plan even refers to uranium that will be “newly enriched up to 5% during the 6 month period.”  Additional enrichment up to the five percent level obviously will not stop.

The agreement, therefore, permits Iran to continue to amass a larger stockpile of uranium at the five percent level – at which point, one must remember, Iran will have already accomplished the bulk of the work necessary to get to bomb-grade levels.  (In terms of the work required, measured in “separative work units” [SWUs] enrichment is not linear: much more work is needed to get natural uranium up to low levels of purity than to kick material at those levels up to the 90 percent that is considered optimal for weaponry.)  As it was gleefully tweeted on November 26 by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – the Iranian figure most often given credit in the press for making this Geneva deal possible – uranium enrichment in Iran “will continue.  It continues today and will continue tomorrow.”  So much for holding Tehran to current totals.

But the size or capacity of Iranian enrichment facilities won’t expand, right?   The New York Times reassures us that under the terms of the Geneva deal, “Iran agreed that it would not install any new centrifuges, start up any that are not already operating or build new enrichment facilities.”  The White House press release is more specific, declaring that that Iran will “[n]ot install additional centrifuges of any type,” “[n]ot install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium,” “[l]imit its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran cannot use the six months to stockpile centrifuges,” and “[n]ot construct any additional enrichment facilities.”  Surely we can take solace in the fact that Iran’s enrichment program will not expand, even if Iran’s stockpile of five-percent uranium will continue to grow?

Well, not necessarily.  If one actually reads the Joint Plan of Action, it becomes clear that Iran is not obliged to forego building new enrichment facilities.  With notable ambiguity, the text  obliges Iran only to forego “new locations for the enrichment,” not to install new centrifuges at the Natanz or Fordow facilities, and not to introduce uranium into centrifuges at Natanz that are not already enriching uranium.  Making preparations to expand enrichment after the expiration of this deal does not seem to be prohibited, including the preparation of additional (secret?) sites, the construction of centrifuge components, nor even the installation of such machines provided that uranium is not introduced into them.  Nor, as the Israeli press has started to recognize, does Iran seem to be barred from producing components for its Arak reactor, provided that it does not commission the reactor, transfer fuel or heavy water to the site, or test additional fuel or produce more fuel for it, or actually install reactor components.

Significantly, Iran has promised only not to make “further advances of its activities at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, Fordow, or the Arak reactor” (emphasis added).  One should not overlook the crucial wording: “at” those facilities. Further advances elsewhere do not seem to be barred, as long as no violation occurs of any prohibition appearing elsewhere in the Joint Plan.   Iran has already announced its intention to continue its “current enrichment R&D practices,” which presumably includes the development and production of more advanced, more efficient centrifuges.  It also intends to replace any centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow that aren’t working properly.  (This necessarily entails a de facto expansion of the enrichment capacity of those facilities compared to where things stood just before the Joint Plan was agreed, because more working centrifuges will end up there at the end of the six-month Geneva period than when it began.)  Both of these steps – the continuation of centrifuge research and development, and the replacement of faulty centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow – are explicitly permitted by the Joint Plan.

Dealing with HEU

It is a major selling point of the Geneva deal that Iran will have to adjust its holdings of uranium enriched to the 20 percent level – that is, highly enriched uranium (HEU), a very dangerous additional point along the road to optimal bomb-grade purity, at which point the vast majority of the separative work needed to get to 90 percent has already been completed – so as to make this stockpile less quickly and easily convertible for weapons purposes.  Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest alleged benefit of the Joint Plan of Action, inasmuch as it is really the only way in which Iran’s is supposed to end up farther from a nuclear weapon after the end of the six-month Geneva period.

Duly flagging what a valuable step this is, the New York Times says that Iran’s “stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a short hop from weapons-grade fuel, would be diluted or converted into oxide so that it could not be readily used for military purposes.”  Again, the Times rather uncritically tracks the White House press statement about the Joint Plan, which says that Iran must “[d]ilute below 5% or convert to a form not suitable for further enrichment its entire stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium before the end of the initial phase.”  It is apparently on the assumption that Iran will essentially cease having any stockpile of HEU that the Times proclaims that the Joint Plan would “add at least several weeks, and perhaps more than a month, to the time Iran would need to produce weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear device.”

Let’s leave aside the broad policy question of whether eking out “several weeks” of additional delay before Iranian weaponization is really worth a major relaxation of international sanctions regime that we have spent a decade constructing, and just at the point when Iran seems to be feeling the pinch and increasingly desperate to negotiate something.   The more immediate problem is that the text of the Joint Plan doesn’t quite say all this about HEU, and therefore presumably would not quite do all that.

The relevant language in the agreement is as follows:

“From the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR [Tehran Research Reactor]. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%.”

Thankfully, the dilution requirement for half of the HEU stockpile is relatively clear, and consistent with what the Times and the Obama Administration have been claiming.  But notice that it does not say that Iran must turn the other half of its HEU into TRR fuel plates within the six-month window: it says that Iran must “retain” that uranium “for fabrication” of such fuel.  If you were an Iranian keen to preserve what you could of your breakout capability, why would you read this to require conversion into reactor fuel rather than simply that you set this material aside for such conversion at some unspecified future date?  If this makes the reader uneasy, it should.  Requiring Iran to downblend half of its HEU is certainly something, but if that’s all that is actually mandatory in this agreement, the Joint Plan is being rather oversold.

III.           “We’ll always have Paris ….”

This Geneva deal is explicitly temporary, and is meant to contribute to building trust while the parties work on a “final” arrangement.  It is still possible that it will succeed in that respect.

For a trust-building exercise, however, things are off to a singularly bad start: the agreement doesn’t do very much, it is being promoted as doing some things it doesn’t really do, and the parties are now already arguing publicly over what its terms actually are.  It is far from clear how this will succeed in clearing the air and setting the stage for a good final agreement with Iran.  Nor, surely, is this what the Obama Administration needs at home.  Coming on the heels of a painful series of self-inflicted political wounds connected with the rollout of President Obama’s signature health care program, not least over White House misrepresentations of that law’s impact upon ordinary Americans, a fracas over whether he is also fibbing about the terms of this nuclear deal is surely unwelcome.

But there is no getting around the need to get past the hype and assess what the Joint Plan of Action really will accomplish, and what it will not.  With the exception of the downblending of (only half of) Iran’s HEU stock, at the end of the six-month period Tehran will likely have a nuclear program that is in most respects better positioned to move forward toward weaponization than it is today – even while Iran enjoys the benefits of a partial relaxation of international sanctions and an uptick in its presumed diplomatic and political legitimacy.

(By the way, did I mention that the Obama Administration may also be overselling how small this relaxation of sanctions is going to be?  The White House promises that “[s]anctions affecting crude oil sales will continue to impose pressure on Iran’s government.”  Yet although there is one reference in the Joint Plan to a “pause” in efforts to “further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales,” the text also provides that Iran’s negotiating partners are to “[s]uspend U.S. and EU sanctions on … Iran’s petrochemical exports, as well as sanctions on associated services.”)

All in all, this last week reminds me of nothing so much as the Iranian nuclear “suspension” agreement struck by the Europeans (in fact, by the “EU3”) ten years ago.  At that point, in the roiling wake of the first revelations about the previously secret enrichment facility at Natanz – when it looked as if Iran was sure to face tough Security Council sanctions, or worse, for its flagrant nuclear safeguards violations – the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Great Britain suddenly showed up in Tehran in October of 2003 to announce that they had reached a separate side deal with the mullahs.  Under this arrangement, subsequently formalized in the so-called Paris Agreement of 2004, Iran would “suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities” while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified Tehran’s claims that everything Iran had been hiding from the IAEA for the better part of two decades was in fact “peaceful” in nature.  In return for the suspension, the Europeans prevented the Security Council action Iran feared.

Like the Geneva deal today, the 2003 “suspension” was an essentially interim solution, intended to stabilize a deteriorating situation while cooler heads worked out a final arrangement.  The Europeans’ much-vaunted “suspension,” however, fell apart as it became clear that Iran’s commitment was essentially fraudulent.   Tehran continued to manufacture centrifuge components at some military laboratories, briefly promised to stop and then rescinded this promise, and eventually pushed ahead with enrichment anyway, bickering all the while with the EU3 and the IAEA about what exactly was supposed to have been suspended in the first place.  It wasn’t a particularly proud or productive time for international diplomacy.

From Tehran’s perspective, however, the gambit worked, playing the Europeans off against the George W. Bush Administration, stalling the U.S.-led drive at the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iranian safeguards violations to the Security Council, and buying time for Iran to present the world with the fait accompli of ongoing uranium enrichment.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator bragged in 2005 that Tehran had essentially hoodwinked the Europeans, using the supposed suspension to forestall Security Council action while still continuing to move forward with its nuclear program.  And the EU3 side-deal did manage to delay Security Council sanctions for years: until 2006, by which time Natanz had turned from a big hole in the ground into a facility that was actually starting to enrich uranium.  The Iranian negotiator, alas, was right to brag.

One hopes that we aren’t seeing a repeat of this Paris Agreement scenario, but it looks all too possible.  Perhaps the drafters of this week’s Joint Plan of Action were right to prefer the symbolism of calling this a “EU3+3” agreement after all.  To be sure, the Quay d’Orsay has swapped places with Foggy Bottom as the foreign ministry most resistant to Iranian gamesmanship, but it is difficult not to feel some sense of “déjà vu” as Iran negotiates additional time for nuclear improvements while undercutting sanctions efforts.

By the way, do you remember the name of the Iranian negotiator who bragged that he had used the 2003 “suspension” to forestall damaging pressures on Iran and buy time for further nuclear progress?  It was none other than Hassan Rouhani, now the President of Iran.  Plus ça change ….

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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