War Stories

Jaw-Jaw With Iran

We are likely going to blow the deadline in the Iranian nuclear negotiations. But why not just keep talking?

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2014, in New York City.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

It seems very unlikely that the Iran nuclear talks will result in a comprehensive deal by Nov. 24, the deadline set a year ago, when an interim accord was reached. So what to do now? Should the West call the whole thing off, erase the tentative détente with Iran, return to unrelieved tension, and allow the mullahs to escalate their nuclear program with no controls or inspections, leading to a possible regional arms race or war? Or should the talks be extended?

Put that way, one should hope for an extension. Fortunately, there’s also a good case for going that route.

First, a review of what’s been happening with these talks—and what’s at stake for all sides.

On Nov. 23, 2013, Iran and the P5+1 nations—the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany—reached a truly historic agreement to limit and, in some ways, reduce Iran’s nuclear program. Specifically, Iran agreed to halt the enrichment of uranium above the level of 5 percent purity; freeze its stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent; stop the production, installation, and modernization of centrifuges; stop building any more uranium-enrichment facilities; halt all construction at the Arak facility, which could build an atomic bomb from plutonium; and allow much more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In exchange, the West agreed to free up about $6 billion of frozen Iranian funds—a small fraction of the sums held—without otherwise changing the wider set of economic sanctions.

Despite complaints from neo-conservatives (who don’t like arms treaties), Israeli leaders (who want to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, not control it), and leaders of Sunni Arab nations (who fear the prospect of a Western-Iranian alliance), the deal was about as good as anyone could have reasonably hoped for. And it was an amazing deal, given that high-level Iranian and American officials hadn’t talked about anything since the 1979 Islamist revolution.

But it was explicitly an interim deal. The next step would have to go much further toward, if not actually accomplish, the final goal of these talks: first, to diminish Iran’s nuclear program to the point where its leaders couldn’t easily or speedily build an atomic bomb if they reneged or cheated on the deal; second, to end Western economic sanctions against Iran, except perhaps for import- restrictions on materials that would help the country build a bomb.

Everyone openly stated that the second step would be much harder than the first. President Obama put the odds of success at around 50 percent.

There are three main obstacles to a comprehensive agreement, two of them possibly insuperable, at least for now: First, the Iranians insist on their “inalienable right” to enrich uranium to some degree; many in the West say there is no such right. The truth is a little complicated.

Article 4 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Iran has signed, like every country in the world except India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Sudan), states: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

This was the essential selling-point of the treaty: that in exchange for foregoing nuclear weapons, a country would be granted “the inalienable right” to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In fact, Article 5 requires the big five countries—those which already had nuclear weapons at the time of its drafting in 1969 (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China: the same P5 countries negotiating with Iran)—to provide nuclear materials, at a low price, to any country that signs the treaty.

True, the right to develop and produce nuclear energy doesn’t necessarily mean the right to enrich uranium; there are other ways to get nuclear energy. But nothing in the treaty precludes or prohibits uranium-enrichment either. The widespread view is that, if all other disputes are settled, a compromise could be fashioned over this one.

The key here is that there are degrees of enrichment. “Weapons-grade uranium,” the stuff suitable for making atomic bombs, must be enriched to about 90 percent. However, once uranium is enriched to about 20 percent, it doesn’t take much time to enrich it to weapons-grade quality. The consensus among scientists is that 3.5 to 5 percent enrichment meets the criterion of “peaceful nuclear energy”—it’s enough for certain civilian purposes, and it would take a lot of time, effort, and expense to enrich further. (For a slightly more technical explanation, click here.)*

Accepting the implausibility of barring Iran from enriching uranium at all (since many other countries enrich it without violating the NPT), a good goal of an accord would be to keep Iran from enriching uranium beyond a level of 5 percent—or, better still, 3.5 percent. The interim accord did that, but it was meant to last for only six months. (It contained a clause allowing an additional six-month extension, which is now about to expire.) But a real treaty would have to ensure that Iran sticks to those levels over a long time. That’s the difficulty.

The big concern from critics of the negotiations—and it’s a reasonable concern—is that Iran could sign the treaty with the P5+1 nations, benefit from the relaxation (or cessation) of economic sanctions, and then renege or cheat on the deal, restarting its high-level enrichment program and building an atom bomb more quickly than the Western nations could restore sanctions or take other diplomatic action.

So a good treaty must not only limit what Iran is doing now; it must also put tight constraints on its “breakout capability”—or, to put it another way, to maximize the time it would take for the Iranians to build an atom bomb, should it decide to break the treaty.

To do this, a treaty must contain a few essential clauses. First, it must force Iran to make sharp cuts in its stockpile of centrifuges, the devices used to enrich uranium. Iran currently has about 9,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges and about 1,000 second-generation IR-2m centrifuges. (Each IR-2m can do the work of about three IR-1s.)

David Albright, a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates that, in order to extend Iran’s breakout capability to at least 12 months, a treaty must limit Iran to no more than 4,000 IR-1 centrifuges.

Here’s the first problem. In a statement this past July, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, said that his country needs 19,000 centrifuges to satisfy its energy needs. Western scientists scoffed at this statement, and rightly so, but no Iranian official has publicly modified the supreme leader’s words. It’s a very long way for negotiators to get from doubling the stockpile of Iranian centrifuges (what Khamenei wants) to cutting it by half (what Albright says is necessary for a reasonably good treaty).

The second significant problem is that Iran has a record of deception in this realm. It covertly operated two enrichment plants for a number of years before they were discovered. A treaty, by nature, can limit activity only at “known facilities,” and the interim agreement has allowed—and is still allowing—the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct intrusive inspections at all of them. But there is much uncertainty about unknown facilities. Iran will not let the IAEA inspect certain military plants; nor has it addressed repeated requests, by the IAEA and the P5+1, to reveal past activities about nuclear-weapons programs. The CIA and European intelligence agencies have published estimates citing evidence that Iran did have a program to build nuclear weapons prior to 2004—and might still maintain some elements of this program. Albright and others say that Iran must come clean on this program, or else Western negotiators won’t know how to write a treaty’s provisions for inspection and verification.

In short, the differences between Iran and the P5+1 nations are vast. It’s not a case of the negotiators leaving a few loose ends untied, so the foreign ministers or presidents can come in and tie the knots. No, the disputes seem to reflect conflicting goals, priorities, and possibly worldviews.

However, this doesn’t mean failure is inevitable. Iranian politics and policies could someday change, and in the meantime, I see no harm in extending the talks for another round, under certain conditions. First, the terms of the interim agreement must remain intact; i.e., Iran must continue to freeze its stockpile of enriched uranium, stop production and installation of centrifuges, stop construction of enriched-uranium facilities, halt all activity at the Arak facility, and continue to allow vigorous inspection. Second, the West must lift no additional sanctions, pending a comprehensive treaty.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” and the situation is no different here, as long as it’s clear we’re not being taken for a ride. As long as the interim accord isn’t altered, Iran will not easily be able to move closer to a nuclear bomb. And on a broader level, the United States and Iran have some common interests, not least in countering Islamist extremists in the Middle East (or at least Sunni extremists, such as al-Qaida and ISIS).

The P5+1 talks are the two countries’ only diplomatic forum; as long as it’s not a forum for deception, it’s a good idea, on many grounds, to keep them going. The same was true of the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Talks during the Cold War. For their first 15 years or so, the talks accomplished little in reducing strategic arms; but, had the forum not existed, it would have been much harder to make genuine progress, in cutting arms and ending the Cold War, when the time grew ripe. Who knows: the same may be true, a decade or so from now, with Iran.


Let us now define “uranium-enrichment.”

In its natural state, uranium has 238 atoms and is thus called U-238. Fissile uranium—the stuff that can make an atom bomb—has 235; therefore, it’s called U-235. The process of enrichment is done with gas centrifuges, which, by spinning very rapidly, separate the heavier U-238 isotopes from the lighter U-235 ones.

About 0.7 percent of U-238 is naturally fissile. It takes 25 kilograms of pure “weapons-grade uranium” (uranium enriched to the point where 90 percent of it is in the form of U-235) to make a single atom bomb. But in order to make weapons-grade stuff from “low-enriched uranium” (uranium enriched to 3.5 percent U-235, enough to fuel a nuclear power plant), you would have to start with more than 500 kilograms to uranium. Iran currently has less than that amount. (Return.)

Correction, Nov. 22, 2014: The footnote defining “uranium enrichment” originally conflated isotopes and atoms.