The US U-turns and accepts that

Iran will have uranium enrichment facilities


A Joint Plan of Action [1] was agreed between Iran and the US in Geneva on 24 November 2013.


Nominally, this agreement was between Iran and the P5+1 (that is, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) but in reality it was between Iran and the US.  The groundwork for it was laid in secret high-level discussions between Iran and the US which began in March 2013, while President Ahmadinjad was still in power in Iran [2].



The Joint Plan of Action


The Joint Plan of Action consists of an interim agreement lasting for six months at least, setting out a series of steps to be taken by Iran, in exchange for a small scale reduction in economic sanctions.  The Plan also establishes the principles on which “a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran's nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful” is to be based:


·         An Iranian reaffirmation that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons”


·         Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein”


·         “A mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme”


·         “The comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions, as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran's nuclear programme”


So, the US has agreed that Iran is going to have enrichment capability on a permanent basis, albeit with mutually agreed constraints on its operation and sufficient transparency measures to assure the outside world that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.


In other words, the endgame for the US is that Iran be treated like other states in this world, which possess enrichment facilities but have not developed nuclear weapons, for example, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.  As John Kerry said at his press conference afterwards:


Iran says it doesn’t want a nuclear weapon … .Therefore, it ought to be really easy to do the things that other nations do who enrich, and prove that their program is peaceful. So that’s what we’re looking for.” [3]



Extraordinary U-turn by the US


This amounts to an extraordinary U-turn by the US, which has barely got a mention in mainstream media reporting on the agreement.


The BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen described it as “a quite remarkable diplomatic breakthrough” but he didn’t give the slightest clue as to why, having been at daggers drawn over Iran’s nuclear activities for more than a decade, there was suddenly a meeting of minds between the US and Iran.  The answer is that the US has reversed its policy and the final agreement will be essentially on Iran’s terms, since it will include Iran’s bottom line, namely, the continuation of enrichment.


The other fundamental fact about the agreement is that, as we will see, it could have been reached in 2005, on less favourable terms for Iran, had the US been prepared to concede Iran’s bottom line at that time.


For the last decade and more, the US has expended an immense amount of political capital dragooning the world into applying political and economic pressure on Iran in an attempt to force it to cease enrichment.  These efforts have failed abysmally: a decade ago there were no centrifuges enriching uranium in Iran; today, according to an IAEA report last August [4], around 19,000 centrifuges are installed (though only about 10,000 of them are in operation).


At the instigation of the US, the Security Council passed six Chapter VII resolutions, the first in 2006 and the sixth in 2010, demanding that Iran cease enrichment and various other nuclear activities. Four of these six resolutions included tranches of economic sanctions. These UN-approved sanctions were rather limited, because Russia and China opposed more severe ones.  However, over the past two years Iran has been subject to ferocious economic sanctions, which were not approved by the UN, but are the product of legislation passed by the US Congress in December 2011 at the behest of the Israeli lobby in the US.  The legislation requires the US administration to bully other states around the world to stop (or at least reduce) purchases of Iranian oil, by threatening to cut off foreign financial institutions from the US financial system, if they conduct transactions with the Central Bank of Iran or other Iranian financial institutions.


Now, despite the continued existence of six Security Council resolutions demanding that enrichment cease, the interim agreement allows Iran to continue enrichment over the next six months, albeit with minor curtailments, and there isn’t the slightest doubt that any long-term comprehensive agreement will do likewise.  Simply put, the US has conceded defeat.



No right to enrichment


At his press conference, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was at pains to emphasise that the agreement “does not say that Iran has a right to enrichment”.   He continued:


“No matter what interpretive comments are made, it is not in this document. There is no right to enrich within the four corners of the NPT. And this document does not do that.”


It was strange to hear this coming out John Kerry’s mouth, since in an interview with the Financial Times in June 2009 [5], when he was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said that Iran had “a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose” and described the inflexibility by the Bush administration about Iran as “bombastic diplomacy” that “wasted energy” and “hardened the lines”.


However, it is true that the Plan of Action does not state explicitly that Iran has a right to enrichment under the NPT.  But what does that matter when it is going to have enrichment in practice with US approval?


In contrast to Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the deal accepts Tehran’s right to enrich uranium:


“This deal means that we agree with the need to recognize Iran's right for peaceful nuclear energy, including the right for enrichment, with an understanding that those questions about the [Iranian nuclear program] that still remain, and the program itself, will be placed under the strictest IAEA control.” [6]



Kerry acknowledges US failure


John Kerry actually acknowledged that the US inspired sanctions against Iran over the past decade had been a complete failure, saying:


“In … 2003, when the Iranians made an offer to the former Administration with respect to their nuclear program, there were 164 centrifuges. That offer was not taken. Subsequently, sanctions came in, and today there are 19,000 centrifuges and growing.”


The offer to which he is referring was actually made in 2005 when President Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.  To be precise, it was made on 23 March 2005 in the Quai d’Orsay in Paris [7] to representatives of the EU3 (the UK, France and Germany) by the present Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.  It involved the continuation of domestic enrichment, but it also proposed unprecedented measures to reassure the outside world that Iran’s nuclear activities were for peaceful purposes, measures of the kind that the US is now seeking.


(This was followed by further even more generous offers from Iran, including the most remarkable offer of all by President Ahmadinejad at the UN General Assembly on 17 September 2005, when he declared that “the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of [a] uranium enrichment program in Iran” [8]).


John Kerry did not acknowledge that the EU3, and by extension the US, could have reached a settlement with Iran at that time, had the US been prepared to countenance Iran having enrichment on its own soil.  But the US wasn’t prepared to do so – and the EU3 bowed to Washington’s wishes and refused to accept the offer even as a basis for negotiations.  With that, the possibility of a settlement, which contained unprecedented transparency measures, was aborted at a time when Iran’s enrichment programme was in its infancy.


(For discussion of this Iranian offer and the events which followed from the EU3’s refusal to even consider it, see my book with Peter Oborne A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran [9] and my article Has the US conceded defeat and accepted Iran’s right to uranium enrichment? [10]).



Selling point for the US


The interim agreement’s selling point for the US is that it includes arrangements that will make it next to impossible for Iran to take any steps towards manufacture fissile material for a nuclear weapon, if it decided to do so, without the world becoming aware of them.


Not that there is any hard evidence that Iran has, or ever had, any intention of developing a nuclear weapon.  Iran’s leaders have repeatedly denied that they have any ambitions to do so.  What is more, in 2005 the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa – a religious edict – saying that “the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons” [11] (page 121) and he has repeated this message many times since then [12].


Recently (8 October 2013), Sergey Lavrov had this to say about the issue in an interview with RT:


“As for the statements regarding the Iranians playing another game and trying to dupe people, I haven't seen any confirmation by any intelligence – be it Russian, be it European, be it the United States, be it Mossad, which would categorically say that the Iranian leadership has taken a political decision to have a military nuclear program. No intelligence agency on earth was able so far to make this conclusion. And we spoke to our American colleagues just recently. They agreed that Iran hasn't taken a political decision to go military in its nuclear program … .” [13]



Obama says agreement cuts off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb


President Obama declared that the interim agreement had “cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb” [14].  This is essentially correct.  As Obama said:


Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles.


Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium.


Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited.


Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor.


“And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.


“These are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.  Simply put, they cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb.”


These comments are more or less correct.  Let us look at each in turn:



(1)  Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles.


Iran has agreed to limit enrichment to 5% (the level appropriate to fuel power reactors) from now on and to convert half of its existing 20% stockpile to uranium oxide to fuel its Tehran Research Reactor and dilute the other half to no more than 5%.  When this is done, there will be no 20% enriched uranium in a form that can be readily enriched to 90% for a bomb, if Iran had a mind to do so.


This means that the scenario set out by Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly in September 2013 (famously, with the aid of a cartoon) is no longer possible.  Then he envisaged Iran soon having enough 20% enriched uranium to be able to produce 90% enriched uranium for a single bomb in a matter of months, if it wasn’t stopped by military action.  Then Netanyahu predicted that Iran would have enough 90% enriched uranium for a bomb by the spring/summer of 2013:


“By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment [that is, enrichment to 20%] and move on to the final stage [that is, enrichment to 90%].  From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”


This prophecy like others by him about Iran’s nuclear activities has not come to pass.  Once the measures set out in the interim agreement are complete, any possibility of it coming to pass will be eliminated, since there will be no 20% enriched uranium in a form that can be readily enriched to 90% for a weapon.


Ceasing to enrich to 20% is not a great imposition for Iran.  It began enriching to 20% in 2010, after failing to obtain fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor from abroad.  It is generally believed that it now has enough 20% enriched uranium to manufacture fuel for this reactor for many years.  So, stopping enrichment to 20% is not a great imposition.


Iran also agreed not to increase its existing stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium held as uranium hexafluoride gas over the six month interim period.  The interim agreement does not require enrichment to 3.5% to be halted, but any uranium newly enriched to 3.5% is to be converted into uranium oxide, so that it cannot be readily enriched further.


Note that in the March 2005 offer, Iran proposed to do this immediately for all low enriched uranium.


Note that Iran will retain the capability of enriching to 20% and even to over 90%, but with inspectors in their enrichment plants daily (see below) that will not be possible without being detected by the IAEA.



(2) Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium. Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited.


Iran has installed a few next-generation centrifuges, which can enrich more quickly and therefore have the potential to enrich to weapons grade in a much shorter time.  Iran has agreed not to start up these (or other) new centrifuges and to limit its building of centrifuges to those needed to replace damaged machines.  In other words, in the next six months, Iran will not be able to increase its stockpile of centrifuges, or to increase its rate of enrichment by putting more centrifuges into operation.  But it will still be able to continue to enrich to 5% using those centrifuges already in operation.



(3)  Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor


Here Obama is referring to the heavy water reactor which Iran is in the process of building at Arak.  If it was in operation, it could be a source for plutonium, which can be used as fissile material for a bomb (as an alternative to 90% enriched uranium).  However, the reactor isn't in operation.


To obtain plutonium for a bomb it has to be extracted from "spent" fuel from the reactor (that is, fuel that has been in an operating reactor for some time, certainly months, perhaps years).  The process of extraction of plutonium from spent fuel is referred to as "reprocessing" - and Iran hasn't got any facilities for "reprocessing".  So, the Arak reactor was years away from being a possible source of fissile material for a bomb.


(There is already an operational nuclear reactor in Iran in a power station at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf.  This reactor was installed and fuelled by Russia and is operating under IAEA supervision, as the Arak reactor will be when it is operational.  Theoretically, “spent” fuel from this reactor, which is supposed to be returned to Russia, could be retained in Iran and “reprocessed” to extract plutonium, if Iran had a means of doing so.  Needless to say, it couldn’t do so without the IAEA becoming aware of it.  This possibility is never mentioned by those who kick up a fuss about the danger of Iran producing plutonium from the Arak reactor which isn’t operational.  This demonstrates that the fuss about the possibility of plutonium being obtained from the Arak reactor is bogus.)


Note that in the March 2005 offer, Iran proposed that it refrain from “reprocessing” spent fuel rods, thereby precluding the production of plutonium.



(4)  New inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.


This includes daily access by IAEA inspectors to the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow.


Note that in the March 2005 offer, Iran proposed to allow much greater access than this for IAEA inspectors, namely, continuous onsite presence at its conversion and enrichment plants.


The interim agreement also includes the provision of ”certain key data and information called for in the Additional Protocol to Iran’s IAEA Safeguards Agreement [with the IAEA] and Modified Code 3.1”.  (For explanation of these, see Annex to Has the US conceded defeat and accepted Iran’s right to uranium enrichment? [10]).


Note that in the March 2005 offer, Iran proposed to continue to apply the Additional Protocol and Modified Code 3.1.  The level of access for the IAEA and of reporting to the IAEA, which has now been agreed, was in operation in 2005 and would have been continued had the EU3 had accepted Iran’s March 2005 offer.



A good deal for Iran


The interim agreement is a good deal for Iran: in exchange for minor curtailments to its present nuclear activities, it has received a small scale reduction in economic sanctions.  The latter includes ending the ban on the supply of spare parts for civil aircraft and making it easier to buy pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.


Much more important, the way has been opened for Iran’s right to enrichment being accepted internationally and sanctions being lifted completely.  That being so, it is inconceivable that Iran will fail to carry out its obligations under the agreement.  More likely, it will go further than it is required to do according to the letter of the agreement – and the US will have no excuse to re-impose the sanctions.


President Obama himself has the power to reduce sanctions as prescribed in the interim agreement.  But it is possible that the US Congress will scupper the interim deal by passing legislation imposing additional sanctions on Iran, at the behest of the Israeli lobby in the US, thereby potentially breaking a US commitment in the agreement.  The interim agreement says that during the interim period:


“The US Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”


This implies that, if the Congress were to legislate for more sanctions in the coming months, the agreement would be breached if the President refused to veto the legislation.  But if enough votes were mustered in Congress (a two-thirds vote in each house) to override the presidential veto, the agreement would not be formally breached.  However, the resulting imposition of additional sanctions by the US would surely deal a death blow to the agreement.



David Morrison

31 December 2013