Understanding the Iran nuclear 'deal'

A deal was struck on Nov. 24, 2013 between six world powers and Iran. In return for reduced sanctions, Iran agreed to slow and limit its nuclear program, allow international monitoring verification, and engage in continued negotiations for a "long-term" second stage agreement. There is little question that Iran's program is capable of acquiring nuclear weapons-usable fissionable material.

Understandings between the parties need to be ironed out before implementation of the deal begins, and there are serious questions about the second stage agreement. Sanctions would not be lifted until the deal is in place, operating, and verified.

Many in this country and others including Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu and some Arab allies have called it a "bad deal." They believe it will not stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. They point to Iran's animosity toward the west, especially the U. S., and what they call its history of "double dealing" to conclude this deal is illusory. Many Iranians also consider it a bad deal.

They think they are giving up a lot and not getting much in return. This first step, however, could be a very good deal depending on how well it works out.

President Obama and the leaders of the other five nations (United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China - the other four members of the UN Security Council - and Germany, Iran's key trading partner) believe this first step, structured as a "Joint Plan of Action," could lead to a longstanding "comprehensive solution" that precludes Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and strengthens the global nuclear non- proliferation regime. The deal is to last six months, renewable once, while the more comprehensive agreement is worked out.

The agreement is to be finalized in "no more than one year." If achieved, this agreement would provide verifiable assurances to the international community that Iran's nuclear activities remain peaceful, and ensure that should there be any breakout attempt by Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon it would be promptly detected allowing time for appropriate action.

A difficult issue remains with Iran's insistence that it has the "right to enrich" uranium for what it asserts are peaceful purposes. The U. S. maintained that it has never recognized that right for others nor would it for Iran. It is unclear how that issue may be handled in the second stage agreement. At the very least, Iran should have to accept stringent and verifiable limits on its enrichment scope and levels, and these would have to last ten or more years. Briefly put, enrichment is a process to increase in uranium the percentage of U235, a readily fissionable uranium isotope (one of the forms of the element). High-speed centrifuges are a key part of the process to obtain this increase. If unrestricted, enrichment can achieve higher and higher levels of U235 eventually reaching weapons usable uranium suitable for a fission nuclear bomb. Enrichment is necessary because naturally occurring uranium contains only a 0.7 percent level of the U235 isotope, which is insufficient for some purposes. For example, light water nuclear reactors, the most common type for electric power generation, require about 3% enrichment in the installed reactor-core nuclear fuel rods to operate efficiently. If a nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful nuclear power, it is not necessary to take uranium to higher levels of enrichment than a few percent. Iran now has over 400 pounds of 20 percent enriched uranium. Some people consider that level to be weapons usable material - a disputable proposition. In any event, 20 percent is regarded as a transition level between low enriched and highly enriched uranium and one of the indications that Iran's program is not merely for peaceful purposes. Generally speaking, a fission bomb requires about 100 pounds of about 90% enriched uranium to be compact, reliable, and efficient.

What are details of the deal? According to a U. S. White House Fact Sheet, Iran has agreed to "unprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring" of its nuclear program. If Iran fails to meet its commitments, the limited relief would be revoked and additional sanctions imposed.

Iran's economy has been hurting under heavy sanctions, part of the efforts to make it reconsider pursuing its nuclear ambitions. In return for the US and its five partners dropping a fraction of their sanctions - worth about $7 billion; most sanctions remain - Iran has agreed, among other things, to halt any enrichment above 5 percent and neutralize any of its existing stockpile at 20 percent enrichment under the watchful eyes of trained experienced inspectors. Other restrictions apply, too detailed to address here.

The neutralization of the 20 percent stock will take place at an Iranian facility that the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have to go to anyway because it's a major centrifuge facility. They will watch and measure the dilution, i.e., mixing the 20 percent with lower enriched stock to reach 5 percent. Half of the 20 percent stock will be converted to fuel for the aging Tehran Research Reactor, which inspectors will monitor.

The deal mandates daily facilities visits by IAEA Inspectors. On their visits, inspectors will also review surveillance camera footage. The agreement includes provisions for unannounced inspections to assess surveillance records, access to uranium mining and milling sites, monitoring the halting of construction of a key nuclear reactor, and the disclosure of reactor design information which may give insight into Iran's nuclear intentions. The tasks required could utilize over half of the 250 IAEA inspector force.

The deal requires verified compliance. Trust is not involved. If Iran refuses agreed access or is discovered to have hidden sites, the deal collapses and heavier sanctions or worse result. As inspectors go through their processes at the locations in Iran, they will be asking themselves, does this all add up? Since Iran has tried to hide nuclear sites in the past, the IAEA will dig hard and painstakingly analyze data to determine if there is evidence that something covered by the deal is being hidden.

This deal would buy time for an effective long-term solution. It's certainly worth a try before any military action. Time is added to when Iran could breakout to produce a weapon. And time is added for Iran to become more engaged with a community of nations concerned with international and regional stability and security.

Richard Scribner, Ph.D., is a Manchester resident who formerly dealt with nuclear nonproliferation and international security issues as a government official and an academic.


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