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A Dummy’s Guide to a Possible Nuclear Deal With Iran

The key issues at play as negotiators race toward an agreement.

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Diplomats from world powers and their Iranian counterparts who are currently huddled in the Swiss city of Lausanne insist that they are closer than ever to inking an agreement governing Tehran’s nuclear program.

For weeks, the representatives of the P5+1 — the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and Germany — have been meeting with Iranian officials trying to hammer out an agreement that would in all likelihood allow Iranian centrifuges to keep spinning but impose restrictions on the amount of enriched material Iran is allowed to accumulate and how it can put that material to use. Now, that agreement may very well be in sight.

If signed, the agreement may put to bed a point of tension between Iran and the international community that has raised fears of a possible arms race in the Middle East, a military conflict between Israel and Iran, and the possibility that Iran might ferry an eventual nuclear weapon to one of its terrorist proxies. While Iran says it is not planning to build a nuclear bomb — and currently lacks some of the technology to do so — its history of deception and concealment with regard to its nuclear enrichment activity has cast a cloud of suspicion over exactly how Tehran plans to utilize its formidable nuclear infrastructure.

Here, then, are the key issues to keep an eye on as nuclear negotiators race toward an end-of-month deadline to seal the basic aspects of an agreement.

Centrifuges

Building a nuclear bomb requires fissile material — either plutonium or uranium — and one way to acquire the latter is to run uranium hexafluoride gas through a centrifuge, spinning it at high speeds so as to extract the fissile isotope uranium-235. Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities focus on producing enriched uranium — though some plutonium work also has been carried out — so international negotiations are for this reason focused on putting in place controls on the speed with which Iran is able to produce uranium-235 and the material’s quantity. (Uranium naturally contains .7 percent of the uranium-235 isotope, and enriching it to 90 percent uranium-235, considered weapons grade, is a difficult task, which is one reason nuclear weapons haven’t spread more widely.)

The hardline position on this issue — espoused at one point during the current talks by the current Israeli government and hawks in Congress — is that Iran must give up all its centrifuges and eliminate its ability to enrich uranium. This is a non-starter for Tehran, and the talks are now focused on the number of centrifuges Iran will be able to run under a final agreement.

Currently, diplomats are discussing allowing Iran to run about 6,000 centrifuges. Tehran is pushing to increase that number; the P5+1 is trying to push that figure down. Where they land will be crucial in determining how the agreement is sold to skeptical publics both in Washington and Tehran.

Breakout time

The question of the quantity of centrifuges is intimately connected with what diplomats call Iran’s possible “breakout time.” That is, if Iran decides to break out of an agreement governing its nuclear program, how long would it take Tehran to accumulate a sufficient amount of bomb-grade uranium — uranium that has been enriched to 90 percent — to make one nuclear weapon.

Both the Obama White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have driven hard on this issue, maintaining that a final agreement with Iran cannot allow for Tehran’s nuclear scientists to fire up its enrichment program to full capacity and quickly acquire sufficient uranium-235 for a bomb.

American spies believe that Iran’s supreme leader has left the door open to building a nuclear weapon but has not made the political decision to do so. The belief that such a decision has not been made contributes to the uncertainty of the talks and has created a dynamic where negotiators are structuring the agreement to provide the international community with sufficient time to react if Iran makes the decision to pursue a nuclear device.

That’s why the issue of centrifuges and the breakout time are of a piece with one another. Allowing more centrifuges to run may allow Iran to more quickly acquire weapons-grade uranium in a breakout scenario.

As negotiations currently stand, P5+1 diplomats appear to be backing down on their requirement that Iran have a breakout time of no less than a year. According to Olli Heinonen, a former official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, allowing 6,500 of Iran’s most basic centrifuges to run would allow it to accumulate sufficient weapons-grade uranium for one bomb in about nine months.

It bears noting when considering a breakout scenario that the acquisition of a nuclear weapon can be broken down into three component parts: the enrichment of fissile material (arguably the most difficult), the building of a bomb, and the creation of a delivery mechanism. The current discussions are focused on the first step, and it is not believed that Iran has achieved the last two.

Fordow, Natanz, and Arak

Key to Iran’s possible acquisition of weapons grade uranium is the facility at Fordow, a fortified underground facility home to some 2,700 centrifuges that were mostly shut down under the terms of an interim agreement concluded in 2013. But as an underground, clandestine facility for the enrichment of uranium, Fordow’s future represents a key aspect of the final agreement governing Iran’s nuclear program. It is unlikely that P5+1 diplomats will succeed in shutting down Fordow, and it remains to be seen how many centrifuges Iran will be able to run at the plant.

Another key site lies at Natanz, where Iran has carried out much of its enrichment activities in the past. There are two enrichment facilities at Natanz, with more than 15,000 centrifuges. About half of those aren’t running, per the terms of the interim agreement.

Similarly, a heavy-water nuclear reactor being built at Arak is another point of contention between Iran and the P5+1. As a heavy-water plant, Arak would allow Iran to potentially produce weapons-grade plutonium, providing it with another possible pathway a nuclear weapon. Iran maintains that the reactor is intended to produce medical isotopes. It is unclear how a final agreement will deal with Arak and govern its future operation.

Inspections

If an agreement is reached in Switzerland between Iran the P5+1, it will include some sort of inspections regime, and the nature of those inspections will be key to monitoring the activities at the nuclear sites mentioned above. If Iran is allowed to keep a significant number of centrifuges spinning and allows international inspectors to visit them at any time and monitor work at those facilities, then that may satisfy world power negotiators — as long as Iran doesn’t produce large amounts of weapons grade uranium.

American intelligence officials maintain that if Iran decides to secretly pursue a nuclear weapon, they are confident the international community will be able to detect such an effort. Part of that calculation relies on the presence of at least some inspectors inside Iran, and if Iran agrees that the IAEA will be allowed to visit nuclear facilities at a time and place of their choosing, visit component manufacturers, and verify the end of use of materials, then the international community could gain a good deal of insight into Iran’s nuclear activities. Some have argued that such an inspections regime would need to be in place for in excess of 15 years.

There’s also reason for caution. “History shows surprises. The Russian centrifuge program went for years without detection despite tremendous intelligence efforts. The Iraqi and Libyan programs were not immediately detected, and South Africa, which manufactured nuclear weapons, ended up destroying its program before the IAEA saw it. The Syrian reactor in al-Kibar also came a bit out of the blue, as did North Korea’s advanced centrifuge plant,” Heinonen wrote this week. “There is always the element of the unknown or the uncertain that adds to the risk equation.”

Acquiescing to an aggressive inspections process also represents a difficult concession for a regime such as Iran, rooted as it is in a revolutionary ideology and hostility toward the West. Frequent and aggressive inspections by Western monitors could be spun by hardliners as an affront to Iranian sovereignty. By the same token, an aggressive inspections regime would probably go some way in mollifying concerns among skeptical publics in Europe and the United States that Iran was hoodwinking the West.

The Pace of Sanctions Relief

Because of Western sanctions, Iran’s economy sharply contracted in 2013. In large part because they were eased slightly in 2014, the economy rebounded. With the conclusion of a nuclear agreement, Iran is seeking rapid relief from the sanctions that remain. Negotiators for the P5+1 want to lift sanctions as Iran hits a series of benchmarks evaluating its compliance with an agreement.

How and the pace at which such sanctions will be lifted has reportedly been a key point of contention in the talks, and it is unclear what a possible compromise solution might look like.

Regardless, lifting such sanctions will be tricky. The sanctions regime in place has been built up over the course of several decades and has been crafted by multiple international bodies and national legislatures. Unravelling such measures overnight will be difficult. Permanently lifting U.S. sanctions may very well be impossible in the near term, as there is deep hostility to such a move in the U.S. Congress, which retains power to permanently eliminate such measures. (President Barack Obama reportedly believes he can suspend them, however.)

Moreover, U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program require the country to disclose its past work on nuclear weapons. Coming clean about such efforts may be required in order to lift U.N. sanctions, but Iran is of course loathe to do so. While U.S. spies believe that Iran abandoned its ambitions for a nuclear weapon in 2003, there are a host of unanswered questions about its efforts to acquire such a weapon during the previous two decades.

Revealing that information, however, would undermine a key Iranian talking point during the current round of negotiations: that Iran’s nuclear program is and always has been intended for peaceful purposes.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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