Iran’s Highly Enriched Bargaining Chip

Why the United States can't budge on allowing Iran to build more centrifuges.

JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images
JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images

As talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program enter the home stretch, Tehran has placed a major obstacle in the way of a diplomatic solution: insistence on an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program. On July 15 in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged that significant gaps remained between the parties. It now seems almost certain that negotiations will have to be extended for several weeks or months beyond the original July 20 deadline to conclude a comprehensive agreement. But putting extra time on the clock won’t make much difference unless Iran is willing to make real concessions on the enrichment issue.

On July 7, in a major speech in Tehran, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate "decider" on the nuclear issue, declared that Iran has an "absolute need" of 190,000 "separative work units" (SWUs) for its nuclear program. This highly technical term represents a measure of the productive capacity of Iranian centrifuges, the cylindrical machines used to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear reactors — or, potentially, nuclear bombs. Iran currently operates around 10,000 first-generation "IR-1" centrifuges, has installed another 8,000 IR-1s, and has installed but is not yet operating 1,000 more advanced "IR-2m" models. When the efficiency of these machines is calculated, Khamenei’s stated goal for Iran’s program would represent a ten- to twentyfold increase in Iran’s current enrichment capacity.

A program that large could theoretically provide an indigenous supply of fuel for nuclear power plants, Tehran’s stated intention. But it could also allow Iran to rapidly "break out," racing to produce bomb-grade uranium so quickly that the international community couldn’t stop it. 

For the United States and the five other world powers (Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany) known collectively as the P5+1, Iran’s apparent bottom line is a showstopper. Until Iran restores international confidence in its nuclear intentions, the P5+1 justifiably sees an industrial-sized enrichment capacity as incompatible with the goal of ongoing talks to ensure Iran’s program remains solely for peaceful purposes. For that reason, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration and its negotiating partners are demanding at least a two-thirds reduction in Iran’s current enrichment capacity. Even Russia and China, the P5+1 members traditionally most sympathetic to Iran, have told Iranian negotiators that their position on enrichment capacity is untenable.

Given the Grand Canyon-sized chasm between these competing demands, it’s no wonder that nuclear diplomacy is teetering on the brink of failure. Despite days of intense negotiations in Vienna, Kerry and Zarif were unable to bridge this divide. Unless a workable compromise on enrichment can be found soon, the talks will likely fall into the abyss and the prospect of reaching a peaceful solution to the decades-old nuclear crisis will fade. 

There are only three possible explanations for Iran’s expansive enrichment demands. They range from unconvincing to deeply troubling.

The first possible explanation is that Iran truly believes that it needs such a large productive capacity for its civilian nuclear program. Under the interim nuclear accord struck between Iran and the P5+1 last November, the parties acknowledged that any final agreement would "involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with [Iran’s] practical needs." Iran needs enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes, and potentially its Arak research reactor. But Iran already has sufficient enriched uranium for the TRR, and the P5+1’s proposal to allow Iran to operate a few thousand IR-1 centrifuges, or their equivalent in more advanced machines, is pegged to meet the needs for the Arak reactor if it is modified to run on low-enriched fuel. 

But Iran does not define its practical needs solely in terms of research reactors. Echoing Khamenei’s remarks, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, recently asserted that Iran needs 190,000 SWUs of uranium enrichment capacity "to produce the required annual fuel for the Bushehr plant," the country’s lone nuclear power plant. And if Iran commissions additional nuclear power plants, as intended in the decades ahead, Salehi said, "we will need more SWU [capacity]."

These rationalizations for industrial-scale enrichment are difficult to sustain. In the case of the Russian-built Bushehr plant, Moscow is committed to providing fuel for the reactor through 2021 — and is willing to renew the supply contract for life. Iran claims, however, that a history of repeated supply disruptions — dating back to its experience with the multinational Eurodif enrichment consortium in the 1970s — means it cannot rely on foreigners. But Russia has consistently delivered fuel for Bushehr, and outside experts have pointed out that keeping a rolling stock of several years’ worth of foreign-supplied fuel inside Iran, under strict safeguards, could easily address concerns about future disruption. Moreover, even if Iran wanted to produce the necessary fuel assemblies for Bushehr, it lacks both the intellectual property and the technical expertise to do so.

Iran’s case is somewhat stronger for future power plants. But this requirement remains purely hypothetical and, in any event, will not materialize for at least a decade — that is, most likely after the expiration of a time-limited final nuclear deal. If, at that point, Iran cannot secure cheap, reliable fuel from abroad, it will be able to expand its domestic fuel-production capacity. But future contingencies are not a convincing justification for doing so now. 

A second possible explanation for Iran’s enrichment stance is national pride. The country’s nuclear program has cost at least $100 billion in lost oil revenue and foreign investment, and the regime has invested a tremendous amount of domestic legitimacy in defending it in the face of international pressure. The nuclear program has become a potent symbol of Iran’s technological prowess — an underappreciated motivation in a country that sees itself as one of the world’s great scientific nations — and the regime’s revolutionary "resistance" to the West. 

Indeed, it was the pragmatic recognition that a diplomatic deal was impossible unless Iran was given a face-saving way out that rightly led the Obama administration to acquiesce to a limited Iranian enrichment program last year — a significant and politically risky concession to a long-standing Iranian demand. Now the onus is on Iran to make the next move. In an interview with the New York Times on July 14, Zarif suggested that Iran may be willing to forgo further expansion of its program for a few years, perhaps suggesting some emerging flexibility. But simply freezing Iran’s enrichment capacity in place is not sufficient to allay international concerns — the program will have to be meaningfully rolled back.

Doing so may require the Iranian regime to swallow a bit of its pride. If Tehran is open to compromise, however, there remain creative ways to frame necessary concessions as consistent with Iran’s stated interests and asserted nuclear rights. 

One is the use of time. Khamenei’s declaration last week on the "absolute need" of 190,000 SWUs for Iran’s program included an important caveat: "Perhaps this is not a need this year or in two years or five years." It is conceivable, therefore, that Iran could agree to scale back its program — limiting both the number of IR-1 centrifuges and its stockpile of low-enriched uranium — to meet its very modest near-term needs for research reactors. Then, it could grow the program again after a lengthy period of confidence-building (probably a decade or so), when fuel requirements for new nuclear plants actually materialize. A final nuclear agreement could specify these arrangements based on a fixed period of time or on a set of clear conditions related to the availability of foreign supplies of fuel — or some combination of both. Either way, nothing in the agreement’s terms would invalidate Iran’s stated requirement to eventually be self-sufficient in the nuclear realm.

Another possible face-saving solution would showcase Iran’s technological advances — playing into the regime’s narrative that its nuclear advances are proof of the country’s scientific prowess. Iran could "voluntarily choose to retire" all of its "inefficient and obsolete" IR-1 machines, replacing them in the short term with a much smaller number of more efficient second-generation IR-2M centrifuges. A final nuclear deal could also allow Iran to continue pursuing research and development on more-advanced centrifuges, under strict safeguards and with the obligation not to install or operate them for the period of the agreement. Assuming that the number of installed and operating IR-2Ms was relatively small, and research and development was appropriately regulated, this could potentially lower Iran’s current enrichment capacity for the period of the agreement — addressing the P5+1’s concerns — while still allowing the regime to claim that it won international recognition of the nation’s scientific achievements. Then, after the expiration of the agreement, Iran could deploy its new technology to meet emergent domestic needs. 

So if Iran’s goals are indeed to pursue an exclusively peaceful civilian nuclear program, there are ways out of the current impasse. But, of course, there is a third explanation for Tehran’s insistence on a large-scale enrichment program: It wants a civilian cover story for the pursuit of nuclear weapons, or at least the capability to rapidly produce them.

Iran’s leaders assert they desire no such thing. In 2005, Khamenei issued a binding fatwa — or religious edict — against the development, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. And just this past weekend on NBC’s Meet the Press, Zarif said, "I will commit to everything and anything that would provide credible assurances for the international community that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, because we are not. We don’t see any benefit in Iran developing a nuclear weapon."

But, after years of repeated violations of its safeguards obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran’s demand for industrial-scale enrichment makes it hard to take these pledges at face value. With tens of thousands of operating centrifuges, Iran could reduce its theoretical breakout time to produce weapons-grade uranium from a few months, where it currently stands, to a few weeks — so fast that it might be impossible to detect or prevent. Iran largely dismisses breakout concerns, and a number of outside analysts have recently challenged the utility of the concept. But even critics of using breakout capacity as a measure of a "good deal" tend to concede that leaving Iran only a few weeks away from bomb-grade material is a risky proposition.

Equally troubling is that the same infrastructure that could enable a rapid dash to weapons-grade uranium at known enrichment sites could also facilitate a nuclear "sneak-out" at secret ones. A limited enrichment program can be effectively monitored. But the larger Iran’s accepted enrichment infrastructure, the easier it would be for Iran to divert small amounts of enriched material or sensitive technology to covert sites. Transparency and rigorous international inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities — which Iran appears more willing to accept — can mitigate, but not eliminate, this risk if Iran is allowed to maintain tens of thousands of centrifuges.

In short, unless Iran agrees to rein in its enrichment program, it will be impossible for the country to reassure the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. And that means it will be impossible to get a deal that resolves the nuclear crisis. Even if talks are extended beyond the looming July 20 deadline, the moment for thin rationalizations and excessive revolutionary pride has passed. If Iran’s leaders mean what they say about their nuclear intentions, now is the time to prove it. 

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Twitter: @ColinKahl

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola