The Great Iranian Low-Enriched Uranium Stockpile Panic of June 2015

People. People! Calm the hell down and stop worrying about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.


I was recently in New York, rattling the tin cup for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. A big aspect of my talk was highlighting our open-source work, especially with regard to how it might help verify a deal. You may remember a certain alleged centrifuge facility that seems to make identification cards.

One of the people at the talk had a very good question. And by very good, I mean it left me dumbfounded on how to answer. “I don’t trust the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times to tell me what is going on with the Iran negotiations,” he said. “What’s a reliable news source?”

Uh, well, um. Yeah. So, about that.

I had nothing for him. There is something broken about how reporters and pundits are covering these negotiations, something that wastes a lot of our time speculating about things that are knowable and reduces our conversation to little more than cheerleading for or against a deal. I am not quite sure it is the fault of either the reporters or the pundits, but collectively we’re not helping. And I include myself in this category.

I was reminded of that desultory conversation on Tuesday morning as I perused a very odd story by David Sanger and Bill Broad in the New York Times. There is nothing wrong with the article, exactly, but there are a number of interpretations in it that struck me as odd — and that speak to what I mean about how our public discourse is unhelpful. (It also triggered a minor Twitter war between David Sanger and State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.)

A few days ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released one of its quarterly reports on the implementation of safeguards in Iran, which my friends at the Institute for Science and International Security placed online. The report contains lots of information about Iran’s nuclear programs under safeguards, including the size of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Since the last report, in February, the amount of low-enriched uranium has increased about 10 percent, to 8714.7 kilograms.

Despite Sanger and Broad’s analysis that “Western officials and experts cannot quite figure out why” this increase has happened, it’s actually very easy to see why. Iran’s program was limited for the duration of negotiations (“frozen,” if you must) to a certain number of centrifuges that are allowed to continue producing LEU. Those centrifuges produced about 800 kg of LEU since the last report. One can create a more detailed accounting of the uranium flows, but to a first approximation what happened was simply that Iran’s centrifuges that are allowed to enrich uranium enriched some uranium. (Iran has been slow to convert some of the LEU, which is in the form of a gas, to oxide.) I can happily recommend recent pieces by Richard Nephew, as well as David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, if you want a more detailed explanation than I care to inflict on my readers and editors. [Ed.: Phew. Thanks, Jeff.]

Broad and Sanger hang a little news analysis on this “hook” offered by the somewhat larger stockpile, discussing Iran’s apparent commitment, under the terms of any final deal, to reduce its stockpile of LEU to no more than 300 kg. The Obama administration’s position is that there will be no sanctions relief until Iran reduces its LEU stockpile below 300 kg, among other steps.

The Sturm und Drang in the New York Times story is odd because the extra 800 kg or so of additional LEU just isn’t going to matter come June 30. How the Iranians reduce the stockpile is up to them — they can ship the material out of the country, downblend it, or even sell it on the open market. The Iranians have recently made noises about not shipping the material abroad, but they will ultimately have to choose a method that balances pride with their desire for speedy implementation of sanctions relief. An extra 800 kg of LEU doesn’t really change that calculus, at least not so far as I can tell. (My colleague, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress wants to try isotopic denaturing of all Iran’s uranium but … oh, I lost you at isotopic denaturing, didn’t I?)

So, 800 kg doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That’s what I mean by calling the story odd. In 10 years, no one will remember how many hundred kilograms of LEU the Iranians had when the deal was struck — only how much they accepted as a cap and whether they actually got down to that number.

But this does speak to a recurring problem in our discourse about these negotiations. People are naturally interested in the progress of negotiations. When an IAEA report comes out, people ask, “What does it all mean?” It’s an obvious question, even if the answer that it doesn’t really mean anything, at least not at the moment.

The Great Iranian LEU Stockpile Panic of June 2015 replicates several other tempests that have excited pundits in recent months. Perhaps you remember when we were all worried about the topic of inspections? A few Iranian officials made statements suggesting that the issue of access to military bases would be a tough nut to crack. My favorite line came from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hossein Salami: “‘Iran will not become a paradise for spies. We will not roll out the red carpet for the enemy.’’

What the hell does that even mean? Some Iranian officials were more specific, ruling out “inspections” of military sites, which pointed to an obvious solution. Yes, the IAEA conducts inspections. But the Additional Protocol, which Iran had indicated that it would accept, refers to “complementary access” and “managed access” — terms that were chosen precisely to distinguish that access from inspections, including the dreaded and implicitly adversarial “special inspection.”

Not surprisingly, the Iranians have now announced that “managed access” to military sites is fine. One lesson is obvious: Do not render vague political rhetoric into concrete demands before negotiators do. “We will not roll out the red carpet for the enemy” is bluster, not a careful description of Iran’s view on the modalities of “managed access” in an Additional Protocol context. But maybe it also suggests, more broadly, that we should just let the negotiators do their jobs.

The Iranians, by the way, are every bit as bad as we are when it comes to speculation and tendentious description. Just this week, the supreme leader’s national security advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, claimed that the United States had changed its position in negotiations, insisting on only 300 centrifuges at Fordow instead of 1,000. This is nonsense. What the parties agreed to in Lausanne was to allow six cascades totaling 1,044 centrifuges at Fordow — that is stated clearly in the fact sheet — but that Iran would operate only two cascades, or 348 machines. (That’s not stated so clearly, but that was the deal.) But whether it is 348 or 1,044 centrifuges, it doesn’t really matter. None of these machines would be permitted to enrich uranium. Instead, they would be modified to separate “stable” isotopes — stable here meaning “not radioactive.” I actually doubt Iran needs more than two cascades stockpiling molybdenum-99 in the short-term, but this will only be a deal breaker if the parties are looking for a reason to walk away.

I don’t know if Velayati is mistaken or just making trouble. Maybe he’s laying the groundwork to object to a deal, or maybe he is just trying to re-litigate a settled question. But you know what would be a great way to figure it out? Let the negotiators do their thing. Maybe Iran really wants to use the full 1,044 centrifuges at Fordow. Let them make an offer.

Which brings me back to the big question asked in New York: Who to follow? I think, for the vast majority of readers, that is the wrong question. Unless you work on this issue for your day job, you can safely stop following the negotiations — at least for now. All the palaver about the negotiations will be immediately worthless on or about June 30, when the parties are supposed to have reached a deal.

Catch up on Game of Thrones or work on your art car for Burning Man. Wendy Sherman will still be here when you get back. And if you really just need a fix, check up on John Kerry’s broken leg or speculate about Javad Zarif’s allegedly achy-breaky back.

As for those of us who are professionally obligated to follow the twists and turns, we need to stop injecting garbage into the discussion. You know who you are. Political coverage is already dominated by nonsense like Hillary Clinton’s burrito preferences. We don’t have to declare a referendum on the fate of negotiations every time the supreme leader takes a dump.

Once the deal materializes or collapses amid recriminations — circle June 30 on your calendar — we can all get together again. Plenty of us will go through the provisions with a fine-tooth comb. I’ll certainly write a column or two. And I am sure the comments section will contain the usual trenchant commentary on both my arguments and my parentage. But we’ll at least be in a position to examine all the compromises, fudges, and shortcomings that make up any deal, with the small benefit of context that helps make sense of it all.

Illustration by FP

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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