No one wants war with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. But the euphoria over the EU3+3 interim agreement with Iran, as well as many of the political attacks on the agreement, obscure core technical issues that should be fundamental to any assessment of what has really been achieved. There is no denying that much has been gained by way of Iran’s agreeing temporarily to cease uranium enrichment beyond the 5% level necessary for energy production and its agreeing to on-site inspections at its Fordow and Natanz facilities. But important questions remain about what is not included in the interim agreement. Here are four issues that should be more prominent in the debate:
1. The Interim Agreement Mandates No Reduction in Iran’s Capability for Uranium Enrichment. Iran agrees to cease uranium enrichment beyond the 5% level necessary for energy production and not to expand or enhance its uranium enrichment capabilities, for the duration of the interim agreement. Moreover, Iran agrees to dilute half of its 20%-enriched uranium hexaflouride (UF6) to a 5% level and to convert the remaining half to uranium oxide (UO2) for use in making fuel for its Terhran research reactor. But Iran has not agreed to any permanent reduction of its capability for uranium enrichment, a capability that significantly exceeds what is necessary for energy production. It is hoped that a yet-to-be-negotiated, long-term agreement will include a reduction in that capability. But the interim agreement requires no such reduction. At any moment, Iran could resume enrichment to bomb-grade levels. Moreover, the UF6 that is to be converted to UO2 can be reconverted to UF6 and then further enriched.
2. The Interim Agreement Requires No Inspections at the Arak (IR-40) Heavy Water Reactor. As explained in a helpful recent article by Jeremy Bernstein, the Arak reactor is central to any evaluation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is not designed as a reactor for power generation. Though Iran says that the reactor will be used to produce medical isotopes, its most plausible purpose is to be a breeder reactor for the production of plutonium, which is the other standard fuel for atomic weapons that rely upon the process of nuclear fission (as with the North Korean bomb). It was Iran’s refusal to allow on-site inspections at the Arak reactor that stalled the talks a couple of weeks ago when France demanded more access to Arak. The new interim agreement does require Iran to provide to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) an updated “Design Information Questionnaire” regarding the Arak reactor, it stipulates that there will be no “further advances of [Iran’s] activities at Arak, it obligates Iran to take “steps to agree with the IAEA on conclusion of the Safeguards Approach for the reactor at Arak” (whatever that means), and Iran agrees to do no reprocessing of spent fuel (the main purpose of which would be to extract plutonium) and not to construct reprocessing facilities. But the interim agreement does not obligate Iran to allow on-site inspections at Arak. Inspections are stipulated for the Fordow and Natanz uranium enrichment facilities, but not at Arak. Iran’s intransigence on this point should give us pause as we try to determine the real purpose of that reactor. If plutonium production is the goal, then our obsession with Iran’s uranium enrichment capability could be distracting us from a more serious threat. A quick route to an Iranian atomic bomb could well be via plutonium produced at Arak. And, at present, Iran has agreed to no degradation of this potential plutonium production capability.
3. The Interim Agreement Does Not Address the Question of Weapons Delivery Systems. Iran is a technically sophisticated nation that has made impressive advances in missile technology in recent years. Much of this missile technology was borrowed from earlier Russian and Korean models. But the new, solid-fuel, Sejil-2 rocket, which was first tested five years ago, is an original Iranian design. It has an impressive, 2,000-km range with a 750 kg payload capacity and anti-radar coatings. The Sejil-2 could put a nuclear warhead on a target as far away as Cairo, Athens, or Kiev. Moreover, Iran has been making gains in its guidance technology.
That we should be paying attention to Iranian weapons delivery capabilities was made clear when, two days after the announcement of the interim agreement, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the Lieutenant Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps IRGC), announced that Iran’s indigenous ballistic missile capability had recently achieved a “near zero” margin of error in targeting accuracy.
That it was General Salami who made the announcement about advances in Iranian ballistic missile technology reminds us of a political, not technical, issue that has also received insufficient attention in the public debate about the interim agreement. The question is, “Who is really in control?” The interim agreement was negotiated by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on behalf of the government of President Hassan Rouhani. But the Revolutionary Guard functions as almost a shadow government, with considerable independent authority. And much of the most impressive Iranian ballistic missile research and development has been conducted in facilities under IRGC control, such as the IRGC missile base at Bid Kaneh, where a mysterious explosion during a missile test in November 2011 killed General Hassan Tehrani Moqaddam, who was the head of the IRGC’s “Arms and Military Equipment Self-Sufficiency Program.”
4. The Interim Agreement Does Not Address Aspects of Nuclear Weapons Technology Aside from the Production of Fissile Materials. Nothing in the interim agreement restricts Iran’s ability to continue developing other technologies essential to nuclear weapons production, such as timing circuitry, detonators, and refined conventional explosives techniques involved in the assembly of a critical mass of fissile material. It is perhaps not well and widely enough understood that some of the bigger technical challenges for a nation seeking nuclear weapons lie not in the production of fissile material but in areas such as these. Consider the basic design of a plutonium bomb of the kind dropped on Nagasaki. A critical mass of plutonium is achieved by compressing the plutonium with a spherical blast wave from spherical shell of conventional explosives. The precise shaping of those conventional explosive charges and their precise, simultaneous detonation are among the most difficult technical challenges in bomb design and manufacture. By contrast, while enriching uranium and breeding plutonium require a major technical infrastructure, the physical, chemical, and engineering processes involved are widely understood and, in principle, not all that difficult to achieve. But the interim agreement places no obstacles in the way of research and development on these other aspects of nuclear weapons design. Iran is free to pursue such research as vigorously as it will and to produce a fully functional nuclear weapon awaiting only the insertion of the fissile material.
An assessment of what has been achieved with the interim agreement depends crucially upon a prior assessment of Iran’s goals with respect to nuclear weapons capability. If Iran’s aim had been to produce nuclear weapons as soon as possible, then the interim agreement at least slows down progress toward that goal. But another view is that Iran’s aim all along has been to develop the basic technical infrastructure for the rapid production of bomb-grade fissile material for use if and when it chooses. If that is Iran’s aim, then the interim agreement achieves much less by way of delaying progress to the goal.
We have to wait and see how the interim agreement works. But the celebration of seeming progress on the diplomatic front must be tempered by a clear understanding of the technical issues that are not addressed in the interim agreement, issues that must be the focus of any, longer term, follow-on agreement. Should there be no progress on enrichment capabilities, the Arak reactor, delivery systems, and the fundamentals of bomb design, then options other than diplomacy might have to be explored, starting with the re-imposition of sanctions.