Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nuclear Negotiations

The World Forced to Invest in Iran’s Nuclear Breakout Capacity

The following is a dispatch from Omri Ceren of The Israel Project regarding the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran: Read More

The following is a dispatch from Omri Ceren of The Israel Project regarding the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran:

The Associated Press got ahold of one of the five secret annexes being worked on ahead of a final deal between the P5+1 global powers and Iran. This one – titled “Civil Nuclear Cooperation” – details a range of nuclear technology that various members of the P5+1 will be obligated to provide Iran, including “high-tech reactors and other state-of-the-art equipment.” The draft that the AP saw wasn’t finalized, and so some of the concessions are subject to change.

As the annex is written right now, however, this is no longer a deal to stop the Iranian nuclear program. It’s a deal to let the Iranians perfect their nuclear program with international assistance and under international protection.

The uranium concession: As well, it firms up earlier tentative agreement on what to do with the underground site of Fordo, saying it will be used for isotope production instead of uranium enrichment. Washington and its allies had long insisted that the facility be repurposed away from enrichment because Fordo is dug deep into a mountain and thought resistant to air strikes — an option neither the U.S. nor Israel has ruled out should talks fail. But because isotope production uses the same technology as enrichment and can be quickly re-engineered to enriching uranium, the compromise has been criticized by congressional opponents of the deal.

Some country in the P5+1 will be helping the Iranians develop next-generation centrifuges in a facility impenetrable to American and Israeli bombs. Conversely, any country that wants to sabotage that development will be unable to do so, because the program will be protected and maintained by a major power.

As the centrifuges are being developed they’ll be spinning non-nuclear elements, but once they’re perfected the Iranians will be able to use them to enrich uranium. The international community will literally be investing in helping Iran achieve a zero breakout.

A couple of obvious points: First, it means the P5+1 will be actively providing the Iranians with the tools to break out while a deal is in place. The Iranians will already have 300kg of 3.67% uranium on hand, and they’ll be able to scale up production as they need because the JCPOA lets them keep 5,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at Natanz and lets them keep another 10,000 centrifuges in storage available to be installed. They can bring low-enriched material to Fordow and quickly enrich it to weapons-grade levels in the next-generation centrifuges they’ll have developed with P5+1 assistance. Second – again – it means that the P5+1 will be actively ensuring that Iran will have the technology to go nuclear at will the instant the deal expires. The technology the Iranians learn to develop at Fordow will be applied on a mass scale.

The plutonium concession: To that end, the draft, entitled “Civil Nuclear Cooperation,” promises to supply Iran with light-water nuclear reactors instead of its nearly completed heavy-water facility at Arak, which would produce enough plutonium for several bombs a year if completed as planned… Outlining plans to modify that heavy-water reactor, the draft, dated June 19, offers to “establish an international partnership” to rebuild it into a less proliferation-prone facility while leaving Iran in “the leadership role as the project owner and manager.”

Lightwater reactors are significantly more proliferation-resistant than heavy-water reactors (in fact there’s no reason to build a heavy water reactor – of the type that the Iranians have been working on – unless you want to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon). But even LWRs are not proliferation proof, and a plutonium bomb isn’t the only concern.

Imagine that 15 years from now the Iranians have built a dozen LWRs with help from a P5+1 nation. One concern is indeed that they’ll kick out inspectors, keep the spent fuel, and start reprocessing on the way to creating a plutonium bomb. But a more subtle concern is that they will use the existence of the LWRs as a pretext for industrial-scale uranium enrichment – because they’ll say they need the uranium fuel for their plutonium plants – which can serve as a cover for breaking out with a uranium bomb. The P5+1 would be actively providing the Iranians with diplomatic leverage to use against the P5+1 in the future. The answer to this latter concern is that the JCPOA sunset clause already allows the Iranians to have an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program that can serve as a cover for breaking out with a uranium bomb. I’m not sure the administration wants to overemphasize that point.

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