In the wee hours of Sunday morning — after 3 a.m. Geneva time — an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was struck between the Islamic Republic and the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany, Iran’s most important trading partner). Iran is getting billions of dollars in sanctions relief (which President Obama will effect by executive order) in exchange for chemically degrading its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium through oxidization — without giving up any of its 3.5% enriched uranium. Uranium enrichment is not a linear process: 3.5% enrichment is about 60% of the way to 90% enrichment — that is, to weapons-grade uranium — and 20% enrichment is about 90% of the way to 90% enrichment.
Up until now, Iran had enough 20% enriched uranium to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for bomb in a month or less (former IAEA Deputy Director Olli Heinonen told me and other reporters on a conference call last month that “if certain arrangements are done, it can even go down to two weeks”). But because Iran has built such a large number of centrifuges and built up such a large stock of low-enriched uranium, it can replenish its supply of 20% uranium within a month. Optimistically, then, this extends Iran’s potential break-out time to build a weaponizable uranium stockpile from a month to two months.
That wouldn’t be so bad if the Iranians weren’t allowed to continue to enrich more uranium. But it’s not clear that the deal will do that. Per the New York Times:
According to the accord, Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent. To make good on that pledge, Iran would dismantle the links between networks of centrifuges…
The agreement, however, would not require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a level of 3.5 percent or dismantle any of its existing centrifuges.
Iran’s stockpile of such low-enriched uranium would be allowed to temporarily increase to about eight tons from seven tons currently. But Tehran would be required to shrink this stockpile by the end of the six-month agreement back to seven tons. This would be done by installing equipment to covert some of that stockpile to oxide.
To guard against cheating, international monitors would be allowed to visit the Natanz enrichment facility and the underground nuclear enrichment plant at Fordo on a daily basis to check the film from cameras installed there.
As in all arms-control agreements, the effectiveness of the verification regime is a key question; Reagan’s “trust, but verify” mantra remains as relevant as ever. And the bizarre provision allowing Iran to enrich another ton of uranium only to (theoretically) dilute it again does not inspire confidence that Iran’s uranium stockpile won’t be larger at the end of this six-month deal.
The deal also strikes a dubious compromise on the heavy-water reactor under construction in Arak. Two weeks ago the French balked when the Iranians insisted on continued construction there, as well they should have: There is no reason for Iran to demand the reactor at Arak other than to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon. Peaceful purposes like generating electricity or producing medical isotopes are better served by other reactors. But plutonium — a fissionable byproduct of nuclear reactors run on low-enriched uranium — can’t be easily pulled out of light-water reactors like the one at Bushehr; that would be an expensive and inefficient process that would be impossible to hide (the top of the reactor would have to be opened, in full view of satellites). Pulling plutonium from a heavy-water reactor, on the other hand, can be done covertly. Building a bomb with the plutonium method while non-proliferation efforts focus on uranium enrichment is exactly how North Korea went nuclear.
Under the interim agreement, activity at the Arak reactor would be delayed, but would not be permanently halted.
The upshot of all this is that Iran is getting billions of dollars for agreeing to negotiate more. If negotiations don’t yield a better deal, the Iranian nuclear program will not have been set back significantly.
What brought diplomacy with Iran this far is punishing sanctions, almost all of which have originated on Capitol Hill. The White House has more than once been opposed to or lukewarm on sanctions bills and then retroactively endorsed them when they passed the Senate unanimously. The Obama administration’s instincts with Iran, in other words, have always been to play the good cop — and a good cop can’t accomplish much without a bad cop.
Congress should continue to play bad cop, and when the Senate returns from recess, it should go ahead and pass the next round of sanctions that have already passed the House. More economic pressure, not less, is what will corner Iran into a meaningful permanent deal, the only way to prevent the dangerous emergence of a nuclear-armed theocracy without resorting to war.