And the hits just keep on coming. You think you’ve heard the worst you’re going to about the non-deal framework “agreement” (has any national leadership in history ever required so many scare quotes?), and then something else pops up.
Before listing the four basic reasons why the framework whatchamacallit is so bad, I regret that the latest concern must indeed be brought to your attention.
It comes from the Institute for Science and International Security, which once had dibs, in the world of geopolitical wonkery, on the acronym “ISIS.” Many readers will know that the Institute has long been a go-to resource for public analysis of nuclear proliferation issues, including the problem of Iran.
On 11 April, the Institute published a report on the framework “agreement.” To avoid the inconvenience of incessant scare quotes, I will refer to the “agreement” in the balance of this post as Petunia. (It’s not an agreement – see below – any more than it is a deal, and calling it an agreement only serves to condition our minds to a non-factual implication about it. Hence: Petunia.)
The Institute raises an important concern about Petunia. There is a substantial amount of uranium stock in Iran’s possession, which Petunia has no apparent plan for. That uranium stock comprises the remains of Iran’s previous stock of 20%-enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6), “downblended” to satisfy the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, or JPOA.
How does this stock affect the breakout calculations on which the Obama administration is basing its promise that Iran will remain 12 months out from a bomb for the next 10-15 years?
Petunia doesn’t say – and that’s the concern. Under Petunia, Iran is allowed to stockpile 300 kg of 3.5%–enriched UF6 (i.e., LEU). But the remains of the former 20%-enriched UF6 could, in the worst case, represent as much as five times that amount of 3.5% LEU. It’s recoverable material (see Wonk Footnote), and Petunia fails to address it.*
Unfortunately, this is just one of many concerns about Petunia. I’ve grouped them here under four basic headings.
1. There is no framework “agreement.” There is no agreed framework for negotiations going forward. There are only contradictory negotiating positions. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has outlined this in a nice graphic, which he posted online this week.
The Iranians have disputed every policy statement and characterization made so far by the Obama administration, including essential points like when and how sanctions will be lifted; whether Iran will bring new-generation centrifuges online during the terms of a “deal”; and on what basis Iran will allow inspections.
2. No “deal” negotiated on this basis is verifiable. The verification problem is compound. There is first the issue that the Iranians have not been trustworthy in the past. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, in fact gloated about deceiving the EU-3 during negotiations in the 2005 timeframe, ramping up enrichment operations dramatically at a time when Iran was purportedly committed to suspending them at a limited, experimental level.
Iran denied IAEA access to her nuclear facilities throughout that period, and there are no guarantees that that won’t happen again.
Iran has also violated the terms of the 2013 JPOA, in matters like the use of new centrifuges and continuing work on the plutonium reactor at Arak. This record of unreliability is compounded by the current problem that the Iranians won’t agree that they’ve agreed on any terms laid out by the Obama administration. A deal that a serial violator won’t even acknowledge agreeing to is not something to put faith in.
But there’s more. One of our biggest problems with Iran is that we don’t know what we don’t know. After years of silence, there have been a surprising number of recent affirmations from U.S. intelligence officials that Iran is creating extensive infrastructure underground, and we know very little about it. In November 2013, when the JPOA “deal” was concluded, the New York Times reported this:
[A] former senior Obama administration official said recently, speaking anonymously to discuss intelligence, “there has never been a time in the past 15 years or so when Iran didn’t have a hidden facility in construction.”
A year later, former CIA director Michael Hayden testified before Congress on the problem of hidden facilities (emphasis added):
There isn’t a neutron or an electron in Natanz [the main enrichment facility] that’s ever going to show up in a nuclear weapon. What they’re building in Natanz is confidence. What they’re building in Natanz is technology, the ability to do this. They’re going to build the fissile material for a weapon, the HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) at a site about which we have no knowledge. …
Our lack of knowledge, our lack of an ability to go to locations where they may be doing these things gives me very little confidence…
The issue of verification is nowhere near being reliably resolved.
3. There’s no “linkage” with Iran’s overall pattern of bad behavior. Petunia has been negotiated in isolation, as if the problems of Iran’s terrorism sponsorship, arms proliferation, and fomentation of proxy wars are unrelated to the problem of her nuclearization.
One reason this matters is that U.S. and UN sanctions on Iran are not predicated solely on her uncooperative nuclear proliferation posture. There’s a network of sanctions, and some of them relate to Iran’s arms proliferation and sponsorship of terrorism. The public discussion of Petunia gives this point a big, dismissive hand-wave. A real possibility exists that all the sanctions on Iran could effectively be rolled back based solely on the appearance, however fleeting, of a “deal” for nuclear cooperation.
But the threat Iran represents is so urgent because all these factors are interrelated. Ignoring that reality is a fatally flawed basis for negotiation, in part because it ignores the fact that a pre-nuclear Iran is already one of the most destabilizing factors in the Middle East, and in part because it ignores ways to gain leverage with Iran.
An exclusive focus on the nuclear issue is bad security policy. Iran is a threat to her neighbors in multiple ways; she should have to modify her behavior in all of them, and our policy should be a total package designed to oppose and thwart the intentions she clearly displays.
As we learned with the Soviet Union, arms agreements are neither meaningful nor enforceable in isolation. Making them both – meaningful and enforceable – requires convincing the other side that it will have to modify its national strategic aspirations, and not just its local activities on a few days when inspectors are scheduled to be present.
4. Petunia is deeply flawed. Whatever we call it, its terms are so flawed that no one who wants to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran should ever agree to it. The Institute’s concern about the former 20% uranium stock is just the latest of Petunia’s defective aspects.
It doesn’t address the “military” dimensions of weaponization, for example. Not only does it not require a resolution of the UN’s outstanding questions about “possible military dimensions” in Iran’s previous work; Petunia doesn’t make Iran open her military research facilities, or account for her current work with ballistic missiles.
Even if it is observed to the letter, Petunia allows Iran to continue enrichment and be ready to proceed to a breakout at any time. Benjamin Netanyahu has highlighted this with his rhetorical point that Petunia doesn’t prevent Iran from getting a bomb – it paves Iran’s path to a bomb.
Talking about 10- or 15-year deals is deceiving in this regard, because Petunia envisions no attempt to change the breakout timeline at any point during either of those periods. It’s the same (theoretical) 12 months throughout. The strangeness of a “deal” intended to freeze Iran at 12 months from a bomb for 10 or 15 years gets little attention, but in the annals of non-proliferation negotiation, it’s really quite peculiar.**
Perhaps the most damning flaw of all is one that has gotten less attention than other issues, but is staring us in the face. The terms of Petunia allow Iran to keep 6,500 centrifuges in operation, enriching uranium to 3.5%. The only thing this is sufficient for is amassing material for nuclear weapons. The centrifuge count is far too low for supplying fuel to energy-producing reactors. There’s no application, other than stockpiling material for warheads, for which 6,500 centrifuges is a meaningful capability to leave in place.
This, if nothing else, should give us pause. But there’s plenty else to do that. Petunia is bad, from every angle. It’s not only bad; it may indeed be the worst possible “framework” for negotiating a deal.
Congress should do everything it can to prevent its implementation and demand (a) an actual deal, and (b) a better one.
* The remains Iran has on-hand, which are now stored in various forms, would represent about 337 kg of 20% UF6, if converted back to hexafluoride form. About 162 kg of that is stored in oxide form and is readily convertible. Of the 162, 42 kg is being used in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and another 72 kg is slated to feed it as fuel. Putting it to this use involves blending it with aluminum, and making recovery less than straightforward.
But recovering the balance of the oxide – about 50 kg – is straightforward, in the Institute’s estimation. Using the enrichment rule of thumb, 50 kg of 20% UF6 is the approximate equivalent of 500 kg of 3.5% UF6. Adding that amount would more than double the 300 kg Iran is allowed to stockpile, bringing the total to 800 kg of 3.5% LEU.
U.S. briefings on Petunia, moreover, take the 114 kg for the research reactor out of consideration entirely. But Saddam’s Iraq, by 1990, had developed just the kind of process needed to recover usable UF6 from nuclear reactor fuel. The Iranians in 2015 are far advanced over Saddam’s progress a quarter century ago; the Institute is concerned that fresh fuel for the TRR could actually be recovered pretty quickly:
If Iran were to break out, it would undoubtedly secretly install and test the recovery equipment prior to breakout. … Iran could be recovering near 20 percent LEU from fresh TRR fuel soon after starting its breakout and recover tens of kilograms within several months. This converted LEU could be converted quickly into hexafluoride form in facilities also prepared in secret prior to breakout.
If we assumed that all 72 kg of the feed fuel were fresh and available for such quick conversion, it would nearly double again the potential 3.5% LEU stockpile, to more than 1,500 kg. The Institute calculates only for the readily-convertible 50 kg, which would be faster to recover. But the potential exists for Iran to have far more LEU on hand, within a few months, than the “300 kg” the public is hearing about.
Petunia addresses none of this in its breakout assumptions.
** And yes, in this regard, it’s worth pointing out once more the flap that arose after Obama’s NPR interview a week ago, in which he himself argued that by year 13 of a 15-year agreement, Iran’s breakout time could be “down to zero.” Marie Harf had the unenviable job of trying to walk that one back in the following days. A bad Petunia is a bad Petunia, bottom line.