An Iran nuclear deal is coming into focus, but there's one glaring problem

kerry zarif
kerry zarif

REUTERS/Rick Wilking US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva, January 14, 2015. The Iranian foreign minister might be habitually screaming at his American counterpart, but that they're scheduled to renew talks in Geneva this week raises the possibility that a final nuclear deal could be in the offing.

Time is running out, after all: Barring another extension, the Joint Plan of Action, signed in Geneva in November 2013, will expire July 1. The sides planned on reaching a "political agreement" by March 1.

And as the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney argued in a January 21 article, the talks have been a disappointment even for some supporters of the negotiating process, with Iran showing little flexibility on key issues.

The urgency of the negotiating round has reportedly led to the US softening its position on a crucial demand.


REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, February 1, 2015. This week, controversy erupted when the Israeli government allegedly leaked supposed details of the American negotiating stance, which included assertions the US would be willing to let Iran keep 6,500 uranium-enriched centrifuges under a final agreement.

A New York Times report on February 17 stated the US offered to let Iran keep 4,500 centrifuges in an offer made last fall, but that "there is now talk of raising that figure to 6,500 centrifuges."

This isn't that important, at least according to an anonymous American official quoted by The Times.

“They tell part of the story, like how many centrifuges we might consider letting the Iranians hold,” the official said in an apparent reference to the alleged Israeli leaks. "What they don’t tell you is that we only let them have that many centrifuges if they ship most of their fuel out of the country.”

The thinking on display here is that stockpile control is the key to a nuclear deal. US negotiators believe restrictions on enrichment and rigorously enforced enriched uranium stockpile limits — along with other caveats, like the aforementioned requirement that Iran ship its enriched uranium to Russia, where it will be converted to nonweaponizable fuel rods — will be able to prevent Tehran from accumulating enough highly enriched uranium to construct a nuclear weapon undetected.


REUTERS/Caren Firouz An official from Iran's Atomic Energy Organization speaks on his mobile phone in front of uranium enriching centrifuges at an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, April 20, 2009.

By this logic, the problem with Iran's nuclear program isn't its 19,000 centrifuges, secretive and heavily guarded nuclear facilities, weaponization and advance centrifuge research, Revolutionary Guards Corps involvement, ballistic-missile program, and plutonium reactor.

Instead, the problem is the much more narrow, and solvable, issue of preventing Iran from having enough plutonium or highly enriched uranium needed to construct a bomb within a certain time.

So the latest reports suggest Iran would be allowed to keep between 4,500 and 6,500 centrifuges. According to Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, a nuclear weapon requires 5,000 separative work units, or SWUs, of uranium enrichment. (SWU is a standard unit for measuring the effort needed to separate uranium isotopes.)

Each Iranian centrifuge produces 1 SWU a year, although the country has 1,000 more advanced machines capable of producing 5 SWU. So it would take Iran about six months to create a single nuclear weapon with 10,000 centrifuges if it had no previous stockpile of low or highly enriched uranium to bump up to weapons grade. At the moment, Iran has over 8 metric tons of low-enriched uranium, shortening its path to a bomb.

Interestingly, one of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei's stated "red lines" in negotiations is 190,000 SWU a year (No. 8 below).

iran  nuclear
iran nuclear


The reasoning for letting Iran have those 4,500-6,500 centrifuges in any deal is that they wouldn't be numerous or efficient enough to produce nuclear weapons faster than international monitors could detect them. Just keep enriched uranium stocks below a certain level, the thinking goes, and the Iranian nuclear crisis is solved as Tehran keeps it nuclear infrastructure while its economy is open to the rest of the world.

However, there's one glaring problem with this train of thought: Heinonen told Business Insider that "there's no technical reason" for Iran to possess 5,000 centrifuges.

That said, there are three primary reasons why Iran would keep enriching uranium after a nuclear deal: securing its enriched uranium stocks for civilian reactors, maintaining its mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, and remaining on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability (or actually obtaining it) so as to further project its power throughout the region.

Only the last of these requires nearly as many centrifuges as Iran is asking for and what US negotiators are reportedly willing to give.

ayatollah ali khamenei
ayatollah ali khamenei

Caren Firouz/Reuters Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Reason No. 1 for enrichment: Getting enriched uranium for a civilian reactor

If Iran were really building a nuclear program for purely civilian reasons, it could just purchase all of its enriched uranium from a foreign seller. The price per SWU has gradually increased in recent years, but not to the point where buying foreign enriched uranium is more expensive than say, building an expensive indigenous program that may result in diplomatic isolation and crippling international economic sanctions.

Most countries have figured that out by now. There just aren't that many places with their own domestic uranium enrichment infrastructure.

Russia is the global enrichment leader, producing 26 million SWU a year, according to the World Nuclear Association. Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and French chip in another 20 million or so combined, largely thanks to Urenco, the venerable European multi-national widely considered to be the civilian industry leader. Japan, Brazil, and Argentina all have small enrichment facilities. India enriches uranium for its nuclear submarine program, and North Korea has its own illicit program.

The United States has dozens of civilian nuclear reactors. But the US actually imports the vast majority of its enriched uranium and has no currently operating industrial scale enrichment facilities, Heinonen says.

>Here's the Department of Energy's breakdown on the origin of civilian use enriched uranium since 1994. Ever since the late 1990s, US power plants have acquire most of their enriched uranium from overseas:

Screen Shot 2015 02 19 at 12.18.20 PM
Screen Shot 2015 02 19 at 12.18.20 PM

US Energy Information Administration The US isn't the only country with an extensive nuclear infrastructure and no active enrichment program. South Korea has 23 nuclear power plants, but is prohibited from developing an indigenous enrichment capability under a bilateral agreement with the US.

Which brings things back to Iran. As Heinonen explained, Iran would need somewhere on the order of 200,000 centrifuges (i.e., near Khamenei's red line amount) to domestically supply enriched uranium for the Bushehr reactor. Otherwise, Russia could to continue to fill stocks.

Iran Nuclear Plant
Iran Nuclear Plant

Raheb Homavandi/REUTERS A security official stands in front of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010.

"Iran has this long-term contract from Russia so they don't need to do enrichment themselves," Heinonen, the Harvard fellow, told BI. "And if they did do it themselves they need many more centrifuges."

Significantly, there's no reason Iran absolutely needs to enrich its own uranium. The price of an SWU's worth of enrichment has gone up slightly over the past few years, but the estimated $27 million to fund Khameini's demand of 190,000 SWUs pales in comparison to the heavy economic cost of the sanctions Iran has had to endure as a result of its program.

iran SWU
iran SWU

US Energy Information Administration This chart shows the price for running one SWU. Operating 190,000 SWUs would cost about $27 million.

And uranium itself has actually decreased in price lately, even if the price per SWU is creeping incrementally upward.

Basically, global enrichment capacity far outstrips demand.

"There's an oversupply of enrichment services," Heinonen said. "At this point in time, it's almost double [the global] enrichment capacity compared to the needs."

At the end of the day, as the World Nuclear Association notes, Iran's major project developing uranium enrichment capability "is heavily censured by the UN, since no commercial purpose is evident."

Reason No. 2: Mastery of the fuel cycle

Heinonen sees one practical reason for Iran to keep its centrifuges: keeping up its mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle even under a greatly reduced program. "I think they want to be kind of a threshold state, where they can take a step either for peaceful or non-peaceful purposes," Heinonen says. "In order to maintain your skills you need to work with [the centrifuges] ... you cannot just shut them down."

Keeping up this nuclear expertise would conceivably require a "demonstration scale" cascade where Iran runs "several parallel cascades, to demonstrate that you can handle a great number of centrifuges," says Heinonen.

Nevertheless, that doesn't explain why Iran would need 4,500 to 6,500 centrifuges. According to Heinonen, a "demonstration cascade" can be maintained with only 1,000-2,000 centrifuges.

Reason No. 3: Staying on or surpassing the nuclear threshold

Importantly, allowing Iran to keep 4,500-6,500 centrifuges would be to let Tehran remain within striking distance of a nuclear weapon.

The reported number of centrifuges allowed is thousands more than what Iran would need to maintain some minimum degree of nuclear enrichment expertise. Furthermore, 4,500-6,500 centrifuges would place Iran on the cusp of what it needs to build a nuclear weapon in between six months and a year. That would allow them to maintain the threat of short-term nuclear breakout — and the amount of time assumes Iran has no hidden uranium stockpiles or enrichment facilities.

iran talks kerry
iran talks kerry

REUTERS/Joe Klamar/Pool US Secretary of State John Kerry steps out as Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, EU envoy Catherine Ashton and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (LtoR) pose for photographers during their meeting in Vienna, November 24, 2014. There's a larger principle at stake. A deal including 4,500 centrifuges or more would make Iran one of the few countries in the world to have its uranium enrichment formally legalized under an international treaty.

Strikingly, this wouldn't happen as the result of an alliance with the US. The US has a nuclear cooperation treaty with India, for instance, but Delhi is a longstanding US economic and political ally and a fellow democracy. And this wouldn't be a reward for Iran's virtuous behavior on the world stage. Iran's uranium enrichment is banned under several UN Security Council resolutions. Tehran is still a US-listed state sponsor of terrorism, and its assistance is responsible for Bashar Assad's regime hanging on in Syria.

Under an agreement that allows Iran to keep thousands of centrifuges, Iran will be given a green light to enrich uranium — something it has no practical need to do — thanks to decades of recalcitrance, single-minded policy dedication, and outright deceit. It would be a historic and nearly unprecedented accomplishment, and one with unknown implications for nuclear proliferation.

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