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Iran has made big nuclear concessions in Vienna

Iran has made big nuclear concessions in Vienna

Another seven days to reach an agreement; that's what the P5-1 decided this week when they weren't able to meet their 30 June deadline for a final deal on Iran's nuclear program. While some differences remain, both sides have come too far to walk away. The potential agreement achieves Western objectives: curbing Iran's program and closing the path to the bomb.

The April 2015 framework agreement was good. It was not a final agreement and it had flaws, but the announcement covered a wider range of areas than anticipated and provided the basis for the detailed negotiations since. Iran agreed to significant concessions on its nuclear program, many of which are irreversible.

The framework agreement, and the final agreement to come, will increase Iran's 'breakout time' from 2-3 months to over 12 months. According to a February report from the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, Iran had 19,500 basic IR-1 centrifuges, of which 10,200 were operating. An agreement will reduce centrifuge numbers to 6104, of which 5060 are enriching to less than 5%. In other words, Iran's centrifuges will be cut by approximately 68%. 

But the reductions don't stop there. Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium – the raw material for a nuclear weapon – stood at approximately 10,000kg. A final agreement will cut this to only 300kg, a reduction of 97%.

Iran also agreed to other compromises. [fold]

It's R&D on advanced centrifuges will be curbed: Iran can only conduct limited, small-scale, in-lab testing of more advanced centrifuges for the next decade. Tehran faced significant difficulties with the operation of the basic IR-1 technology for large-scale enrichment. The type of testing allowed under the final agreement will not be sufficient to prepare Iran's advanced machines for use when the agreement expires.

The agreement will also close off Iran's second path to the bomb. Plutonium is another raw material that can be used in the production of a nuclear weapon. Iran's heavy water reactor at Arak could produce about 11kg of plutonium a year if completed. Today, the reactor is no longer a proliferation concern. The agreement specifies that it will be redesigned so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.

All these measures block Iran's existing program and known facilities. But, many rightly argue that if Iran goes for the bomb it is more likely to 'sneak out' rather than break out of its agreement. That is, it will use facilities the UN and the West don't know about. 

So how do you control what you don't know? Through monitoring and verification.

As part of a final agreement, Iran will sign up to the Additional Protocol (AP), the most intrusive legal verification regime to date. While the framework agreement didn't outline when and how long for, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz explained that AP ratification would be immediate and indefinite. Implementation of the AP (and Iran's commitments under the Non-proliferation Treaty, of course) will extend beyond its P5-1 agreement, which is why the 'sunset clause' criticism of the agreement is unfounded. 

As part of a final agreement, the  IAEA will have access to all Iranian nuclear facilities for the next 20 years. Importantly, the deal will limit enrichment to Natanz, meaning any diversion will be easier to detect. But there is still some debate over how much access will be granted to non-nuclear facilities.

In Vienna this week, it was clear that the past military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program and access to military sites remain outstanding issues. Secretary Kerry's statement that negotiators were focused on the future, not the past, led to criticism that Iran would be off the hook for PMDs. This is a real catch-22 for Iran. For the Western powers, striving for an admission of guilt should not be a barrier to an agreement that curbs Iran's program in the future.  

The most significant unresolved issue for the Iranians is the timeline and scope of sanctions relief. Clarifying this issue is vital because sanctions relief is the incentive that will encourage Iran to comply with its commitments and make the deal durable. After calls for removing all sanctions up front, the P5-1 and Iran reportedly found common ground on lifting sanctions once Iran complies with its obligations. While Iran insists on this carrot, the P5-1 also devised a stick to ensure Iranian compliance: a sanctions 'snap-back' provision.

Both sides continue to claim that the other is asking for too much, but negotiators are closer than ever to a final agreement. It is no longer possible that there will be no deal. The question now is whether the implementation of the deal will be as rocky as the negotiations.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.

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