The U.S., European Union and Iran have announced that a broad framework for a nuclear deal has been reached. The bottom line is that it will inhibit Iran's ability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon, but the ability will remain. The West is gambling that the Iranian regime can be deterred from breaking the deal after it is made immensely stronger due to lifting of sanctions.
The good news is that if a deal is finalized and if Iran abides by it—two big ifs—then Iran will not be able to quickly produce a nuclear weapon. The U.S. government says that Iran's current nuclear "breakout" time is two to three months and the deal will increase it to one year.
The U.S. State Department fact sheet paints a rosy picture but Iran will still have the infrastructure to build a nuclear weapon. The prospect of sanctions relief incentivized Iran to take a few steps back, but the sanctions relief could also help Iran take a giant leap forward later.
The Number of Centrifuges
Under the deal, Iran will decrease the amount of operating centrifuges however, not a single one will be destroyed. Iran's insistence on keeping the centrifuges is strong evidence that it wants to preserve the ability to produce nuclear weapons.
The number of installed centrifuges will fall from 19,000 to 6,104 and only 5,600 of them will actually enrich uranium. The only centrifuges permitted are the older IR-1 versions. This is a reduction of two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges, but the Institute for Science and International Security says allowing Iran can build nuclear weapons in six to 12 months with only 2,000 to 4,000 centrifuges operating.
Former CIA analyst Fred Fleitz also puts these numbers into perspective. He writes: "5,000 centrifuges are far too many for other peaceful purposes such as producing medical isotopes or fuel plates for the Tehran research reactor. Moreover, it would be far more economical for Iran to purchase reactor fuel rods, fuel plates, and medical isotopes from other countries."
Iran will only enrich its uranium to a level of 3.67 percent but, as President Rouhani has said, that retains the capability to enrich to the 90 percent level necessary for a nuclear bomb.
"The country that can enrich to 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent. It is for this reason that today the international circles are discussing this capability with an extraordinary degree of sensitivity," Rouhani said in 2005.
The initial enrichment to 3.5 percent is actually the hardest part of the enrichment process. It is 7/10ths of the way to becoming bomb fuel. Iran can make enrich to the 90 percent level in about 4.5 months, while others put the time frame as short as six weeks.
Iran is refusing to ship some of its current uranium stock outside of the country, which is yet another indication that Iran wants to retain all the ingredients necessary for a bomb project. The State Dept.’s fact sheet says that Iran will "reduce" its uranium stockpile of 10,000 kg to 300 kg but this isn't as positive as it sounds.
Previously, reducing this stockpile has meant that Iran converted this low-enriched uranium into an oxide unsuitable for nuclear weapons production. However, it can be converted back easily.
Two experts from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs write, “The notion that this puts the material ‘beyond use for bombs’ is simply wrong. The conversion of oxide back to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas is not ‘time-consuming,’ is not necessarily ‘detectable,’ and is not particularly ‘technically demanding.’ ”
Under the deal, Iran is allowed to keep every single nuclear site in place, even the underground Fordow site that was most obviously constructed for making nuclear weapons.
There will no longer be uranium enrichment at the Fordow site, but 1,044 centrifuges will remain and only be used in the context of a nuclear physics center. However, the centrifuges themselves aren't changing. In addition, the Fordow site will not house uranium.
What this means it that if Iran decides to scrap the deal, it can still transport uranium to Fordow and immediately begin enriching with those centrifuges. The site can accommodate 3,000 centrifuges, so about another 2,000 could be brought over and installed.
The agreement greatly expands the IAEA's ability to inspect Iran's nuclear activity. A larger number of sites will be monitored and Iran agrees to allow access to any site that the IAEA believes could be engaged in covert nuclear work.
The fact sheet does not mention Iran's stance that military sites are exempt from inspections. The Iranians use that excuse to deny access to the Parchin site where the IAEA suspects Iran carried out experiments for nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The fact sheet says that Iran agrees to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to implement its Additional Protocol for more intrusive inspection. The State Department also says the Treaty "prohibits Iran's development or acquisition of nuclear weapons" but there's a catch:
Article X of the agreement says signatories "have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country." All that is required is a three-month notice.
The Breakout Time
The fact sheet states that Iran's breakout time to make a nuclear weapon is currently two to three months. The implementation of this deal would expand that time frame to one year. That is a major improvement, but what if Iran breaks the deal?
The Institute for Science and International Security says that a minimum of six months is needed for the international community to put together an "effective response" and some experts feel it will take longer. That means that Iran will only need to withstand this "effective response" for six months before it gets the bomb.
The fact sheet claims that current sanctions will "snap" back instantly, but tough international sanctions are not like a light-switch that can be flicked on and off. The years of rigorous diplomacy to enact them originally are proof of that.
It will be harder to re-implement sanctions the longer they are lifted. The Iranian regime is already enticing Western companies with the prospect of lucrative contracts. Governments around the world will be more willing to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran with each passing day. Rouhani has boasted of his effectiveness in dividing the West's ranks.
Even if full-blown sanctions are "snapped" back into place, the Iranian regime believes that such penalties will only be temporary. Iranian President Rouhani said it himself: The West will reluctantly accept countries' nuclear bombs once they are completed.
In a September 2005 speech, he pointed to Pakistan as proof that the West will reluctantly accept what it claims to fiercely oppose. He denied that he was referring to nuclear weapons, but any listener got the point. He said:
"If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice, that we do possess the technology, then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them.
Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold. As for building the atomic bomb, we never wanted to move in that direction and we have not yet completely developed our fuel cycle capability. That happens to be our main problem."
The tradeoff can be summed up this way: The West will strengthen the Iranian regime by lifting nuclear-related sanctions. In return, Iran will be allowed to keep the ability to produce nuclear weapons but restrictions will require one year for completion instead of the current two to three months.
The biggest issue remaining is the level of sanctions relief. The Iranian Foreign Minister is taking issue with the U.S. State Department's fact sheet because of its references to a "phased" lifting of sanctions. He maintains that the final agreement must lift all sanctions on Iran completely.
While is true that the successful implementation of the deal will minimize the short-term threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the sanctions relief will allow Iran to emerge wealthier, more stable and with trade contracts that will help protect it from future sanctions.
The Iranian regime would need more time to build a nuclear weapon, but it would also be able to better withstand the repercussions of doing so. If the Iranian regime is determined to go beyond nuclear weapons capability and actually make an arsenal, then going along with the deal for a period of time may be the smartest way to do it.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.