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Which Iran Deal?

Jeremy Bernstein
Listening to the speeches that American President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani each gave their nations about the nuclear agreement in Vienna, one has the impression that the two leaders are living in alternate universes.
Hassan Rouhani.jpg

Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with a picture of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Tehran, June 13, 2015

Listening to the speeches that American President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani each gave their nations about the nuclear agreement in Vienna, one has the impression that the two leaders are living in alternate universes.

In Obama’s universe, Iran came to the negotiations because of the regime of devastating economic sanctions. After months of hard bargaining by US diplomats, Iran had agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges it has stockpiled from 18,000 to 6,000 and to stop work on the next generation of centrifuges. In Rouhani’s universe, the “sanctions regime was never successful” and the agreement is an acknowledgement by the leading world powers of Iran’s nuclear achievements. Being able to keep 6,000 centrifuges is a major victory, work on the next generation of centrifuges will proceed, and uranium will continue to be enriched. As Rouhani describes it, Iran’s neighbors—with the exception of the Zionists, who were frequently mentioned in the speech—rejoiced in Iran’s triumph in the negotiations.

In Obama’s universe, the reactor at Arak would have its core redesigned so it would no longer pose a threat as a site for plutonium production. This presumably means that heavy water will no longer be used as a moderator with unenriched uranium fuel elements. (Using heavy water to slow the neutrons in a reactor allows the use of unenriched uranium as the fuel. This maximizes the percentage of U238 and it is the absorption of a neutron by uranium 238 that leads to the production of plutonium.) Also, there will be a continued ban on sales of advanced missile systems to Iran for eight years, and prohibitions on most conventional weapons for five years.

In Rouhani’s universe, heavy water will continue to be used at Arak, and no mention is made of plutonium. According to Rouhani, because of a fatwa, nuclear weapons are haram and no work on a bomb was ever done or ever will be done, agreement or not. In Rouhani’s universe, “on the day of the implementation of the deal, all the sanctions, including arms embargos and missile related sanctions, will all be lifted.” Inspections by the IAEA will be strictly limited, certainly when it comes to military facilities; in any case, the inspections are irrelevant because there is nothing to inspect.

The actual text of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is more than one hundred pages, some of it so technical that it takes an education in nuclear physics to understand—which Rouhani certainly does not have. (Neither does Obama for that matter.) It has now been released, with many pages of technical appendices. We can see word for word what Iran has actually agreed to, which bears little resemblance to Rouhani’s claims.

For example, the agreement states that, “There will be no additional heavy water reactors or accumulation of heavy water in Iran for 15 years. All excess heavy water will be made available for export to the international market.” One of the complaints of the IAEA has been that it could not get a full account of Iran’s heavy water stock. On the Arak reactor it states that Iran will rebuild it to use fuel enriched to 3.67 percent to support “peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production,” and that an international partnership “will certify the final design.” This is a very important point because a heavy water moderated reactor can use natural uranium with only .7 percent uranium 238.

Rouhani has turned this on its head, claiming that this limited use of heavy water is a triumph. He also misstates what the agreement says about Iran’s ability to develop upgraded centrifuges. Iran will only be allowed to pursue this under very restrictive conditions. The agreement states:

Consistent with its plan, at the end of year 8, Iran will commence manufacturing of IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges without rotors through year 10 at a rate of up to 200 centrifuges per year for each type. After year 10, Iran will produce complete centrifuges with the same rate to meet its enrichment and enrichment R&D needs. Iran will store them at Natanz in an above ground location, under IAEA continuous monitoring, until they are needed for final assembly according to the enrichment and enrichment R&D plan.

In Rouhani’s universe this means that Iran has been given a license to continue the production of advanced centrifuges. He also claims that Iran has prevailed in keeping its existing centrifuges, because it will keep its enrichment capacity at Natanz and be allowed to keep a small number of centrifuges in its underground facility at Fordow. He said that “ridiculous” demands by the US and its allies to curb Iran’s enrichment activities have been dropped.


In fact, the agreement states that Iran will maintain a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms of low enriched uranium for fifteen years. The present stockpile is nearly 15,000 kilograms. Three hundred kilograms of unenriched uranium cannot be used to make a bomb. The agreement also states that enrichment R&D must be conducted “in a manner that does not accumulate enriched uranium” and that the centrifuges remaining in operation at Fordow are required to “spin without uranium” and are to be used only in the production of medical isotopes; all other centrifuges at Fordow “will remain idle.” According to the agreement, Fordow will be converted into a “nuclear, physics, and technology” research center with international partners.

Rouhani’s stated view in his address is that the agreement is a victory for Iran’s nuclear program; given the political resistance he faces at home from some of the hardliners, it would be hard for him to do otherwise. It will be a victory for his country if the punishing economic sanctions are limited. It could be a triumph for everyone if Iran is put out of the nuclear weapons business. But the agreement itself offers Iran few of the victories he claims it does. All of this may not matter if the Iranians actually do what they have agreed to do. As they say in this part of the world—the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.

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