A First Look at the Iranian Nuclear Deal

April 3, 2015 | 9:18 am
David Wright
Former Contributor

The world got some good news yesterday. The countries involved in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran announced they had agreed on many of the key issues they will need to formalize in a final agreement over the next three months.

So, how does that interim agreement look? So far, so good.

It’s still too early, of course, to know many of the details behind yesterday’s announcement, or what roadblocks the negotiators may hit in trying to turn the interim understandings into a final, formal deal. But that said, the White House released a fact sheet about the agreement listing a set of provisions that seems surprisingly broad and detailed, providing grounds for optimism.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in Paris on January 16, 2015. (Source: US State Department)

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Paris on January 16, 2015. (Source: US State Department)

The U.S. concern has been that Iran could use the facilities, technology, and expertise it has built as part of its nuclear power program to instead produce materials that would allow it to build a nuclear weapon. The White House estimates that Iran today might be as little as two to three months from producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon should it decide to do so.

U.S. goals

The main U.S. goals in the negotiations have therefore been (1) to place limits on Iran’s program that would stretch to a year the time it would need to make a bomb, and (2) to put in place strict inspection and transparency measures that would allow the international community to quickly detect any Iranian efforts to cheat on the accord.

The interim agreement seems to take important steps to address both goals. It significantly cuts the number of centrifuges Iran can operate to enrich uranium to many fewer than it has operating today, and limits them to Iran’s first-generation model. And Iran has apparently agreed not to build new facilities for uranium enrichment for 15 years.

The White House factsheet also says—unfortunately without details—that Iran will greatly reduce its existing stock of low-enriched uranium, cutting it from 10 tons to a third of a ton. This is important since by starting with uranium that has already been enriched to the level needed for a power reactor, Iran could enrich it to a level needed for a weapon much more rapidly than by starting with natural uranium. Just earlier this week, Iran seemed to indicate it was not willing to agree to such a reduction, so this provision was a welcome surprise—depending on exactly what it means, of course.

Iran also agreed to modify the design of a nuclear research reactor to significantly reduce the amount of weapon-grade plutonium it would produce as a by-product of operating, and to ship the reactor’s spent fuel—which contains the plutonium it does produce—out of the country.

These steps, among others, would increase the time it would take Iran to get the fissile material it would need for a weapon. Whether experts agree the steps would increase that time to a year awaits more details and analysis.

The White House factsheet also lists a number of inspection and transparency measures that can help provide confidence that Iran is abiding by the final deal. After all, these kinds of measures are what underlie the international nonproliferation regime, which allows non-nuclear weapon states to operate nuclear power facilities as long as they submit to intrusive, periodic inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Again, how much confidence these measures will provide depends on details of the final agreement.

We will be looking forward to learning more details as the negotiations continue over the next few months. But this is an encouraging start.