The First Six Months of Compliance with the JPA
To reiterate for the umpteenth time, the point of the JPA negotiations from the very start was not to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, but to establish a set of provisions and verification measures to protect American and allied national security interests by limiting (not eliminating) Iran’s nuclear programs. Extensive verification measures were to be put in place intended to eliminate the risk of Iran breaking out with an ability to produce nuclear weapons at its declared and/or covert nuclear sites without being detected in a timely manner. The issue of timeliness was defined as sufficient time to permit U.S. and international responses that would prevent Iran succeeding. As clarified in the last blog, this entailed instituting very intrusive verification procedures to detect the construction and operation of secret gas centrifuge plants in Iran’s nuclear program to ensure that Iran’s actions conform to the agreements it made as interim confidence-building measures before a more comprehensive program can be put in place. For the best summaries of the monitoring of the progress of the negotiations, see the series of reports of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington (ISIS). Better yet, read the IAEA reports themselves. This blog is based on those reports.
Fordow is a nuclear enrichment plant constructed in secret at a time when Iran was obligated to report its construction to the IAEA and not only did not, but repeatedly and blatantly lied about it, absolutely denying such a development. That alone required any verification process to be very robust. The plant is buried deep under a mountain near the Iranian holy city of Qom. The only purpose of the plant is to produce military-grade nuclear materials, though Iran argues the grade of nuclear material is required for its research reactor. In September 2009, its existence was publicly revealed by President Obama. The end goal of the negotiations had to be closing this site. If Iran wanted to continue producing nuclear material for peaceful purposes, it did not need a plant under a mountain resistant even to bunker bomb attacks, though the access tunnels, ventilation equipment and electronic supply would not be immune. The interim goal was to halt Iran’s progress in its tracks and to cut through Iran’s duplicitous and contradictory reporting on its activities to the IAEA between 2009 and 2013.
The truth: at Fordow, Iran had installed almost 2,800 first generation IR-1 centrifuges in two halls each designed to hold 8 cascades of 174 centrifuges per cascade = 1,392 centrifuges x 2 = 2784 centrifuges of which 696 were operational. According to the IAEA, 4 cascades of 174 centrifuges (696) in two tandem sets to produce near 20 percent low enriched uranium the only real purpose of which was nuclear weaponry. In the JPA, at Fordow:
- there will be no further enrichment over 5% at 4 cascades now enriching uranium
- enrichment capacity will not be increased
- Iran will not feed UF6 into the other 12 non-operative state cascades
- There will be no further interconnections made between cascades
- Any replacements of existing centrifuges will be of centrifuges of the same type.
To ensure the above, Iran agreed not only to stop making 20% enriched uranium, not only to install no further advanced centrifuges at Fordow, but also to disconnect the piping of cascades not in operation, maintain those centrifuges in a non-operative state and only enrich uranium up to 5% in the 4 operating cascades. In the end, Iran would have to actually remove about 15,000 of its centrifuges after the JPA was signed according to the Washington Post.
Note that in the JPA interim agreement, Iran could continue enrichment at its R&D Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and even develop more advanced centrifuges, but these developments would be monitored to ensure conformity with IAEA safeguards. In spite of this provision, by February 2014, even Israel’s senior security officials in the IDF and Mossad had begun to consider whether Iran was sincere in following a new tack and that, possibly, this was not just a new phase in past deceptive practices. At the renewable energy meeting in Abu Dhabi on 18-19 January, Israeli Water and Energy Minister Silvan Shalom listened intently to Iran’s minister of energy. More significantly, at the Munich Security Conference on 2 February, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row of a panel discussion that included Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
What was happening with Iran’s agreement to convert its existing 20% enriched uranium, 50% as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) while the other 50% had to be diluted to no more than 5% low enriched uranium (LEU) hexafluoride? If the 20% enriched oxide is reconverted to a fluoride form and then further enriched to weapon-grade level (90% U235), this would be enough to make a 25 kg bomb. Recall that Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima was a 15 kiloton bomb and Far Boy dropped on Nagasaki was a 21 kiloton bomb, not 25 kg. Nevertheless, if Iran is truly committed to the use of nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes, it does not need 20% enriched nuclear material.
Why do I go into all this detail? Why not jump to much more recent reports, or even more, to the latest AIAE Report on Iran’s compliance with the JPA? There are several reasons. First, I want to establish my credibility; I have read all the reports. Second, I want to try to see if there is a pattern in Iran’s compliance and non-compliance, for both are at work. Third, I want to demonstrate that, as far as possible, I have tried to be fair in appraising Iran’s compliance with the terms of the JPA. On the other hand, I do not want to burden readers with a morass of details. So after this initial review of the first six months and my conclusions about a pattern, in Monday’s blog I will jump to the very recent report of the IAEA that I received yesterday to assess whether in fact my perceptions of a pattern are correct.
As a result of last February’s IAEA report, one clear sign of progress was that Iran agreed that it would put on hold any plans to build additional centrifuge plants, more specifically, the plans for the third centrifuge plant that AIAE had revealed. On the other hand, trust was not enhanced in Iran’s intentions when commitments come only after new discoveries by the IAEA. There is a clear perception that there is a continuing failure to provide full disclosure, though certainly a great deal that IAEA did not know previously has been disclosed. Hence, IAEA determined to place a priority on gaining access to a full range of information that it did not have last February and that it would need to assess Iran’s compliance and even perhaps its intentions.
One area of critical importance was Iran’s research and development program mentioned above. Unfortunately, for many observers of this process, the JPA did not adequately address this issue and, by omission, Iran was permitted to undertake research to improve the quality of its centrifuges. This is understandable in a way since better centrifuges are also needed for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Iran may not develop new types of centrifuges using uranium hexafluoride at its Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, but it can undertake research to improve the performance of existing centrifuges. The dilemma is that, given the goals of the JPA to limit the breakout period to at least a year, significant improvements in the performance of Iran’s existing centrifuges could significantly reduce that timeframe. Yet there is no provision in the JPA to limit the possibility. So the negotiators are working on using the transparency clauses to ensure Iran reveals its improvements.
The issue of a breakthrough with laser enrichment is instructive. In 2010, Iran announced that it had significantly improved performance through a laser enrichment program. The JPA in the technical annexes provided seven practical methods for monitoring this possibility of accelerating the breakout period. Iran was required to implement them by 15 May 2014. As we shall see, Iran did comply with these additional “technical” requirements, including the requirement that Iran provide full relevant information on the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Research Centre and to allow inspection visits.
Reduction in suspicion of Iran is not helped when, at the time the JPA was signed and immediately thereafter, all work on construction and improvements at the Parchin military site seemed to be at a standstill, but the February satellite photos revealed that new activity was taking place at the site and Iran had not informed IAEA that this was taking place. In the meanwhile, Ira’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, was performing the role of the eternal optimist on the international stage signaling that a comprehensive deal was doable in the next 4-5 months.
What was becoming clear was that two intersecting issues were clear. First, there had to be strict limits on the number of centrifuges Iran could have. Second, as and if their productive capacity improved, those numbers had to be reduced. As the quality of the enrichment program improves, the number of centrifuges in operation had to decrease. Otherwise there was no way of being secure about a breakout period that seemed reasonable at the time of any deal.
The other complementary issue was the amount and quality of nuclear material that Iran had already in hand. The 20 February 2014 IAEA report was promising because IAEA could, by then, provide a reasonably accurate picture of the total volume of 20% enriched uranium that Iran had on hand, especially since the JPA had agreed that 50% of that material could be retained in the form of oxide. The problem, as everyone recognized, was that this process could be reversed for the nuclear material retained in oxide form using its existing technological knowhow and equipment. Only two steps were needed: 1) converting it back into a hexafluoride form, and 2) then enrich it to a grade suitable for nuclear weapons. So the negotiators had to make this process impossible. The question was not only whether, at the end of six months, Iran had converted all or almost all of its stock of 20% enriched uranium equally into the two forms provided in the JPA, but how to ensure 135-175 kg of 20% enriched uranium now in oxide form could and would not be reconverted back into hexafluoride form.
The 20 March 2014 IAEA report was very positive. Iran had made progress on a number of fronts in complying with the terms of the JPA:
- No new enriched U-235 to 20%
- No expanded conversion capacity
- Degraded 74.6 kg of 20% enriched U-235 to no more than 5%
- 7 kg of 20% enriched U-235 had been converted to the oxide form
- No efforts had been made to reconvert U-235
- Iran had provided information on the continued construction of the Enriched Uranium Production Plant (EUPP) that was to be used to degrade 20% enriched U-235, but the work had not completed
- No processing at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR)
- Iran had complied with the terms of the Safeguard Agreement
- Iran had provided information on the uranium mine at Gchine
- Daily access had been provided to both Natanz and Fordow
- Inspection via managed access had been allowed to the centrifuge assembly workshop, the centrifuge rotor production workshop and to storage facilities.
Perhaps Zarif had been right to be optimistic. Though Olli Heinonen, the Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also seemed optimistic, he reminded everyone that a great deal of confirmation work remained to be done and the results of inspections still had to be completed. Even the delay in meeting targets for conversion of 20% enriched UF6 to 5% enriched UF6 as uranium oxide was explicable in terms of plant construction delays.
Nevertheless, the negotiations were haunted by a number of unresolved issues. Iran has been suspiciously intransigent about the Parchin facility where Digital Globe imagery dated 25 April 2014 shows signs of renewed external activity there, a critical observation since this is where Iran’s nuclear weapons development program takes place. Iran had promised to clear up crucial questions about its past nuclear military production, but has not yet complied. What, in fact, has Iran done towards producing nuclear weapons?
Nevertheless, the IAEA May 2014 report remained optimistic since enrichment to almost 20% had ceased, 100kg of 20% enriched had been converted to less than 5% and its stock of hexafluoride was approaching zero, no new centrifuges were installed at Natanz and Fordow, and Iran complied with the practical measures insisted on by IAEA. What also becomes clear, the restrictions in examining the military dimension of Iran’s program were a mistake as, without such information, it is impossible to calculate with any degree of accuracy Iran’s break out time frame. Knowing this, IAEA promised to report back on that dimension of the nuclear issue.
Ironically, problems were emerging on the provisions for removing sanctions:
Sunday: Sanctions and the Implementation of Relief
Monday: The 20 February 2015 IAEA Report
Tuesday My Overall Assessment of the Nuclear Negotiations