An agreement that puts verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program, increases transparency, and clears up concerns about weapons-related research — in exchange for the lifting of sanctions — would be a boon for the United States, Iran, and the global economy. But as the negotiators’ self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline approaches, it’s doubtful that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is willing to sign on to an agreement that would pass muster in the United States.
This is unfortunate, because a deal would unchain the aspirations of Iran’s 80 million people, who have lived under some form of sanctions or another for 35 years. It could also loosen the grip of hardliners on Iranian society, who benefit handsomely from the black market economy created by sanctions. A good deal would also be better for the United States and its allies than the alternatives: allowing Iran’s nuclear program to inch forward unchecked, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites, which would further inflame the already tumultuous region and give Iran a good excuse to kick out United Nations inspectors, withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and race for a nuclear weapon as soon as possible.
Recently, Khamenei announced a series of “red lines” in English via his Twitter account that make a deal look all but impossible. “No one has the right to bargain over nuclear achievements,” one read, presumably indicating that Iran won’t dismantle any of the centrifuges it has worked so hard to create. In another “red line,” he said Iran will eventually need to produce 190,000 “separative work units” — or SWU — of enriched uranium per year to meet its needs for civilian power. That’s a great deal more than the roughly 9,000 Iran produces today.
If Iran were a trusted country, that number wouldn’t seem so large. Nearly 500 nuclear power reactors around the world rely on enriched uranium produced in countries that make far more. For instance, an international consortium based in France makes 5.5 million SWU per year, and expects to make 8.2 million in 2020. Even Japan, in the wake of a nuclear disaster, produces about 1 million SWUs a year, which will rise to 1.5 million by 2020.
In that context, Iran’s goal — enough to fuel two civilian power plants — looks tiny. But since there are still too many unanswered questions about Iran’s nuclear program, it will be difficult to convince Congress that Iran’s intentions are peaceful.
In truth, this wrangling over SWUs highlights a crucial flaw in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In order to get countries to sign on, US diplomats promised that signatories would be allowed peaceful nuclear technology as long as they foreswore nuclear weapons, and allowed international monitoring. So far, Iran has done both.
In a more perfect world, US diplomats would not be negotiating today about limiting Iran’s production, but rather ensuring that all countries procure their nuclear power plant fuel from an international consortium, a far safer way to ensure that reactors aren’t used as a cover for bombs.
But US diplomats are playing the hand they were dealt: an Iran that has mastered the fuel cycle, which now possesses some 8.4 tons of enriched uranium, and which holds great sway in the region. The truth is, US officials do not know whether Iran wants the bomb, or merely craves “nuclear latency” — an ambiguous status occupied by countries such as Japan that could develop a bomb if they wanted to.
In order to preserve the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and avoid an arms race in the Middle East, it is crucial to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, if that is Tehran’s goal. A deal that increases the “break out” time required to build a weapon from a few months to one year, decreases Iran’s production of enriched uranium to 3,000 SWU, and lasts a minimum of 15 years is worth doing, according to Gary Samore, who served for four years as President Obama’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. A deal that falls far short of that is unlikely to gain the support from Congress that’s needed to win the sanctions relief Iran is seeking. If Iranians are unwilling to agree to these terms, or similar terms, then a deal can wait. A bad deal would be worse than no deal at all.