All in the timing: the balancing act of implementation


Gary Samore explains what Iran gave up in this weekend's accord that finalized implementation details of the interim nuclear agreement, and what they received in return. Overall, he writes, the mutually agreeable framework for implementing the interim deal is a positive sign for the negotiations, but there are still stumbling blocks going forward.


As more details emerge of the January 12, 2014 agreement to implement the Joint Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1, it appears that the expert-level negotiators have arrived at sensible compromises to resolve the most significant implementation challenges.  (For details of the implementation agreement, see the State Department’s readout of a January 13, 2014 background briefing by US officials.)  Nonetheless, there appear to be several loose ends that will need to be worked out in the course of implementation.

The central implementation issue was the timing and sequence of sanctions relief and nuclear constraints specified in the Joint Plan of Action.  Naturally, Iran wanted to get sanctions relief up front, while delaying nuclear constraints as long as possible, and the P5+1 wanted maximum nuclear steps up front, while delaying sanctions relief to ensure Iranian compliance.  Neither side wanted to give up something without getting anything in return.

What Iran Gives and Gets

What does the implementation agreement include?

The negotiators resolved this dilemma in an elegant fashion by dividing the nuclear constraints and the sanctions relief into two baskets: those that are easily reversible and those that are more difficult (or impossible) to reverse.  On January 20, when the implementation agreement takes effect, the two sides will take actions more or less simultaneously that are easily reversible.  As verified by the IAEA through daily access to  surveillance information at Iran’s enrichment facilities, Iran will halt enrichment above 5 percent, disconnect the tandem cascades used to produce 20 percent enriched uranium at Fordow, stop feeding additional centrifuges already installed (but not enriching) with uranium hexaflouride (UF6), and stop installing additional centrifuges at the Fordow and Natanz enrichment facilities. Limits on the continued construction of the 40 MW heavy water research reactor at Arak will also take effect beginning January 20, verified by monthly IAEA access to Arak and related facilities.  Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran will not install remaining reactor components nor test or produce additional fuel nor transfer fuel or heavy water to the reactor site.

In exchange, the P5+1 will suspend sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports, the import of goods and services for Iran’s automotive sector, and trade in gold and precious metals.   In addition, the P5+1 will begin to process license applications for spare parts and services for Iran’s civil aviation sector, suspend efforts to reduce Iran’s exports of crude oil beyond its current export level of about one million barrels per day to its six remaining oil customers (China, India, Japan, ROK, Turkey, and Taiwan), and help set up a financial channel to support the sale of humanitarian goods to Iran, such as medicine and medical services.

Reversible and irreversible measures

The key to this initial phase of implementation is that both sides can reverse their actions quickly if the agreement breaks down during the six-month negotiations for a comprehensive settlement.   Within a matter of days, Iran can resume nuclear activities frozen under the Joint Plan of Action, and the P5+1 can rescind the suspension of sanctions on trade in petrochemicals, gold, auto parts, and so forth.

More complicated are actions that the two sides are required to take that cannot be easily reversed. To deal with these actions, the negotiators agreed to an installment plan over six months. Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran agreed to dilute half of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in UF6 form to less than 5 percent in UF6 form and to convert the remaining half to oxide form.  The implementation plan specifies that the dilution process will be completed within three months and the conversion process will be completed by the end of six months. 

Correspondingly, the P5+1 will grant Iran access to $4.2 billion in restricted funds on a set schedule at  monthly intervals so that the final payment will be released at the end of six months when the last of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium is converted to oxide.  In essence, the P5+1 is paying Iran to dispose of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium on the basis of performance.  Either side can halt the process at any time without having expended all of its chips if the other side doesn’t deliver.

Centrifuge production and R&D

Two other issues bear specific mention.  First is the ban on the production of additional centrifuges, except to replace damaged machines.  On January 20, Iran will give the IAEA information on relevant centrifuge production facilities for rotor production and storage and centrifuge assembly.  The IAEA and Iran will then need to negotiate arrangements for IAEA access to the declared production facilities so that the agency can monitor and verify that centrifuge production and assembly rates are roughly equal to failure rates at Natanz and Fordow.  Depending on the degree of access and surveillance that Iran allows, this could be one of the more difficult aspects of the Joint Plan of Action to verify, especially if there are suspicions that Iran has undeclared centrifuge production facilities or stocks of undeclared components such as rotors. 

By Orijentolog , via Wikimedia Commons

The second specific issue is the range of centrifuge research and development activities that Iran is allowed to conduct.  The Joint Plan of Action specifies that “Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.”  According to press reports, the interpretation of this provision was disputed, including whether or not Iran could install additional centrifuge machines or produce small quantities of enriched uranium above 5% as part of its R&D activities at the Natanz pilot plant.   Apparently, this issue was resolved by agreeing that Iran could continue to do what it has already been doing, as reported by the IAEA.

According to the November IAEA board report on Iran, Iran is experimenting with a range of test centrifuges at the Natanz pilot scale facility, including the IR-1, IR-2m, IR-4, and the IR-6.  Under the agreement, Iran will not be allowed to install additional test centrifuges, but presumably it can replace individual machines on a case-by-case basis if they fail.  In addition, the current R&D process apparently involves the enrichment of small quantities of uranium above 5%, but this material is blended with depleted uranium (so-called “tails”) in the test cascades so that no enriched uranium is actually extracted from the process.  The negotiators agreed to allow this practice to continue so that – in effect – both sides can claim victory on whether R&D will involve any enrichment above 5%.

Finally, as called for in the Joint Plan of Action, the implementation agreement includes details for the establishment of a joint commission of experts from the P5+1 and Iran to monitor implementation and coordinate with the IAEA on verification.   Interestingly, the joint commission, which will meet at least monthly, will also work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of issues related to Iran’s past weaponization activities.    

There are many obstacles standing in the way of a final agreement, but the P5+1 and Iran seem to have negotiated a mutually satisfactory and verifiable implementation plan for the interim agreement—an important first step.

Gary Samore is executive director for research at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 200913, he was President Obama's White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction.