The Iran deal – a summary and interpretation

By Matthew Bunn

Matthew Bunn

In all the fierce arguments over the pros and cons of the recent nuclear deal with Iran, a key element has mostly gotten lost: what does it actually say?  Here’s a quick summary of what each side gets out of the deal.  (You can find the official White House summary here, though Iran has asserted that certain parts of it are inaccurate – as discussed further below.)  In essence, this deal was never designed to do more than (a) stop each side from getting much worse off while negotiation of a broader deal continued, and (b) send a signal that meaningful agreements are possible, despite the enormous mistrust and hostility on both sides.  It does both of those things pretty well – but it leaves a lot of heavy lifting for the future.  The deal should be understood in combination with the similarly partial agreement Iran reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier in November.

Constraints and Verification for Iran’s Nuclear Program

 Iran might argue that its most fundamental commitment is this: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.”  Arguably this goes somewhat beyond Iran’s treaty obligation under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which prohibits Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but does not use the word “develop.”  But in addition to that broad commitment, Iran agreed to constraints that will make it harder for it to race to a uranium bomb and largely put a hold on the plutonium pathway to the bomb.  In particular, for the six months of the deal:

  • No more centrifuges.  Iran would stop installing any new centrifuges, or starting enrichment with any of the ones that are installed but not enriching.  (At Fordow, it says the non-operational centrifuges would remain non-operational, while at Natanz, it says only that they would not be fed with uranium hexafluoride.)  So Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity would not expand -- but it would not contract, either.  (Iran would continue replacing centrifuges that break.)
  • No more 20 percent uranium, and eliminating or converting all of the existing stock.  Iran would not produce any more 20 percent enriched uranium, would blend down half of its existing stock, and would convert all the rest to oxide for fuel fabrication.  (Iran also agrees there will be “no reconversion line” to enable it to convert the oxide back to hexafluoride gas that could be further enriched.)  Iran would also cut the connections between the parallel cascades at Fordow that are being used to enrich to 20 percent (though it is possible to produce 20% a bit less efficiently without them).  This 20% material has been the focus of a great deal of concern, because uranium enrichment is an accelerating process: when you’ve gotten to 20% you’ve done nine-tenths of the work of going to 90% for a bomb.  It’s this element that the White House points to in its claim that the deal would add “months” to the time Iran would need to race to a bomb.  That’s probably an overstatement, given how much of the work is already done at 5% enrichment and how many centrifuges Iran will still be operating, but still, it’s useful and surprising that Iran was willing to go so far on the 20% stockpile in this first stage.
  • No more low-enriched uranium in hexafluoride form.  During the six-month period, Iran would convert newly produced 3.5-5 percent enriched uranium to oxide, so that at the end of six months it would not have any more in gaseous form suitable for further enrichment than it did at the beginning.  (The line to do this will reportedly start hot tests in December.)
  • Centrifuge production only for replacement.  Iran would only produce enough centrifuges to replace broken ones – and would give the IAEA access (which it has not had for years) to places where Iran assembles its centrifuges and the places where it makes its centrifuge rotors and stores the ones already made.   The agreement does not say “all” such places, but if Iran tried to keep some secret, it would be running a huge risk of blowing up the arrangement. If it is interpreted to mean “all,” this would make construction of covert facilities at least modestly more difficult, as any centrifuge rotors found at sites Iran did not declare and allow the IAEA to see would be a clear violation of the deal. (Inspection of sites where already built centrifuges are stored is not explicitly mentioned, but arguably these would count as places where centrifuge rotors are stored – since every centrifuge includes a rotor.)
  • “No new locations for the enrichment.” This puts on hold Iran’s announced plans for ten enrichment sites.  Unfortunately, this wording is not very specific – does it just bar Iran from actually conducting enrichment operations at new sites, or does it prohibit even starting construction of new sites? The United States will presumably interpret it to ban all work on any additional enrichment sites.  Under that interpretation, if intelligence agencies find such a site under construction, it would be a violation of the accord, rather than Iran being able to say, as it did when its Natanz and Fordow enrichment sites were discovered, “we were planning to declare this to the IAEA when it got to the stage where we were required to do so.”  Iran, however, may interpret this differently.
  • No major progress on building the Arak reactor.  On the plutonium path, Iran agreed on several steps to postpone the issue of the Arak reactor – capable of producing 1-2 bombs’ worth of plutonium each year once it becomes operational.  During the interim pact, Iran will not install any more major components, transfer any fuel or heavy water to the reactor site, produce any more fuel, or carry out any more fuel tests.  Iran could, however, continue to produce heavy water or manufacture components for the reactor.
  • No reprocessing.  Iran also committed not to reprocess (the key step for separating plutonium from a reactor’s spent fuel) or start construction of any reprocessing facility.
  • Daily enrichment monitoring.  Rather than IAEA inspectors coming to Natanz and Fordow every couple of weeks to inspect and review what’s on the surveillance cameras, now they will be able to come every day.  That means the time it would take to notice an Iranian shift to racing for the bomb might be much reduced.
  • New access to uranium mines and mills.  In addition to the new access to centrifuge production sites and centrifuge rotor production and storage sites noted above, Iran also agreed to allow the IAEA to visit uranium mines and mills.  This has been a concern because a covert enrichment site would also need a covert supply of uranium to enrich – and there have been worries that this might come from undeclared or under-reported uranium mining followed by a secret facility to convert the uranium to hexafluoride for enrichment.  Documents about Iran’s past “Green Salt” project and its connection to the Gchine mine raise the possibility that such a covert supply was the goal of that effort; now the IAEA will be able to visit and begin clarifying what’s going on at these mines. (In its agreement with the IAEA, Iran had already agreed to provide information on and access to the Gchine mine.)
  • New declarations to the IAEA.  Iran agreed to give the IAEA a number of new pieces of information, including a description of each building on nuclear sites; giving a description of the “scale of operations” for each site doing particular nuclear activities; data on its uranium mines and mills (to support the visits mentioned above); and information on its stocks of “source material” (natural uranium too early in the process of being converted to useful form to be under IAEA safeguards – important as it could cover what the mines and mills already produced).  In principle, that should cover the uranium already mined at Gchine.  All of this information is to be provided within three months, rather than six.  In its agreement with the IAEA, Iran also agreed to provide information on and access to its heavy water production plant (not covered by Iran’s traditional safeguards agreement); on all new research reactors; on the 16 sites identified for possible future nuclear power plant construction; and information to clarify past statements that it planned additional enrichment sites and was conducting laser enrichment research and development (which it has denied in other statements).  These are by no means all of the information Iran would have to provide if it returned to the Additional Protocol to IAEA safeguards and Code 3.1 of its existing safeguards agreement, but they are a start. 
  • Laying the groundwork for Arak verification.  Iran promised to provide updated information on the design of the Arak reactor (crucial for the IAEA’s ability to design its safeguards approach for that facility) and to take “steps to agree with the IAEA” on the safeguards approach for that facility.

The White House fact sheet includes some assertions that do not appear in the written agreement, which may be part of what Iran objected to. In particular, the White House statement asserts: “The set of understandings also includes an acknowledgment by Iran that it must address all United Nations Security Council resolutions – which Iran has long claimed are illegal – as well as past and present issues with Iran’s nuclear program that have been identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, including Iran’s activities at Parchin.” The agreement does not mention the military dimension issues or Parchin at all.  It does say that among the steps between the initial six-month steps and the final agreement would be “addressing” the Security Council resolutions, “with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the Security Council’s consideration of the matter.”  From Iran’s point of view, this language could simply refer to a new Security Council resolution that would fulfill Iran’s long-standing demand for taking Iran’s “nuclear file” out of the Security Council and returning it to normal IAEA business.  The accord also says that a Joint Commission of the parties “will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern” – but here, too, Iran in the past has had a very different view of what resolving those issues should mean than the version described in the White House fact sheet. The agreement does say that the final accord will reflect all parties’ “rights and obligations” under the NPT – but since Iran has long argued that what the IAEA is asking for goes far beyond Iran’s NPT and IAEA safeguards agreement obligations, it is difficult to interpret this as a clear Iranian commitment to addressing all the issues the IAEA has raised about the possible military dimensions of its program, let alone allowing access to Parchin.  Oddly, the White House fact sheet also has a specific bullet point saying Iran agreed to “provide more frequent inspector access to the Arak reactor” – a commitment that does not appear in the written accord.

What the P5+1 Promised in Return

The sanctions relief that Iran got in return for the above steps is significant – the White House puts it at a total of about $7 billion.  (On the specifics of the sanctions relief, the White House fact sheet is much more detailed than the agreement itself, suggesting there may be accompanying understandings that have not yet been released; these specifics may also be part of what Iran disagreed with.) But the ongoing damage to Iran’s economy from the oil and banking sanctions will continue.  (The group negotiating with Iran – the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, Britain, France, and Germany – promised, for the six months of the deal:

  • No new oil sanctions.  In particular, all of Iran’s current oil customers would be able to keep buying the reduced amounts they are currently buying.
  • No other new nuclear-related sanctions.  The deal is explicit on no new sanctions from the Security Council or the European Union; because Congress could conceivably pass sanctions legislation by a veto-proof margin, for US sanctions it ties the commitment to action “consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress.”  (The Iranians inserted similar language on their commitment to accept the Additional Protocol in the final deal.)
  • Suspending petrochemical sanctions.  Iran has limited refinery capacity, so its petrochemical exports are not huge, but they’re not nothing.  The deal would also suspend sanctions on the particular financial and shipping transactions needed for these exports.
  •  Suspending gold and precious metal sanctions.  This would presumably give Iran another channel for trying to move some of its money.
  • Suspending sanctions on Iran’s auto industry.  Mainly this will help Iran bring in parts.  It’s already led to a surge in the share price of Peugeot, a big seller in Iran.
  • Allowing sales of civilian aircraft parts.  Iran’s aging fleet needs parts for safety.
  • A humanitarian “financial channel.”  The White House fact sheet makes the point that humanitarian transactions – those involving food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices – are already exempt from U.S. sanctions law.  The deal would set up a financial channel involving foreign banks and non-sanctioned Iranian banks to facilitate such transactions.  This channel, according to the pact, could also be used to help pay Iran’s UN dues, and to pay for Iranian students studying abroad.
  • More flexibility for non-sanctioned trade with Europe.  The EU agreed to increase the size of transactions in non-sanctioned areas that do not require any government approval.

As noted above, the White House fact sheet includes a number of specifics on sanctions relief that do not appear in the text of the deal.  In particular, it says that, for the oil sales that would continue (at their current, reduced levels), Iran would be able to bring home $4.2 billion in revenue “in installments if, and as, Iran fulfills its commitments.”  This strongly suggests that there is some understanding on this point reached somewhere other than in the written document made public. The White House fact sheet estimates that during the same period, $15 billion from these same oil sales will go into restricted accounts that Iran would not have access to. 

In short, in this first deal, Iran gets enough benefits for its negotiators to show they have achieved something – but the most painful elements of the sanctions remain in place.

Creating a Joint Commission

Much of the language in the agreement leaves some room for interpretation – and differences of view on what the agreement meant have posed major problems for the 2003 European deal with Iran, with Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and more.  Iran is probably concerned about making sure the powers it is negotiating with fill their end of the deal as well.  To address such issues, the agreement establishes a Joint Commission “to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues that may arise.”

Initial Outline of a Longer-Term Deal

In the pact, Iran and the P5+1 laid out at least the topic areas to be addressed in a final, comprehensive agreement – and set a goal of reaching such an agreement within one year.  (The six-month first-stage deal is renewable by mutual consent.)  This final deal would have several elements:

  • A fixed term.  Whatever limits are agreed to in the final accord, they will not last forever, but for “a specified long-term duration.”  If all the steps of the final deal are implemented for their full term, after that “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT.”
  • Comprehensive relief from nuclear-related sanctions. The parties agreed that the final deal would “comprehensively lift UN Security Council, multilateral, and national nuclear-related sanctions” on an agreed schedule.
  • Full compliance with – and full rights of – the NPT. The envisioned comprehensive agreement would “reflect the rights and obligations of the parties to the NPT and IAEA Safeguards Agreements.”  Iran would be able to “fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”  
  • A limited but continuing enrichment program.  The pact says that the final agreement will include “a mutually defined enrichment program” in Iran.   So, while it does not explicitly endorse an Iranian “right” to enrichment, it confirms that there will be continuing enrichment in Iran, and Iran can certainly interpret this as acknowledging that this would be part of its “right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Much of the pulling and hauling to come will be over how many centrifuges, of what capability, in which places, with what stocks of enriched material – all of which matter to how rapidly Iran could race to a bomb.
  • Action to “fully resolve” concerns over the Arak reactor.  This will be another difficult negotiation – Iran wants to proceed, the United States and Europe want them to stop.  But Iran agrees that the final deal will include a ban on reprocessing and construction of facilities for reprocessing.
  • Enhanced monitoring.  The sides agreed that Iran would “fully implement the agreed transparency measures and enhanced monitoring” – but didn’t say exactly what those would include.  Iran agreed to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol – subject to the approval of the Iranian parliament, or Majlis.  That would give the IAEA broader inspection rights and access to information.
  • A step-by-step approach. The pact makes clear that there will not be just the initial steps and then a final step, but rather the “comprehensive solution” will involve a “reciprocal, step-by-step process.”
  • Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.   Finally, the preamble to the pact makes clear that nothing in the comprehensive approach is agreed until it all is – neither side can pocket a concession on one point while rejecting the other elements of a comprehensive agreement.

What’s Missing

Of course, this is just an initial step – most of the difficult negotiating lies ahead.   A huge fraction of the sanctions relief Iran wanted is not in this initial deal, and a major fraction of the restraints on Iran’s program the United States and the Europeans wanted are left for the final deal as well.  The tug-of-war between the U.S. and European desire to keep Iran’s path to the bomb as lengthy and detectable as possible and Iran’s desire to avoid a humiliating scale of roll-back of what it has already accomplished could still scuttle a final deal.

On verification in particular, this initial step does not include Iran accepting the Additional Protocol, though that is envisioned for the final deal.  Despite the assertions in the White House fact sheet, the pact does not explicitly commit Iran to allowing inspectors into Parchin, where the IAEA suspects Iran conducted explosive tests for a possible nuclear weapon design; does not explicitly take on the question of whether Iran would have to confess everything it had done about actual nuclear weapon design in the past; does not address whether Iran would allow inspectors to interview scientists and engineers who participated in its programs; and does not address other confidence-building steps going beyond the Additional Protocol that may be needed to convince the world that Iran has no covert activities aimed at building nuclear weapons.

In short, the deal offers real benefits for both sides – enough to keep them talking about the even more difficult issues still to be settled.

Matthew Bunn is professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and is co-principal investigator of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.