It's not only about the number of centrifuges

Olli HeinonenOlli Heinonen argues against a myopic focus on the number of Iran's declared centrifuges in nuclear negotiations. Rather, he writes, negotiators should seek information on Iran's history of centrifuge production, thereby increasing confidence that Iran will not create a covert enrichment program.

By Olli Heinonen

Iran and the P5+1 negotiators are convening this week in Vienna to iron out a comprehensive nuclear deal before the “deadline” - 20 July, 2014 – set in the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPA).

It appears that the views of parties are still far apart when it comes to the establishment of “a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme” of Iran, which was foreseen in the JPA.

Reza Najafi at the IAEA
June 2, 2014 - Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Reza Najafi attends the IAEA Board of Governors' meeting in Vienna. (SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images)

The IAEA’s quarterly reports on the implementation of safeguards in Iran have repeatedly stated that there has been no diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran. What this statement also implies is that the IAEA has not been able to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran has been submitted to the IAEA safeguards, i.e. there is no undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. Such a statement on the completeness of Iran’s declarations cannot be achieved under the offer of nuclear transparency where an occasional visit is made to Arak heavy water production plant or to some uranium mines or milling facilities of Iran. The question is also not only how many centrifuges are left installed in Natanz and Fordow. To set a baseline for monitoring it is essential to know how many centrifuges Iran has actually manufactured, and where they are to-day.

Since 2003, the IAEA has raised concerns – from its own independent investigations and information provided by other parties – about possible military dimensions on Iran’s past and current nuclear program. Resolution of these long outstanding questions is essential for the IAEA to provide assurances that all nuclear material – not just that declared by Iran – is in peaceful use.

In our dealings with the Iran nuclear issue, it is important to look at it from a strategic rather than a fire brigade putting-out-small-fires short-term approach with regard to Iran’s nuclear aspirations. This is a choice of Realpolitik with long-term consequences. A comprehensive deal that will paint a very different picture from the current situation by substantially rolling back Iran’s nuclear capabilities, while difficult and not overly optimistic, should be tested. This also means a willingness to walk away if bottom lines are not met. Otherwise, another message going out would be that, at least, hedging for nuclear weapons capability works – with a price – including for countries non-compliant with their non-proliferation undertakings. It will be increasingly difficult to curb the spread of uranium enrichment technologies to countries, which are in compliance with their safeguards undertakings. Such aspirations are already waking up in the Middle and Far East. Hedging and emerging of new nuclear threshold states comes with an unpleasant truth of holding other states hostage of the situation, leaving them with possible choices: build your own nuclear capabilities or learn to live with a situation where a neighbor with its capabilities can press additional concessions. Both are bad and unstable outcomes.

I offer more detailed suggestions in remarks made at the Electric Infrastructure Security Summit organized by the Henry Jackson Society in the British Parliament in London, on 30 June, 2014, which can be found here.

Olli Heinonen is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.