Understanding the Joint Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program

Olli Heinonen

Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, examines the technical details on the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action and compares solutions in this agreement to proposals from past nuclear negotiations with Iran.


On 16 January 2014 the White House made public details from a more extensive non-paper, which specifies the current understandings between Iran and the P5+1 on the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action in months to come.

How does one understand what is being laid out in the Joint Plan of Action? Here are some technical takes on plan.

According to the provisions of the interim agreement, Iran continues to produce low (below 5%) enriched uranium and keeps both 5% and 20% enriched uranium stocks on its soil. Iran maintains centrifuge production capabilities, including the skills of its work force, and continues with centrifuge R&D and testing. Some of the 5% enriched uranium and all of the 20% enriched uranium gets converted to oxide. In addition, no new centrifuges will be installed. In terms of capacity -- that is, when Iran is able to produce enough weapons-grade UF6 material for a single nuclear explosive -- this moves the sliding bar to three months from the currently estimated two to three weeks window given Iran’s currently known facilities.

Construction work on non-nuclear parts is permitted at the Arak IR-40 reactor, and component manufacturing for IR-40 can proceed elsewhere. The stipulated slowing down of installation work at Arak and the halting of fuel production at Isfahan that would feed the Arak reactor means that the reactor will not be operational before 2016.

This process serves as a confidence-building measure, where Iran as well as the P5+1 will be tested on their undertakings as well as their ability to reach a final accord. The most difficult parts, however, lie ahead: an agreement on the scope of uranium enrichment and heavy water program, and Iran’s seriousness in addressing questions and concerns related to its nuclear program’s military dimension, which go well beyond access to one particular building at Parchin.

Centrifuge manufacturing and installation

The present agreement differs from the one in 2003 concluded between the EU-3 and Iran. Under the 2003 agreement, Iran agreed to suspend all uranium enrichment and heavy water reactor-related activities, and agreed to implement fully -- albeit provisionally -- the Additional Protocol. Those arrangements in 2003, and those agreed between Iran and the IAEA, provided the IAEA with generally wider access rights than under the current Joint Plan of Action. The 2003 undertaking included, inter alia, access to nuclear R&D not involving nuclear material. An example of such access was the IAEA's visits to the centrifuge mechanical testing facilities in Tehran and Natanz, which are excluded from the current plan. Another major difference is that in 2003-2005, the IAEA had access to centrifuge component manufacturing facilities, and all components and raw materials such as high strength aluminum or maraging steel were subject to monitoring by the IAEA.

Under the current agreement, Iran would produce additional centrifuges only to replace the broken ones, and it commits to placing all manufactured rotor cylinders and centrifuges under IAEA control. One of the challenges for the IAEA is to establish whether all rotors manufactured have been declared. While it is not obvious from the Joint Plan of Action and the subsequent non-paper whether the IAEA will be provided with the essential information on the acquisition and inventories of raw materials in order to be able to confirm Iran's declarations, this information is clearly needed to provide a more complete picture. Some additional complications may also arise from the fact that the IAEA does not have access to Iran’s R&D installations where the mechanical tests of centrifuges are being conducted without nuclear material.

Enriched uranium inventories

How large will Iran's uranium stockpiles be six months from now? Iran will continue to produce 5 % enriched uranium with a monthly rate of about 250 kg UF6. However, it will convert any newly produced UF6 to uranium oxide by the end of the six-month period. Iran can be expected at the end of the period to tally 7.5 to 8.0 tons of 5% enriched UF6, the rest being held in oxide form. This remains a substantial amount. A separate deal that was negotiated in 2009 (but ultimately fell through) that sought to provide fuel for Tehran Research Reactor foresaw Iran’s inventory of 3.5 % enriched uranium not exceeding 1.2 tons of UF6.

Under today’s agreement, Iran will dilute half of its 20% enriched uranium to 5% and convert it to uranium oxide. The other half will be converted in the coming months to oxide, but it will be kept as a working stock to produce 20% enriched uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. These dilution and conversion activities of 20% enriched uranium are the major factors which extend the break-out times to over three months, with currently known and installed centrifuges.

IAEA inspections

Will the IAEA be able to establish in a timely manner if enrichment of uranium to higher level commences in Natanz and Fordow? The agreement provides IAEA inspectors daily access to these installations, but only to surveillance records and not to anywhere else at the facilities. The surveillance measures cover only certain activities, such as removal of large objects from the cascade areas. Any changes to the actual cascade structures can be physically witnessed only during inspection visits into the cascade halls. To counteract these limitations, the IAEA carries out unannounced inspections. Increased unannounced inspections would increase the ratio of possible detection. Additionally, to decrease detection time, the IAEA has to enhance its verification measures for both 5% as well as 20% enriched uranium, not only in Natanz, but also at the facilities in Isfahan. Understanding the actual parameters of what the IAEA does is important when addressing the issue of timely detection under the present revised system.

Reporting by the IAEA

The U.S. government has indicated that the IAEA, which was also present at the technical negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, wants to keep parts of the discussions confidential. This can in part be explained, as Director-General Yukiya Amano intends to report on the negotiations to the IAEA Board of Governors which meets on January 24. After the Board’s consultations and provision of additional funding, the IAEA Secretariat will then be able to proceed with its verification tasks.

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