The verification devil in the details

Olli HeinonenBy Olli Heinonen

The first step agreement slows down Iran’s uranium and plutonium clocks, which is needed. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the agreement addresses but does not rollback Iran’s capabilities. The most significant work and hurdles lie ahead in the contours of any end-game agreement. In the meantime, good implementation, cooperation and compliance of boundaries set on Iran’s nuclear program will be a test of its new approach.

There are many strong views being aired that positively or negatively view the current interim deal. But let us start with some facts on the ground:

  • With Iran’s inventory of 20% enriched uranium, it would take about two weeks using 6000 IR-1 centrifuges, operating in tandem cascades, to produce enough weapons-grade material for one nuclear device. If 3-5 % enriched uranium is used as feed material for all currently installed 18,000 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, the same result would be achieved in two months.
  • The current agreement retains Iran’s fleet of more than 18,000 IR-1 and 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges installed. Operational restrictions are placed that allow 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges to continue to enrich at up to 5% at any given point of time. At Fordow, the tandem cascade arrangements will be disabled. These measures, together with a cessation of 20% enriched uranium production and conversion of the 20%-level stockpiles to oxides, extend the current breakout times to about two months.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) current verification measures on the ground are being augmented. With the daily presence at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and Fordow, the IAEA inspectors are able to give an early warning if Iran does not comply at these locations with its undertakings. Iran has also committed not to build new locations for enrichment and agrees that the IAEA will monitor the manufacturing and assembling workshops of centrifuge rotors.

In verification work, the devil is always in the details. And it should therefore be clearly understood that the verification undertakings by Iran do not end with its present commitments. For instance, the agreement does not require Iran to provide a full inventory of manufactured centrifuges until now, which leaves an uncertainty to the estimates of the true breakout capability of Iran. The presence of any undeclared facilities could change fundamentally the picture. The IAEA remains unable to provide credible assurances on the absence of undeclared nuclear facilities and activities.

In addition:

  • The present agreement freezes construction work at the Arak reactor site and its fuel production in Isfahan, which is welcome. If left unchecked, the reactor, which is envisaged to start operation by the end of 2014, would be able to produce more than one bomb’s worth of plutonium annually. At the same time, the agreement is silent on the manufacturing of remaining key components of the reactor and its continued heavy water production. Technically, such efforts are not reasonable if the goal is to either to dismantle the reactor or modify it to a more proliferation resistant, smaller light water reactor as one of the alternative paths of producing isotopes for medical and industrial purposes.
  • The agreement further states that there would be additional steps between the initial measures and the final step, including among other things, addressing the UN Security Council resolutions. Logically, this should entail answering IAEA questions regarding the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program. Verifications-wise and even strategically, the military and historical understanding of Iran’s nuclear program should be dealt with at a beginning rather than later stage.
  • There also remains ample language in the current agreement that leaves space open for interpretation – another challenge for its implementation.

Still, the agreement is where we presently stand, and focus should be to take full advantage of this first-step agreement towards an end-game deal that would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear program.

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