FPI Analysis: Unanswered Questions Pervade Iran Nuclear Framework

By Tzvi Kahn

Foreign Policy Initiative

April 3, 2015


On Thursday, negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 concluded with the simultaneous release of a joint statement by Iran and the European Union and of a far more detailed State Department parameters document. In light of both the discrepancies between the documents and the dispute between Washington and Tehran as to their relative import, the dénouement in Lausanne raises many questions about the standards to which Iran will be held in a comprehensive agreement.

What is clear is that Iran is getting close to a deal that will not dismantle any of its nuclear facilities or infrastructure. While a number of Iran’s centrifuges and other elements of its program will be placed in storage, they will neither be rendered inoperable nor, it seems, shipped out of the country. Crucially, the parameters document includes numerous sunset clauses that mandate the expiration of almost every key restriction on the Iranian nuclear program, paving a path for it to become a threshold nuclear state.

This analysis identifies a number of key provisions within the State Department’s parameters document, and describes questions that policymakers and the public should ask in order to determine the actual substance of what President Obama has described as a “framework” that will lead “to a comprehensive, final deal” with Iran.

Iran’s Uranium Enrichment Program

“Iran has agreed to reduce its current stockpile of about 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300 kg of 3.67 percent LEU for 15 years.” – State Department Parameters Document

Although “low-enriched uranium” may sound benign, its production requires some seventy percent of the effort required to produce weapons grade uranium, and thus poses a significant proliferation risk. This is why, the United States has insisted for years that Iran ship its stockpile of LEU out of the country.  Instead, the use of the word “reduce” in the parameters document suggests that Iran may keep this stockpile inside its borders.

In fact, in an April 3 interview, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that what happens to the  stockpile “is still up for decision; it could be shipped out of the country, it could be diluted.” This distinction is crucial. The dilution to which Mr. Blinken is most likely referring is the conversion of uranium hexafluoride to uranium oxide, which is reversible. As Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA, has noted, “The conversion of oxide back to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is not time-consuming, is not necessarily detectable, and is not particularly technically demanding.”

Since the parameters document also states that Iran will continue to enrich uranium with some 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges, its stockpile of LEU will actually grow.  In fact, Iran has increased its stockpile of LEU by some 34 percent since the Joint Plan of Action was announced in November 2013

Finally, the parameters document states that centrifuges not in use will be “placed in IAEA monitored storage.” This suggests that Tehran will retain a large-scale, off-the-shelf enrichment program that could be easily reinstalled.

The Fordow Site and Centrifuge R&D

“Iran has agreed to convert its Fordow facility so that it is used for peaceful purposes only – into a nuclear, physics, technology, research center… Almost two-thirds of Fordow’s centrifuges and infrastructure will be removed. The remaining centrifuges will not enrich uranium.” – State Department Parameters Document

“Iran will not use its IR-2, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, or IR-8 models to produce enriched uranium for at least ten years. Iran will engage in limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges, according to a schedule and parameters which have been agreed to by the P5+1.” – State Department Parameters Document

In December 2013, President Obama said of the secretly built Fordow uranium enrichment plant, “We know they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful program.”  Under the parameters document, Tehran appears poised to keep its underground fortified facility.

While Iran will discontinue uranium enrichment at Fordow, it will use the facility to enrich materials other than uranium. Moreover, the site may be incorporated into Iran’s research and development of advanced centrifuges, which will proceed according to a mutually defined “schedule and parameters.” As a result, the parameters document suggests that Iran may develop an increasingly sophisticated and well defended enrichment capacity inside the Fordow site.

The Arak Heavy Water Reactor

“Iran has agreed to redesign and rebuild a heavy water research reactor in Arak, based on a design that is agreed to by the P5+1, which will not produce weapons grade plutonium, and which will support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production.” – State Department Parameters Document

The heavy water reactor at Arak has been described by former Obama administration official Robert Einhorn as a “plutonium bomb factory.” Although the parameters document says that Iran will “redesign and rebuild” the Arak site in order to prevent the production of weapons grade plutonium, the exact changes that will be made, their effectiveness, and their prospective reversibility have not yet been disclosed.

Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian Nuclear Program

“Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions of its program.” – State Department Parameters Document

Unless the IAEA is allowed to conduct a full audit of Iran’s past nuclear weaponization activities, known as “Possible Military Dimensions,” it will be impossible to verify its future compliance with any agreement.  So far, Iran has stonewalled the IAEA investigation of PMD despite pledging to cooperate in this essential effort.

The parameters document suggests that the P5+1 will instead give Tehran the benefit of the doubt.  In what the Washington Post has called “a reward for Iran’s noncompliance,” Tehran will reportedly implement a scaled-back version of its 2013 agreement with the IAEA.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Tehran will not immediately answer questions regarding PMD, but instead address them over the duration of an agreement.  The parameters document’s vague reference to “an agreed set of measures” does not describe a timeline for Iranian compliance on PMD, nor whether the issue must be fully settled before Iran enjoys additional sanctions relief.

Inspections and Transparency

“The IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities…Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol of the IAEA…Iran will be required to grant access to the IAEA to investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility.” – State Department Parameters Document

There is a major inconsistency between the parameters document and the joint Iran-EU statement. On the one hand, the document states that Iran will implement the Additional Protocol, a set of regulations that govern inspections and other means of verifying that a country does not have an illicit weapons program. In contrast, the Lausanne statement refers only to “provisional application of the Additional Protocol.”

Given that Iran originally signed the Additional Protocol in 2003 yet continued its illicit activity for years, its full compliance with strict verification measures is essential. After the announcement in Lausanne, President Obama sought to assure the nation that “this deal is not based on trust. It's based on unprecedented verification.” That can only be true if Iran is bound by the Additional Protocol and other strict verification measures as may be necessary.

In addition to mentioning the Additional Protocol, the State Department says the IAEA will have “regular” access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. This phrasing suggests that inspections may take place at regular intervals or that they will be predictable in nature. However, the effectiveness of inspections depends on the subject remaining unaware of when or where they will take place.

The Sunset Clauses

The parameters document contains more than a dozen references to restrictions on Iran that will expire after 10 or 15 years. These include almost all the major restrictions placed on Iran in order to ensure it cannot develop nuclear weapons. This suggests that after 10 or 15 years, the United States will concede to Iran the right to engage in almost the full range of activities necessary to produce weapons grade uranium and plutonium. Given that Iran pursued covert nuclear activities for more than two decades, a 10 or 15 year expiration date does not seem adequate to ensure that the regime has truly abandoned its ambitions to build a nuclear weapons program. Nor does it make sense to reward Iran’s long history of deception with a path to being a nuclear threshold state.

U.S. and EU Sanctions

“U.S. and EU nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.” – State Department Parameters Document

Almost immediately upon the announcement of the agreement, Iran and the United States offered contrasting descriptions of the terms of sanctions relief. Whereas the parameters document states that Iran will receive U.S. and EU sanctions relief only after the IAEA has verified the fulfillment of its commitments, the Joint Statement by Iran and the EU states that U.S. and EU sanctions relief will begin while Iran implements its commitments. Foreign Minister Zarif also challenged Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that relief would be “phased.”

Phased sanctions relief that begins only after Iran has implemented its side of the agreement remains critical for the success of any final deal. Since it will be extremely difficult to re-impose sanctions once they are lifted, Iran would have little incentive to honor the agreement.

The parameters document mentions no role for Congress. While the Obama administration recently stated that it would suspend some sanctions on its own using statutory waivers, it has not described a specific timeline for congressional action or stated whether Congress would play a role in authorizing snapback sanctions. In any case, snapback sanctions will face significant practical barriers.

UN Security Council Sanctions

“All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordo, Arak, PMD, and transparency).” – State Department Parameters Document

“A dispute resolution process will be specified, which enables any JCPOA participant, to seek to resolve disagreements about the performance of JCPOA commitments. If an issue of significant non-performance cannot be resolved through that process, then all previous UN sanctions could be re-imposed.” – State Department Parameters Document

Whereas the parameters document states that UN Security Council sanctions will be lifted upon the completion of Iran’s obligations, the joint Iran-EU statement states simply that a UN Security Council resolution will “terminate all previous nuclear-related resolutions” at an unspecified time.

The parameters document offers no details about either the contours of the dispute resolution process or the role of the UN Security Council in it. The document also fails to address the hurdles that would likely cripple any effort to re-impose sanctions, even if the U.N. possesses the will to do so.

Finally, the parameters document’s reference to “an issue of significant non-performance” fails to define a “significant” violation versus an insignificant violation. In the past, Iran has often cheated on its nuclear commitments not through overtly dramatic infringements, but through small, incremental steps.

Terrorism, Human Rights Abuses, and Ballistic Missiles

“U.S. sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal.” – State Department Parameters Document

Neither the parameters document nor the joint statement describe any Iranian commitments regarding terrorism, human rights abuses, or ballistic missiles. The decision to exclude ballistic missiles from the parameters document is particularly puzzling, because they are an integral component of a nuclear weapon program. As State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said  in February 2015, “One of the issues we are taking up in the negotiations, as you know, is how to deal with the ballistic missile capabilities of delivering nuclear warheads. That issue has been discussed and will continue to be discussed as part of the negotiations.”

The questions of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and the regime’s growing human rights abuses are also deeply troubling.  Iran continues to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, rampaging militias in Iraq, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.  At the same time, Iran’s human rights abuses have actually increased under President Hassan Rouhani. Iran conducted more executions in 2014 than at any point in the past dozen years, while prisoners face “mock executions and the threat of rape, along with physical abuse.”