Nuclear talks Iran’s choice

Nov 22nd 2014 Economist

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 10.57.21 PMFor a deal to be done both sides need to compromise, but Iran must give more ground

AFTER eight years of double crossing and frustration a deadline looms. November 24th is the cut-off for a deal to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful. Much work remains. Is agreement possible and what would it encompass?

Iran is looking for three things from a deal. First, it wants nuclear-related sanctions to be eased. Second, because it would be a national humiliation to dismantle its programme entirely, it insists on preserving the enrichment capacity to meet what it calls its “practical needs”. Third, it wants the prospect of being treated as a “normal” signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the right to a decent civil nuclear programme.

For the rest of the world the goal is simply to increase the time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material to fuel a bomb. Today that could be as little as two months; it should be at least a year, so that any attempt at “breakout” or “sneakout” (in, say, a secret uranium-enrichment plant) would be caught in good time. Only then would there be an opportunity to deter Iran through more sanctions or the credible threat of military action. A deal also needs to have a long enough time-horizon to establish that Iran no longer wishes to preserve the option of building nuclear weapons.

The talks have made progress. There is now a plan to convert the Arak heavy-water reactor so that it produces less plutonium. Iran is also ready to turn the enrichment facility at Fordow, almost impregnable beneath a mountain near Qom, into an R&D site. The sticking point is Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity, which, with the size of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), determines how fast it can make the high-enriched stuff that goes into bombs.

The Russian option  America and its partners say that Iran’s needs for the Tehran Research Reactor and Arak, if it becomes a light-water reactor, can be met with fewer than 2,000 first-generation centrifuges—far fewer than the 10,200 now running and the 9,000 installed but not yet spinning. Fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power station can come from Russia. America wants constraints on Iran’s centrifuges to last for up to 20 years. Iran counters that it will not dismantle any of its centrifuges and that it needs more—to fuel Bushehr when a contract with Russia ends in 2021. That would, it says, take at least a tenfold increase in its capacity plus some new technology.

But there is room for compromise on the numbers. If Iran were to agree to send its LEU routinely to Russia to be made into fuel rods, which cannot easily be further enriched into bomb-fuel, its negotiating partners would agree to its keeping about half its operating centrifuges. The rest would be mothballed at a secure site monitored by nuclear inspectors. Iran’s research into newer, more efficient centrifuges, which could help it build a small secret enrichment plant (a big worry for Western spooks), would be rigorously monitored.

The world could give ground over the length of a deal. After, say, ten years, some constraints could relax in phases—though only if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could certify that Iran was honouring the agreement. To that end, Iran would have to submit to a uniquely intrusive inspection regime. Lastly and crucially, Iran must demonstrate its faith in the deal by admitting its past work on weaponisation. The IAEA could treat such declarations in confidence—saying only that it had received a full accounting.

Some unilateral sanctions could be eased quite quickly because both the European Union and America could reimpose them were Iran to cheat. The UN sanctions should be the last to go because they would be the hardest to restore.

Such a compromise would fall well short of the maximalist demands of Iranian hardliners, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who continue to believe that Iran should have a nuclear-weapons option, if not the bomb itself. It would also provoke outrage among sceptical members of America’s Congress and Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who insist that Iran’s record of cheating means it should have no enrichment programme at all. But that is the nature of compromises; neither side will get all it seeks.

The West would probably accept the deal outlined above. For all its protests, Israel would be much safer from attack than it is now; so indeed would the whole region. Iran has a choice. It could keep an option on nuclear weapons, but suffer poverty; or it can rejoin the global economy and still have the prospect of the peaceful nuclear programme it says it has wanted all along. Which is it to be?