Nuclear deal would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon
Negotiators in Vienna isolated three possible ways that Iran could obtain a nuclear weapon:
- The uranium processing route through the plants at NatanzNatanz
The Natanz Nuclear Facility is generally recognized as Iran's central facility for enrichment with over 19,000 centrifuges currently operational and nearly half of them being fed with uranium hexafluoride.
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The Fordow nuclear facility is an Iranian uranium enrichment site that is targeted by the nuclear deal. The facility is in a heavily fortified bunker and was long kept secret from the IAEA until it was revealed by Western satellite imagery in 2009. Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran will dismantle all centrifuges operating at Fordow and convert the facility into a research center.
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- The plutonium processing route through the plant at ArakArak
Iran is constructing a 40 MWt heavy water moderated research reactor at Arak. International investigators are concerned that this facility reflects Iran's effort to achieve nuclear weapons by enriching plutonium and that this reactor would generate enough plutonium to fuel two nuclear weapons annually. Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran has agreed to redesign its Arak heavy water reactor so that it is incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, and promised to ship all the spent fuel from the reactor abroad.
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- and the through a covert facility not currently known to negotiators (ex. "sneakout")
The measures put in place under the nuclear deal establish verifiable limits to block each of these pathways and define measures to take if any violations are discovered. The end result is that for the term of the agreement (15 years), Iran will not be able to develop a nuclear weapon without being discovered by the international community.
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[PRO] If the Supreme Leader accepts an agreement with the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 – that is endorsed by the United National Security Council - Iran will be so firmly committed that it is very likely to comply for the period of the agreement. Over time, the benefits of an agreement will build a constituency in Iran who will oppose any nuclear backsliding that would jeopardize those benefits. Finally, the agreement could help foster political reform inside Iran and a more moderate foreign policy that will undercut the arguments of those Iranian factions who advocate acquisition of nuclear weapons.
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Time, however, does not in fact work to Iran’s advantage. The JPA both freezes the development of Iran’s nuclear program and provides more effective assurances against Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon than is commonly acknowledged. Under the JPA, Iran cannot increase its enrichment capacity and as eliminated its stocks of uranium enriched to 20 percent. At the same time, the safeguards and inspections regime monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities is substantial—significantly greater than what had been in place prior to the agreement, and very likely nearly as comprehensive as anything the P5+1 will ever achieve. Existing safeguards are certainly not perfect, but no verification mechanism will ever provide complete assurances. More to the point, the combination of the “limits on infrastructure” and “activities with increased safeguards” provisions in the JPA make it virtually impossible for Iran to carry out a nuclear breakout without providing the United States and its allies time to detect the attempt and to intervene. The Obama administration’s estimate of a two-month breakout time sounds scarier than it is, especially if one keeps in mind that this is the minimum amount of time, under highly ideal conditions, it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a single weapon. Even having achieved that, Iran would still lack a credible nuclear deterrent and be substantially far from acquiring one. Therefore, the current risk of an Iranian breakout attempt, let alone a successful one, has to be judged extremely low.
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The fact that Iran possesses a basic nuclear capability, and that political will, not technical capacity, will determine the nuclear endgame suggests that any agreement will need buy in from Iran if it is to be successful. Iran knows how to build a centrifuge, and neit her sanctions nor military strikes can change that. In the long - term, the best way to insure than Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons if for Iran to embrace its non - nuclear posture.
Perhaps most importantly, the DNI has assessed that Iran has not yet m ade a decision to pursue nuclear weapons and may or may not make such a decision in the future. This would seem to imply that the moment is ripe for an agreement that would lock Iran into a political decision and a policy path that takes it down a non - nuclear road.
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As contemporary scholars of nuclear studies have repeatedly pointed out, the historical record for non-proliferation is a surprising story of success. Dark predictions of nuclear spread did not come true; we do not live in a world of dozens of nuclear weapons states. In fact, the rate or pace of proliferation has steadily declined since the 1960s, with fewer and fewer countries joining the nuclear weapons club each decade. The pool of potential proliferators is the smallest is has ever been, and since the end of the Cold War, more countries have given up their weapons assets than joined the nuclear club. In short, nonproliferation is one of America’s greatest policy successes. Congress can take a major share of credit for that outcome, from the efforts of Senator McMahon and later Senator Pastore and on through the work of this committee today.
Of course, not all the news is good. North Korea and the A.Q Kahn network are reminders that there is still difficult work to be done, and that success requires continued effort. The unambiguous evidence to date suggests, however, that it is possible to prevent and even reverse proliferation.
The data also suggests that negotiated agreements are a powerful tool for achieving nonproliferation objectives. There is scholarly debate about the causes of America’s nonproliferation success, and one should assume that a variety of factors contribute, but my own research suggests that, contrary to my expectations, nonproliferation agreements can have a profound effect. From the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to the Libya nuclear agreement, negotiated agreements are among the most important tools governments have to preventing and reversing proliferation.
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There is no such thing as a perfect agreement, free of risk. In public policy there are always risks – risks from action, risks from inaction. But as history has repeatedly demonstrated, an agreement that greatly advances nonproliferation and US national security does not have to be perfect. If perfect were the standard, we would have no NPT, no arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, no nuclear deal with Libya, no Proliferation Security Initiative, and the like – all of which have advanced American national security.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, arguably the single most important and effective nonproliferation tool ever devised, has numerous flaws. It has no enforcement clause; it provided for nuclear testing (for peaceful purposes); it did nothing to limit the fuel cycle or fissile material. Safeguards arrangements in 1970 were a pale, weak cousin to what we have toady. Had the NPT been up for consideration today rather than 45 years ago, it might have been rejected for its flaws. And doing so would have been a gigantic error of enormous consequence. The NPT, like all nonproliferation and arms control agreements, was not perfect and did not eliminate all risk, but it was spectacularly successful. It helped prevent the cascade of proliferation that virtually every government and academic analyst had predicted in the years prior to its passage.
MYTH: A good comprehensive deal with Iran must dismantle Iran's nuclear weapons capability.
REALITY: Iran has had a nuclear weapons capability, but has chosen not to develop nuclear weapons. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessed that Iran has developed a range of technologies, including uranium enrichment, nuclear warhead mechanics, and delivery systems, that would give it the option to launch a nuclear weapons development effort in a relatively short time frame "if it so chooses." Eliminating that capability is, for all practical purposes, not possible. Even if Iran completely "dismantled" its nuclear infrastructure, it could rebuild it. Tougher sanctions or a military strike also will not eliminate the knowledge and basic industrial capacity that Iran has developed and could rebuild.
Ergo, the goal of a verifiable, comprehensive agreement must be to prevent Iran from exercising that capability by limiting and constraining its nuclear capacity (especially fissile material production) and by increasing transparency over its program. Phased sanctions relief also offers incentives for continued compliance to comply with the deal and not decide to build a nuclear weapon in the future.
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The best way to understand how an agreement can successfully prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is to examine Iran’s nuclear strategy. Since the start of the Obama administration, Iran has been within a year’s time of obtaining enough 90 percent highly enriched uranium for a bomb, but has not actually chosen to enrich to that level.1 The final steps necessary to obtain the material are conspicuous and cannot be explained as dual-use activities meant for Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program.2 Any attempt then to pursue this course of action would be quickly noticed, creating a window of vulnerability during which Israel, the United States, or an international coalition could strike the program and set it back. Iran has slowly sought to shrink this window of vulnerability so that should it ever decide to break out, it would be able to do so with less risk. This strategy has entailed bringing on more centrifuges, improving their efficiency, increasing stockpiles of low enriched uranium, and building facilities that are more difficult to attack.
The real measure of any final deal’s effectiveness is whether or not it can reverse Iran’s attempts to expand its nuclear program and set the Iranians far enough away from a nuclear weapon that they will never dare risk pursuing a breakout by taking the final steps necessary to obtain a nuclear weapon. In other words, a deal has to keep the window of vulnerability large enough. If the final agreement is reflective of the White House fact sheet released on April 2, 2015, at the conclusion of the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, it should be able to successfully lengthen the window of vulnerability to a point where Iran is deterred from pursuing a nuclear weapon for years to come.3
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From the record of arms control negotiations and agreements by both Republican and Democrat presidents – from Nixon and Reagan and both Bushes, to Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama – one brute take-away is hard to deny: agreements have reduced risks of war, reduced the numbers of nuclear weapons, reduced uncertainties in estimating threats, and enhanced predictability.
As Henry Kissinger said to this committee five years ago, “A number of objectives characterize arms control negotiations: to reduce or eliminate the danger of war by miscalculation, which requires transparency of design and deployment; to bring about the maximum stability in the balance of forces to reduce incentives for nuclear war by design, especially by reducing incentives for surprise attack; to overcome the danger of accidents fostered by the automaticity of the new technology.”
The deal includes measures to block each of three main pathways to the bomb — uranium enrichment at the known sites, plutonium production at the known sites, and covert sites. On uranium enrichment, Iran has agreed to only enrich uranium with just over 5,000 older, somewhat unreliable IR-1 centrifuges at a single site, and to eliminate all but 300 kilograms of the stock of low-enriched uranium it has built up. That stock of enriched uranium is important because uranium enrichment is an exponentially accelerating process: once you’ve enriched to 3-4% of the U-235 that is the kind that’s easy to split, you’ve done two-thirds of the work of going all the way to 90% U-235 for a bomb. So getting rid of that stock means Iran would take nearly three times as long or need nearly three times as many centrifuges to make material for a bomb.
On the plutonium side, Iran has agreed to modify the Arak reactor so it can produce much less plutonium, to ship all the plutonium-bearing spent fuel from that reactor and other research reactors out of the country, and not to build facilities for reprocessing — the chemical process needed to get the plutonium out of spent fuel from a reactor. The plutonium path, in short, is blocked.
On covert sites, the main tool to give us confidence has always been our intelligence agencies. But the deal includes several elements that will help us make sure Iran is not building covert sites to make bomb material. First, Iran agrees to a much broader set of inspections, including access to suspect sites if needed. Second, the cut in the enriched uranium stock means that a covert site would have to be nearly three times as big or take nearly three times as long, making it much easier to detect. Third, there will be monitoring of Iran’s stocks of centrifuges and key components, of the facilities where they make centrifuges, of their production of uranium, and of their procurement of nuclear and nuclear-related technologies — of everything they would need to supply such a covert site. Combined, the deal’s provisions greatly reduce the chance that Iran could build a covert program and get away with it.
The political impact might be even more important, making the job of those in Tehran pushing to build the bomb much harder. First, the technical constraints would make it more difficult for them to make the case that Iran could build a bomb before being found out and stopped. Second, a deal with all of the world’s major powers would greatly reduce the sense of threat that is among the bomb advocates’ best arguments. Having just signed a deal, the United States would certainly not be using military force against Iran’s nuclear program unless Iran grossly violated the pact – and with all of the P5+1 behind a deal, an attack would no longer be a plausible option for Israel, either.
Third, by lifting sanctions, the deal would create a flow of very real benefits to Iran – including to some of the most powerful players in the Iranian regime – which they would not want to put at risk with clandestine bomb efforts. Fourth, the deal would make clear that compromise with the West that really does contribute to Iran’s economic development is possible, strengthening advocates of compromise in Tehran. Finally, the agreement’s 10-25 year duration means that, if successful, an entire generation of Iranians will come of age in an era of reduced tension and confrontation with the West— creating new and powerful political constituencies against returning to confrontation on the nuclear issue. With all of those factors in play, Tehran’s nuclear hawks would have an almost impossible job in arguing that now was the time to rip up the deal and go for the bomb.