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.
[ More ] and FordowFordow
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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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.
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It is also important to note that there is no other option that could ensure that for the next 15 years Iran will not have nuclear weapons, including military strikes. And 15 years is a long time in the unpredictable and unstable Middle East. In a region facing so many other problems, dramatically restricting Iran’s nuclear program for 15 years is certainly a notable achievement. If 15 years from now Iran chooses to violate the agreement or does not appear to be pursuing a credible civilian nuclear energy program, the same diplomatic, economic, and military options will be available to the United States and its partners.
My second prediction: The deal will work. By “work,” I mean it will keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for the duration of the agreement and possibly beyond. It will not bring peace to the Middle East; it will not fix the Greek economy; it will not cure cancer; it will not get the Red Sox better pitching or put Tiger Woods back in the winner’s circle; and it will not resolve all of our disagreements with Tehran. But it will do what it is designed to do and what Obama pledged to do: It will keep Iran on this side of the nuclear threshold.
But won’t those clever Iranians cheat? No, because the deal is clearly in Iran’s interest too. And make no mistake: Iran was never — repeat, never — going to sign any agreement from which it didn’t derive tangible benefits. If you think otherwise, you are living in a dream world. Moreover, the sort of deal critics say they’d like to see — one where Iran capitulated to every single one of our demands — is precisely the sort of deal that it would be eager to escape as soon as it could, assuming that it would even sign such a deal at all. If you want a deal that both sides will abide by voluntarily, it has to provide benefits for both. That’s just Diplomacy 101.
And let’s not forget that there is no evidence Iran is dead set on having an actual nuclear weapon, and it certainly hasn’t been hellbent on getting one as soon as possible. Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded it has no nuclear weapons program today, a position they have held consistently since 2007. That isn’t all that surprising: As I’ve argued before, Iran has sound, strategic reasons for not getting the bomb, just as it has sound, strategic reasons to want the potential to acquire one should circumstances warrant it at some point in the future. But if Iran were to move in that direction under this agreement, the world would know it almost immediately, sanctions would snap back, military action would become more likely, and all the benefits Iran gains from the deal would go right out the window.
But even if Iranian leaders, after 15 years or more, believed their national interests were best served by having nuclear weapons, they would run major risks in going forward, with no guarantee of success. Even in the ‘out years,’ the JCPOA’s rigorous monitoring arrangements will remain in force. The world will have gained intimate knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program, which would give the United States prompt warning of any Iranian effort to make a dash for the bomb. Even if breakout time had declined to a few weeks, the United States would likely have sufficient time to intervene militarily to stop them. And during the preceding years, the United States will have pursued more effective intelligence means to discover, and more effective military means to thwart, any Iranian movement toward building the bomb.
It would have been preferable to have permanent or longer-term restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program to preserve a one-year breakout time well beyond 15 years. But preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is possible without longer-lasting restrictions—provided the United States and key partners maintain a strong and credible deterrent against a future Iranian decision to go for the bomb. To that end, current and future U.S. presidents, explicitly supported by Congress, should declare that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that the United States will use any necessary means, including military force, to enforce that policy.
The first step on the road to a comprehensive deal came in November 2013 with an interim agreement in Geneva, in which Teh- ran agreed to freeze and modestly roll back its nuclear program in exchange for a pause in new international sanctions and a suspension of some existing penalties. The deal represents the most meaningful move toward a denuclearized Iran in more than a decade. It neutralizes Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium and therefore modestly lengthens Iran’s “breakout” timeline—the time required to enrich uranium to weapons grade—by one or two months. A new inspections regime also means any breakout at- tempt would be detected soon enough for the international community to react, and expanded International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will make it more difficult for Iran to divert critical technology and materials to new secret sites. The terms also preclude the new plutonium reactor at Arak from becoming operational, halting the risk that Iran could soon use plutonium to build a bomb