Iran and a US-led group of nations signed a framework agreement determining limits on Iran’s nuclear program, with a final deal to be negotiated and signed before June 30th.
It’s a major diplomatic breakthrough with vast implications for nuclear non-proliferation, Middle Eastern politics, and American foreign policy.
However, there’s one critical issue: The Obama administration’s rubric for success is to implement a set of safeguards and limits that would prevent Iran from being able to assemble a single nuclear warhead in less than one year.
The problem is that it’s far from clear if that standard has actually been met under the latest framework agreement.
About an hour after the deal was signed, Business Insider spoke with Thomas Moore, a longtime nonproliferation expert for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said that the verification regime outlined in the deal could leave plenty of unanswered questions as to Tehran’s actual nuclear infrastructure and capabilities.
He sees two red flags with the agreement: First, the agreement actually lessens Iran’s obligations under the Additional Protocols of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Second, it allows Iran to engage in nuclear activities — like stockpiling low-enriched uranium and operating a plutonium reactor — that have no civilian necessity.
Both of these undercut Obama’s standard for success.
As Moore notes, “we’ve never had an instance generally speaking where a state chooses to cheat at a declared site.” This is one of the biggest challenges of nuclear verification more generally: How is it possible to reach sites designed so that inspectors never find out about them?
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, the international agreement governing the use of nuclear technologies and materials, has an answer to this question: The Additional Protocol, a set of regulations specialised to each country’s specific nuclear infrastructure that allows monitors to ensure that a nuclear-capable country won’t cheat its way to an illicit weapons capability.
Each country has to negotiate an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since it’s part of a country’s NPT obligations, the Additional Protocol is considered binding under international law.
Iran signed onto the Additional Protocols in 2003 only to flagrantly violate them: Most notably, in 2009, international monitors revealed the existence of the concealed Fordow nuclear facility, which is located inside of a mountain.
There’s already a bit of ambiguity over what the framework says about the Additional Protocol. A White House fact sheet, whose details are already being publicly disputed by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, says that Iran has “agreed to implement the Additional Protocol of the IAEA” — but without providing a timeframe or saying whether Iran would be require to legally ratify the Protocol.
More worrying is that the joint EU-Iran declaration includes a major discrepancy with the White House’s already conditional announcement.
“A set of measures have been agreed to monitor the provisions of the [final agreement] including implementation of the modified Code 3.1 and provisional application of the Additional Protocol,” the joint text announced the afternoon of April 2nd. (Emphasis ours).
“Provisional” falls somewhat short of “full.” It’s a word that doesn’t appear in the White House’s fact sheet. And observers can’t be sure of just how short of “full” it falls until a final agreement is signed, or until the text of today’s agreement becomes public.
But in Moore’s view, it implies Iran may not be required to adhere to the Protocol in full.
“This whole question of whether we can verify what Iran is saying is complete and correct isn’t getting any better under this agreement, and that’s because of them only provisionally applying the Additional Protocol,” Moore explained to Business Insider.
The White House and the EU can claim that they have intensified the inspections regime under this latest agreement. But it’s less credible if Iran is still allowed to skimp on its legal obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And it raises immediate questions about what Tehran may still be concealing.
“My question is if they really don’t’ need to hide anything now, why can’t they bring the Additional Protocol into force and let the whole of the protocol be implemented all over Iran?,” Moore wondered.
There’s nothing unprecedented about the deal’s verification regime, Moore says, and it might lead other aspiring nuclear states to insist that they don’t need to be fully held to the Protocol.
Furthermore, it may convince Iran that they have dodged having to deal with an intensified inspection regime whose violation triggers various consequences under the international legal system.
“I don’t see that Iran is going to do anything different on cooperation for verification today than it did prior to today,” Moore told Business Insider.
Tehran doesn’t need all that infrastructure for civilian purposes
Under the framework agreement, Iran is allowed to keep 6,000 uranium centrifuges and operate over 5,000 of them at a given time. It will be allowed to keep a stockpile of 300 kg of 3.67% enriched uranium meaning they will have a substantial stock of uranium enriched to 3.5% or lower that has no actual civilian application.
“The Russian reactors Iran is buying require upwards of 4% enrichment,” Moore explained, and therefore the “enrichment level they’re talking about isn’t appropriate to the Russian reactors.”
“What it will actually amount to 10 years from now is that they will have a lot of accumulated low-enriched uranium, which means they’re keeping their options open,” Moore explained. In other words, they will be allowed to keep plenty of fissile material that’s some percentage of its way to being enriched to weapons grade.
There’s a similar issue with the heavy water reactor at Arak. Under the framework agreement, the reactor will be modified under international supervision. But Moore notes that technology-wise, the reactor is a 1970s-level relic without much in the way of present-day utility — unless Iran intends to keep its options open for producing plutonium for a nuclear weapon.
“You don’t’ need a water reactor for electricity and it’s antiquated technology,” he explained. “It only makes one thing: plutonium.”
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