Two big nuclear concessions to Iran are coming into focus

The terms of a possible nuclear deal with Iran are now out, as the AP has gotten its hands on a draft version of a framework agreement.

Tehran and the US-led group of countries (the 5 permanent members fof the UN Security Council and Germany, a group known as the P5+1) are negotiating an end to the international standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.

The AP’s reporting suggests that the sides aren’t exactly close to reaching even such a preliminary deal, which has a March 31 deadline and would prefigure a final agreement to be signed by the end of the June.

It’s still unclear how long an agreement would even last, with France pushing for a 25-year lifespan, according to AP. The sides are also split on how and when various international sanctions on Iran would be lifted, and on the extent of nuclear research and development Iran would be permitted to continue over the life of a deal.

But AP reporting confirms two fairly substantial P5+1 concessions to Iran.

Firstly, it says that the P5+1 has agreed to let Iran operate 6,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges. Both Israeli and US sources have previously reported that the P5+1 was considering letting Iran run between 4,000 and 6,500 centrifuges under a final agreement. But the AP report is the best confirmation so far that the P5+1 has substantially shifted its negotiating posture, eroding its demands on Iran’s centrifuge capacity.

The 6,000 number is a huge increase on the 1,500 machines the P5+1 was demanding a year ago, according to the AP.

Iran nuclear facilityAPIn this Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007 photo, an Iranian technician walks through the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran.

The number is also about 185,000 centrifuges fewer than the number Iran would need to feed its Bushehr nuclear reactor without having to import enriched uranium from a foreign seller. But as Ollli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency told Business Insider last month, it’s also 5,000 centrifuges more than Iran needs to run a “demonstration cascade” that would allow the country to maintain its nuclear scientists’ expertise and keep up its mastery of the fuel cycle.

Six-thousand centrifuges can produce about 6,000 separative work units worth uranium enrichment per year, which has a market cost of only $US852,000. Iran has no specific civilian need to operate 6,000 machines, and buying enriched uranium on the international market would be far cheaper than running the centrifuges anyway.

But it does allow Tehran to remain between six months and a year of nuclear breakout, and that’s assuming its stockpile of low-enriched uranium remains constant and that there are no additional secret nuclear facilities. Iran has cheated on both counts in recent years, so the 6,000 centrifuge number takes a huge gamble with Tehran’s future compliance — in addition to giving them a capability that isn’t strictly necessary to their civilian nuclear needs.

Kerry zarifREUTERS/Rick WilkingU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva January 14, 2015. Zarif said on Wednesday that his meeting with Kerry was important to see if progress could be made in narrowing differences on his country’s disputed nuclear program.

Secondly, the AP reported that elements of the arms embargo on Iran would rolled back early on in the life of the deal.

“If a deal is reached, officials say various layers of UN sanctions on Iran will be eased,” the AP reports. “That will include parts of the UN arms embargo, with Russia and China, in particular, more forward-leaning on that front and talking about acting within weeks of a full accord.”

This would actually be a double concession. International sanctions have forced Iran to develop one of the world’s most comprehensive domestic arms industries. But while Iran is one of the only countries on earth capable of building its own submarines, warships, and ballistic missiles, their materiel isn’t up to Russian or Chinese standards.

Russia and China are both members of the P5+1. And they both have a history of backing Tehran on various issues — Russia and Iran are the Assad regime’s only two remaining state allies in the Syrian civil war, after all. And they’re both energetic arms exporters, with China’s exports increasing 143% in the past 5 years, according to the Financial Times.

Russia s-300Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFPRussian has hinted at a sale of S-300 advanced surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

The end of the embargo opens up a new arms market for both countries. Iran is one of the region’s rising powers, according to no less an authority than President Barack Obama. China and Russia realise they both have something to gain from that.

There are still plenty of nuclear-related issues that haven’t quite been resolved in the negotiations yet, or at least where there hasn’t been a publicly reported fix. The status of the Arak plutonium reactor, Iranian disclosures of the military dimensions of their nuclear program, limits on centrifuge testing and construction, and the exact process and timetable for lifting international sanctions are still up in the air.

The question now is whether these will be dealt with through further P5+1 concessions — or whether Iran is willing to give the ground needed to reach a final resolution to the nuclear standoff.

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