Iran Nuclear Deal Would Halt Progress to Bomb — Not Prevent It

Program Could Be Restarted If Detente Falters

By Reuters

Published November 21, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

An interim deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme aims to make it harder for the Islamic state to build any bomb but may still leave it, at least for now, with enough material for several nuclear warheads if refined to a high degree.

In a sign of how far Iran’s nuclear activity has advanced in a few years, the deal under discussion in Geneva this week appears unlikely to achieve a central goal of an abortive one in 2009: reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to below that needed for one nuclear bomb, if processed more.

While details of the text being negotiated in Geneva by senior officials from Iran and six world powers have remained secret, it seems to focus mostly on halting Iran’s higher-grade enrichment and neutralising that material.

That is because enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent - compared to the 3.5 percent usually required for nuclear power plants - represents most of the work needed to reach weapons-grade uranium of 90 percent.

The aim of the Geneva talks, a senior U.S. official said, is to make sure that Iran’s programme “does not advance, and in some cases is even rolled back”, to give time for negotiations on a final settlement of the decade-old nuclear dispute.

Under this “first step” arrangement, diplomats say, Iran would have to stop 20 percent enrichment, convert its existing stocks of around 200 kg (440 pounds) of such uranium gas to an oxide form or “downblend” it to reduce the enrichment level.

Tehran could also be asked to produce less 3.5 percent enriched uranium - which it says it needs for a planned network of nuclear power plants - by operating fewer centrifuges used to refine the material by spinning at supersonic speed.

But diplomats have made little specific mention of Iran’s growing LEU stocks, which have increased four-fold since 2009 to an amount Western experts believe would be enough for four bombs or more if refined to weapons-grade.

Still, the proposed agreement could double Iran’s breakout time, defined as how long it would take it to produce fissile material for one weapon, said Shashank Joshi, an Iran expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

Cliff Kupchan, Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, offered a similar assessment and said he believed it would be “very good deal” for the United States.

“Any breakout would be much more detectable,” he said.

They did not give any specific estimates for how long Iran - which says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only - would need to assemble a bomb, before or after a deal.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said that any agreement in Geneva would buy additional months in terms of Iran’s capacity to break out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime and “weaponise” enrichment, if it chose to do so.

But Olli Heinonen, a former chief U.N. nuclear inspector, questioned the suggestion that the timeline could be pushed back months.


The U.S. Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) last month warned of steadily shortening breakout times if Iran’s nuclear programme advanced further.

It said Iran could make one so-called Significant Quantity for a bomb - 25 kg of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) - in as little as one to 1.6 months if it used its 20 percent stock.

More would be required if Iran only had its lower-refined material, but it could still do it in 1.9-2.2 months, ISIS said, and Tehran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for four bombs with its existing amount of LEU.

The estimates excluded the effort needed to produce a usable nuclear weapon itself - that is, fitting HEU into a missile cone with the means to launch it toward a target.

“This extra time could be substantial, particularly if Iran wanted to build a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile,” the ISIS report said.

“However, these preparations would most likely be conducted at secret sites and would be difficult to detect.”

Iran’s LEU stockpile stood at 7,154 kg in early November, according to the latest report on its nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency, an increase of about 380 kg in the last three months even though the Islamic Republic stopped expanding its enrichment capacity during the period.

In late 2009, when the IAEA brokered the fuel swap accord with Iran, the amount was about 1,800 kg. The accord would have obliged Tehran to ship out 1,200 kg and get 20 percent reactor fuel in return from abroad, leaving it short of the more than 1,000 kg required for a nuclear weapon.

The fuel swap plan was envisioned by the West as a way to reduce mistrust and help pave the way for broader negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear programme, like this week’s talks.

But that confidence-building step collapsed after Iran backed away from its terms. Shortly thereafter, in early 2010, it started enriching uranium to 20 percent, the part of its nuclear programme that the powers now want it to stop.

Perhaps with such past developments in mind, the U.S. official said any agreement this week should “give us some time on the clock” for talks on a more far-reaching settlement to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful.

Nuclear expert Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank said he believed a deal in Geneva would address all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme in order “to freeze it in its tracks” and therefore it was likely to address the LEU issue as well.

Given that the agreement would lengthen Iran’s breakout time, the absence of any significant reduction in the size of the stockpile “shouldn’t pose a problem”, Vaez said.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.