by Kelsey Davenport
In two months Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, according to Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 8. In isolation, this number sounds alarming, but in context, Iran is years, not months, away from a deliverable nuclear weapon and the United States is negotiating to extend that timeline even further.
Highly enriched uranium alone does not give Tehran a practical weapon. Iran would need to be able to build the explosive package and fit the bomb onto a missile. The US intelligence community has consistently testified since 2007 that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program years ago and that there is no hard evidence that Iran has restarted these activities.
Compared to the alternative, two months demonstrates a rollback in Iran’s capabilities. If Iran, the United States and its negotiating partners had not reached the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) in November 2013, that time window would be weeks, not months. That two-month window will also grow longer as Iran continues to follow through on its commitment under the JPA to eliminate its stockpile of uranium that could be more easily enriched to weapons-grade.
While Washington negotiates with Iran on a comprehensive deal that will put even more time back on the clock, it is important to consider how long it would take Iran to “break out” from its commitments and produce enough highly-enriched uranium for weapon. But this is only one factor of the final deal, which should be considered in its entirety.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said in the April 8 hearing that limiting Iran’s nuclear program to a 6-12 month breakout timeline under the final deal is not enough and that a deal must “dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” However, Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. It is also naïve to regard these conditions as feasible. Eliminating Iran’s centrifuges and enriched uranium stockpiles would be an ideal nonproliferation goal, but Iran is highly unlikely to agree to such terms and the United States already agreed in November that Tehran would be allowed to enrich uranium based on its practical needs. Those needs are small and the comprehensive deal should scale back Iran’s uranium enrichment accordingly.
Menendez and his colleagues in Congress must remember that negotiations require compromise, and policymakers must not jeopardize prospects of reaching a good agreement with Iran. They must also remember that a deal will include stringent monitoring and verification in addition to what is already in place that will quickly alert the international community if Tehran deviates from its commitments.
This does not, of course, mean that the United States should accept unlimited uranium enrichment. Menendez said that a deal must prevent Iran from having a path to a nuclear bomb. This is a reasonable demand. Iran should be restricted to only producing uranium enriched to civilian power reactor grade, and the amount produced should be tied to its civilian power needs. In exchange for significant sanctions relief Tehran should also allow international inspectors more extensive access to its nuclear facilities, visits on short notice, and provide more-timely information about future nuclear facilities.
Including these measures in a deal would ensure that Iran could not — if it decided to — dash to build a nuclear weapon before the international community would detect such activities and be able to block them. Evidence suggests that Washington’s team is already placing significant emphasis on achieving comprehensive monitoring and verification measures on Iran’s nuclear program beyond the standard International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring that Iran is already subject to as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Setting limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles would also increase international confidence that Tehran cannot deliver nuclear weapons, but requiring it to dismantle all missiles large enough to deliver them would be akin to the severe missile limits imposed on Saddam Hussein’s vanquished Iraq in 1991. A 150-kilometer range limit on Iran’s ballistic missiles would remove its most effective deterrent against its regional adversaries. Like any other state existing in such circumstances, Iran would likely view this as an unacceptable compromise to its national security.
While Iran may be willing to commit to some confidence building measures in these areas that will give the international community more information about flight tests, missile deployments, and even warhead loadings, Tehran will not agree to dismantle its short and medium-range ballistic missiles, which it sees as vital to its security in a hostile region.
Moreover, capping Iran’s ballistic missile development to small, very short-range systems is not essential for a comprehensive final deal. Strict monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear program would provide enough transparency and the confidence that Tehran is not pursing nuclear weapons, as well as the ability to detect a change in its behavior.
Of course, to get Iran to agree to any of these limitations, Congress must be prepared to pass legislation to lift proliferation-related sanctions and accept a civil Iranian nuclear program, which includes uranium enrichment. If Iran is not convinced that Washington is ready to take this step, a deal is highly unlikely.
Reaching a final deal with Iran will not be easy. Members of Congress should give our diplomats the best chance to negotiate a verifiable nuclear agreement with Iran by avoiding sabotage through unreasonable demands on centrifuge numbers and breakout timelines, which compromise only part of the issues at hand. A comprehensive deal remains the best chance to guard against an unrestrained and unmonitored Iranian nuclear program, but it must include enough reasons for Iran to agree to it.
— Kelsey Davenport is the Nonproliferation Analyst for the Arms Control Association. She focuses primarily on developments related to the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and nuclear security issues.