Nuclear Iran: Past is Prologue

by Charles Naas

Following months of positive reports about the negotiations between world powers and Iran over its substantial nuclear program, the mood has turned somewhat pessimistic, despite verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran has met its commitments under the November 2013 Join Plan of Action.

The negotiating teams have been unusually disciplined in terms of leaks but official briefings have indicated that some major technical issues are on the way to being settled. Encouraging? Yes, but from the beginning of the talks it was realized, or should have been, that the day would come when Iran’s long term plans for a sizable nuclear energy program and the need for large amounts of enriched uranium would be front and center.

The past is prologue. Roughly 5 decades ago, we negotiated for several years with Iran over future nuclear cooperation until there was little hope left, and went aground for some time over who would control the possible reprocessing of spent fuel from the US-supplied enriched uranium. In the reprocessing of spent fuel, small quantities of plutonium could be separated and used in power plants or nuclear bombs.

The US side offered a variety of solutions, such as a bilateral plant; buy-back of the fuel; shipping the spent fuel for reprocessing to European facilities; and multi-national enrichment and reprocessing firms. Iran, however, refused all such ideas until President Jimmy Carter and the Shah directly reached a compromise agreement. The president was able to satisfy the Persian monarch’s personal and national pride that Iran would not be treated unfairly. The success of the Iranian Revolution in February of 1979 prevented the legal enactment of that treaty.

Now the concerns over reprocessing have been replaced by deep concerns over enrichment. The present Iranian government, like its royal predecessor, has planned a substantial civilian power program that has tentatively selected 16 areas for the construction of 1000 MW reactors. None, it is believed, has had a shovel of earth removed as yet, however in the view of the lengthy construction time and the vast expenditures required for reactors, issues such as security and supply for sufficient enriched uranium are vital.

At present Iran has 9,000 first stage and 10,000 second stage — IR2 — centrifuges. In all the years that some of them have been operating, Iran has been provided a little over 11,000 kilograms — roughly 5 tonnes — of enriched uranium. This supply is sufficient for 5-7 bombs if further enriched but is totally insufficient for civil reactor needs.

For example, Iran’s one completed reactor at Bushehr needs roughly 21 tonnes of enriched uranium as yearly replacement fuel that will be sold by Russia. The new reactors — which are at least a decade away — will require roughly 70-80,000 tonnes of fuel to start power production, and annual replacement fuel of about 21-25,000 tonnes per reactor. Iran’s negotiators have proclaimed that to meet its future requirements, Iran will need at least 100,000 advanced centrifuges. If in fact Iran pursues its civilian objectives, that figure is modest.

So far Iran has insisted that its future needs must rely on domestic production and depending on imports would make Iran highly vulnerable to political differences and crises. This position is given added weight by the fact that the six powers across the table have been imposing sanctions for a decade.

The position of the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) has been that Iran should reduce its current centrifuges to a number that can only provide enriched material for medical research and isotopes, and depend on imports from reliable producers for future reactor fueling.

The parties are an ocean apart. In response to the negotiating crisis, emergency bilateral sessions took place between Iran and each of the P5+1 members to examine whether there is enough “give” to hold out the hope that compromises can emerge. (Unhappily, as with Carter and the Shah, we do not have leaders who understand or trust each other.) The bilateral talks also give Iran opportunities to test whether cracks are possible within the six. If each side holds to its position, the negotiating effort could be extended for at least a six month period or end.

One potential way forward that requires careful study would be to stipulate that a specific number of additional centrifuges may operate and that the enriched uranium should be put aside under especially rigorous security for a particular future reactor. Whether the US Congress, Israel and Iran’s conservative cabal, not to mention the other five powers, could live with this kind of solution is questionable. But each leader, especially Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, have put great effort into this possible opening of modest relations after three decades of mistrust.

Presumably neither views failure with equanimity, although Obama has consistently said that success was no more than 50% likely.

If failure seems likely, there are many questions that have to be addressed now and not await a crisis:

  • Will Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif politically survive or will the possibility of a more cooperative Iran disappear?
  • Do we take failure as a stage of negotiations and push onwards?
  • Will the US Senate quickly enact even more sanctions?
  • Will Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as it has often threatened?
  • What will be our policy to an Israeli assault and will we foolishly join in and find ourselves ensnared in another Middle East war?
  • Will the P5+1 remain united, continue current sanctions and any new congressional requirements or will each go its separate way?
  • Will Iran, Russia and China, all having current differences with the West, establish more extensive economic and political ties?
  • The present offensive of the jihadist Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) threatens new power configurations in the Middle East. Will we be able to confer with Iran, one of the most significant countries in the region?

These are parlous times. Is the US doing everything possible to strengthen its hand?

Photo: US President Jimmy Carter and Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi share a drink in 1977, two years before the monarch would be overthrown by a popular revolution.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.



  1. Mr Naas post seems blunt and to the point. Indeed, just where will the West go if the talks fail, as some would like? It’s a no-brainer that Iran will give up its nuclear research/refining. If the I.A.E.A. can’t be trusted by some, does that mean all this time has been a waste? If the west don’t stop meddling in other countries affairs as they have done in the Ukraine to isolate or punish Russia, they just might find themselves on the short end of the stick. What happens if Russia & China decide to get involve on a larger basis than they really are today? Considering the action taking place in Iraq today, well, that’s another story in itself, though I’m sure there will be calls for the U.S. to aid someone over there.

  2. The deal with west is nice but not essential. Iran is a vast and fruitful country. Our need to west is not more than wet needs to us. I am 100% sure that Iran under no government or regime will no budge to unacceptable demands.

  3. At last! Someone raises the centrifuge issue in Iran nuke talks. That is the crux of negotiations with the West. Will Iran give up its refining capacity and accept a reduced infrastructure and buy its fuel from outside sources? If Khamenei has his way — which he has loudly proclaimed — the answer is a resounding no, which is why in the end, these talks are doomed for failure since without that refining capacity, Iran would not be able to build a bomb and the West is sure to not give in on this central point.

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