Reaching a Compromise on Iran’s Enrichment Program

by Derek Davison

Right now the buzz around Iran is related to Iraq, but the July 20 deadline to reach a final nuclear deal set by last year’s interim accord is fast approaching, and as of July 2 representatives from Tehran and the P5+1 will be in Geneva for a marathon round of talks.

The Arms Control Association (ACA) has accordingly unveiled the third edition of its Iran briefing book, “Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: Toward a Realistic and Effective Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement.” At a public briefing hosted here today by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, panelists discussed a path forward on the primary sticking point in what ACA executive director Daryl Kimball called “one of the most complicated and difficult nuclear negotiations in decades”: Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

A final compromise agreement on the capacity and future growth of Iran’s program hinges on the definition of Iran’s “practical needs” with respect to domestic uranium enrichment. Unfortunately, the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) and Iran have drastically different interpretations of just how much uranium Iran “needs” to enrich, and remain far apart ahead of the next session of talks in Vienna.

ACA analyst Kelsey Davenport explained the two sides’ dispute over Iran’s enrichment needs. Iran’s civilian Bushehr reactor is being supplied with light enriched uranium (LEU) fuel by Russia in a deal that continues through 2021, and that deal could presumably be renewed if both sides agree on the terms, so from the P5+1’s perspective, Iran’s enrichment needs are smaller than its current capacity, enough only to supply its small research reactor and to conduct research into more advanced centrifuge designs. But Iran, which has experience with foreign suppliers (and specifically Russia) reneging on LEU supply deals in the past, argues that its practical needs include enough enrichment capacity to fully fuel the Bushehr reactor, which requires an enrichment capacity far beyond what it currently possesses, plus any additional civilian reactors that it has built in the meantime.

The ACA’s compromise proposal calls for limits on Iranian enrichment capacity that would increase over time as Iran meets benchmarks under the terms of the comprehensive deal. In the long-term, as Princeton Professor Frank von Hippel suggested, Iran could follow the emerging pattern in Europe and the United States in turning its enrichment processes entirely over to a multinational consortium, along the lines of the UK/German/Holland-owned Urenco Group. Meanwhile, Iran’s desire to continue modernizing its centrifuges could be met by allowing it to swap out older, less efficient models for more advanced versions, provided that Iran’s overall enrichment capacity remains constant, ideally at a level slightly below where it stands today. This compromise would not leave Iran with enough capacity to fuel its Bushehr reactor, but “firm foreign supply assurances” could be made to assuage Iranian concerns, according to Davenport.

Enrichment capacity drives the P5+1’s concern over Iran’s “breakout capacity,” which ACA Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann discussed at length in remarks that highlighted the problems with using the phrase as a metric in the talks. In principle, the P5+1 wants to extend the time between a hypothetical Iranian decision to “break out” of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations and its development of a working nuclear device, so that the international community would have time to discourage or prevent Iran from producing a finished weapon. In practice, as the P5+1 has used the term, “breakout capacity” refers to the minimum amount of time it could take Iran to produce the required amount (roughly 25 kilograms) of highly enriched uranium (90% enriched) to produce one bomb. It serves as a theoretical “worst case scenario” timeframe for the production of an Iranian bomb. That timeframe, however, is unrealistic at best. While producing 25 kg of HEU is thought to be the biggest technical hurdle to building a bomb, it is not the only hurdle; a working device must be constructed and tested, which adds to the amount of time it would take to produce a weapon, and inevitable legal, political, and technical challenges would lengthen that timeline even further. Moreover, it would be pointless for Iran to “break out” of its NPT requirements for just one bomb (particularly if it plans on testing the final device), so the P5+1’s focus on the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough HEU for one bomb is excessively stringent.

The final push to reach a deal before the July 20 deadline will not be easy, but this ACA briefing shows that both sides do indeed have the room to move toward an acceptable compromise. Iran can accept assurances that its immediate supply of LEU reactor fuel will not be endangered, and in return it can be allowed to continue modernizing its centrifuges and to eventually increase its overall enrichment capacity over time. At the same time, if the P5+1 is to meet its goal of extending Iran’s breakout time into the 6-12 month range, it will have to adopt a definition of “breakout capacity” that is more realistic than the standard it’s currently using.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. This agreement setting the path to end the decade old US-Iran antagonism will certainly be a humiliating defeat for Saudi Arabia and Israel.
    No wonder Saudi Arabia is hysterically trying to create trouble in Iraq for the USA and Iran and Israel trying to show it still has a role in the region by bombing Syria and Gaza. The two proteges of USA are fidgety and worried about this new situation unraveling.

    A total re-alignement of alliances is taking place in the region. That may explain the violent turmoil that the region is facing.

  2. Certainly seems more information is available on this subject now that the crunch time is upon the negotiations. Sweeping away all the “Sky is Falling’ rhetoric we have been exposed to these past months, is informative, to say the least.

  3. Clearly Iran will not relinquish its desire to not only expand its refining capacity, but also improve it with next generation centrifuges. While the West wants Iran to downsize from its current 19,000 centrifuge level, Iran has staunchly stated its desire to expand with another 30,000 new centrifuges. Iran can live with most other concessions, because so long as it preserves it refining capacity, it still retains the ability to generate large amounts of weapons grade material quickly. Ultimately this is going to be the Achilles heel of these negotiations and rightly so. As long as Iran stays on this path, the West should resist and not conclude this agreement.

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