by Charles Naas
Ten days have passed since the much-anticipated agreement between the P5+1 (US, France, UK, Russia and China plus Germany) and Iran was signed in Geneva. The world’s media has been flooded with hundreds of exaggerated expressions of hope that Iran has now rejoined the international community of nations and that perhaps the long, cold winter of US-Iran hostility might be drawing to a close. Israel and a few proliferation hawks have warned that the agreement has brought the world closer to nuclear war at some future point in light of what they perceive as Iranian gains in the first-phase accord. In a joint column Tuesday, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have taken positions that appear closer to those of the deal’s Senate critics, although, at the same time, they don’t suggest the imposition of new sanctions pending further negotiations.
In fact, this six-month “interim” agreement is already subject to disagreements by Iran and the US as to the literal content of the accord itself. Iran has released its version of the “text,” while the White House put out a lengthy Fact Sheet. They are not entirely consistent. The six-month term of the agreement apparently starts in January 2014 and will be supervised by a Joint Commission to ensure that the particulars of the Agreement are observed, as well as to test the political waters in each country to ascertain how much flexibility key domestic constituencies are willing to give them as they move forward. In the event that full agreement is not reached by the end of June, another six-month extension, possibly embodied in a new accord, is expected. The differences in interpretation do not bode well for early conclusion. One has to address the Agreement, therefore, from this still conflicting state.
It is safe to assume that in the many negotiations that have taken place over the last couple of years just about every issue — from small technical ones to the larger policy ones — have at least been addressed, if not entirely agreed upon. In many respects, the specifics of the Geneva pact, as difficult as it was to reach, became the lower-hanging fruit once it became clear Iran was prepared to freeze and even roll back some critical components of its nuclear program as part of the deal.
Whether or not Iran has the “right” to enrich uranium seems moot since the principal concessions by the P5+1 include the understanding that Tehran may continue to enrich uranium under “mutually defined enrichment programmes with mutually agreed parameters consistent with present real needs,” Perhaps of greater significance, they also agreed that Iran will be treated “in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state” — in effect, “the most favored nation” concept taken from economic treaties.
Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead is what to do with Iran’s clearly ambitious civilian nuclear power program. It’s entirely possible that this matter could scuttle any long-term agreement. Tehran has not yet formally presented those plans, and, thus far, what is publicly known rests with Bushehr Two and the less significant reactor at Darkhova. But officials have in the recent past mentioned 16 planned reactors — the sites for which are still unknown — while others have cited the earlier plans, first announced by the Shah’s government in the mid-1970’s, to build 20-24 reactors. Either plan amounts to an enormous undertaking that would take decades to implement and also raises the question of the source of the uranium fuel needed to run the plants. If Iran plans to enrich its own original fuel, it needs roughly 80 tons of enriched uranium to produce electricity. At present, Iran possesses roughly seven tons of low enriched uranium (LEU) in its stockpile, but each reactor would need approximately 25 tons of fuel replacement annually. To meet these requirements locally, Iran would need large amounts of ore (which might not be available from its current mines) and thousands of additional centrifuges of the most advanced kind.
Bushehr’s start-up fuel rods have been sold to Iran by Russia, which also is committed to take control of spent fuel and supply yearly its fuel requirements. It is possible that Iran could reach similar agreements with western suppliers, as well as Russia, to fuel its reactors, but that would leave Iran’s current enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow, with no apparent task. The closure of these facilities would meet Israel’s demands and no doubt come as a relief to other powers. But, having spent billions of dollars in their construction, how likely is Iran to settle for no indigenous source of enriched fuel, particularly since their officials now contend that their “right to enrich” has been recognized? As a minimum, Iran will insist that the rubric, “a mutually defined enrichment programme,” binds all signatories to cooperate with, or permit, Iran’s nuclear activities in the future. While Iran’s pride and security of supply are at stake, how will Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others react if Iran’s enrichment facilities commence their work at an increased pace?
Other difficult nuclear problems that remain to be addressed include: what will be done with the spent fuel from future reactors or medical isotopes; will any reprocessing be permitted and, if so, under what conditions and whose auspices? The timing and progression of relief from UN, US, and European sanctions will likely provoke discord: all at once? First applied, first relieved, or most harmful to Iran’s economy first to be lifted? And what occurs if Congress increases sanctions and/or refuses to lift already levied sanctions?
In other words, Geneva was a magnificent diplomatic achievement. But to get to a final resolution will require traversing potentially lethal minefields. The unity of the six could yet collapse under the pressure, while other nations that have observed the sanctions would likely strike out on their own in defiance of Washington’s wishes. As many seasoned diplomats have already warned, we’re still at the beginning of a long and difficult process.