Nuclear talks will confront Iran’s future ability to enrich uranium

Negotiations in Vienna have to reconcile expectations of US, Israel and Tehran

Iran’s president Hassan Rowhani delivering a speech at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation in Tehran. Photograph: EPA

Iran’s president Hassan Rowhani delivering a speech at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation in Tehran. Photograph: EPA


As Iran and six world powers meet this week in Vienna to begin drafting language to resolve their nuclear standoff, negotiators say they are confronting a crucial sticking point to a permanent agreement – the size and shape of the nuclear fuel production capability that Iran will be permitted to retain.

It is a subject that, at least in public, the Obama administration steps around. It is acutely aware that Israel and members of Congress who are highly suspicious of the negotiations will say that Iran must be kept years from being able to develop a weapon – and that opponents of the deal in Tehran will argue that no restraints should be imposed.

Both the Iranians and the western powers have said their talks so far have been productive, with little of the drama, the ultimatums and the entrenched positions that have marked previous efforts. But, until now, there has been no formal discussion of how much nuclear infrastructure the US and its allies would demand that Iran dismantle in return for the gradual easing of sanctions.

In a visit to Israel last week, national security adviser Susan Rice and chief US negotiator Wendy Sherman made clear that the Iranians would almost certainly retain some enrichment capability, although US officials said they never discussed specific numbers.

Israeli officials say they expect the figure to be 2,000 to 5,000 centrifuges. US officials say their goal is to keep Iran more than a year away from the ability to produce fuel usable in a single nuclear weapon – but they become vague about how much beyond one year. It would take even longer to fabricate that into a deliverable weapon.

Offer of transparency
In a recent speech, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was careful to describe himself as open to more inspections but not to dismantling the country’s nuclear infrastructure. “We have nothing to put on the table and offer to them but transparency,” he told his country’s Atomic Energy Organisation, according to Iranian news organisations. “That’s it. Our nuclear technology is not up for negotiation.”

The Iranians are talking about expanding their current cache, to build upward of 50,000 centrifuges, the tall, silvery machines that spin at supersonic speeds, enriching uranium at every turn. Iran currently has 19,000 installed, including about 8,000 not yet running. If it ever reached its goal – which is highly unlikely in the next few years, especially with a new generation of centrifuges that produce fuel much more quickly – US experts say it would be able to produce weapons-grade material in weeks.

“An enrichment capacity that large – indeed, an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges – would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability,” said Robert Einhorn, who was a key member of the negotiating team for the state department. If that was more than just a negotiating position, he wrote, “it is a showstopper, and Iran must know that”.

“Breakout capability” – a phrase that means the ability to quickly produce a bomb – depends on many factors beyond the number of centrifuges left spinning in Iran. These include the size of Iran’s inventory of nuclear fuel, the frequency and breadth of nuclear inspections, and the ability to detect secret facilities.

As Ms Rice and Ms Sherman have said, the key is to leave Iran with a face-saving nuclear infrastructure that would allow its clerics and the nation’s Revolutionary Guards commanders the ability to argue that they have not given up the right to produce nuclear fuel, but with a small enough capability that the White House can overcome congressional objections.

High bar
Allies of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, still angry that the Obama administration kept them in the dark about the secret negotiations with Iran that led to the current round of talks, set an enormously high bar they knew US negotiators could not clear.

“There are two models here: Libya and North Korea,” said Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister. “In Libya all the elements of the nuclear programme were handed over to the Americans and inspectors”, he said. “In North Korea, equipment was dismantled, then built again,” he said, “and then came their nuclear tests.”

But Steinitz acknowledged that the US and its allies had made what he termed “reasonable progress” in getting the Iranians to agree, at least in principle, to modifying a heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak that could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, another path to a bomb.

The head of Iran’s atomic organisation, Ali Akhbar Salehi, has said his agency is willing to modify plans for Arak to reduce output significantly, indicating some negotiating space.

Even as the negotiators debate the size and scope of the nuclear programme, a new study of Iran’s emerging use of cyber weapons concludes that the country is beginning to follow China’s model of using computer malware to conduct espionage against US defence contractors and the government.

But the attacks from “patriotic hackers”, whose exact links to the Iranian government and its Revolutionary Guards remain murky, appeared to slow at the end of 2013, as the negotiations with the US and Europe began to gain some traction, according to the study by FireEye, a Silicon Valley security firm.

The study focuses on what Iranian hackers call the “Ajax Security Team”, which it says is “conducting multiple cyber espionage operations against companies in the defence industrial base within the US” and is targeting Iranians trying to evade censorship at home.

Iranian officials have made clear that they view the cyber and nuclear issues as closely related, especially after Iran suffered a debilitating attack, known as Stuxnet or by its code name, Olympic Games, which was designed by the US and Israel. – (New York Times)

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