With just days to go before the July 20 deadline for making a deal to end the Iranian nuclear crisis, can’t Iran and the six powers just split the difference and permit Iran to expand its uranium enrichment capacity to about 100,000 centrifuges? No. But that doesn’t have to mean that no agreement can be reached over Iran’s enrichment activity. In principle the powers could offer Iran a deal like this: 

  • Iran could use a specified and limited number of centrifuges (or instead installed centrifuge capacity expressed in separative work units (SWU) per year) to produce enriched uranium product (EUP) which would be shipped to Russian fuel fabricator TVEL to make a limited amount of fabricated fuel for the power reactor at Bushehr.
  • Iran might initially be permitted to enrich up to about 10,000 SWU/y (consistent with the number of centrifuges Iran is currently operating), and gradually increase this amount during the term of the final agreement.
  • The agreement would expressly allow the enrichment for the purpose of producing a specific amount of EUP dedicated to fueling specific reactors in Iran only.
  • Since a Russo-Iran understanding from 1992 calls for Russia to supply the fuel for Bushehr for the entire operating lifetime of the reactor, going this route would penalize Russian industry. So Iran and the powers would have to work out a deal to compensate Russian industry for the revenue it would forfeit in permitting Iran to enrich the uranium.
  • This arrangement would obtain for as long as the comprehensive agreement between the powers and Iran remained in force. Thereafter Iran would be free to tailor its nuclear fuel production infrastructure to meet its “practical needs” by a combination of domestic activities and reliance on the world market.
  • With that end in sight, the powers and especially Russia could in coming years negotiate with Iran a longer-term cooperative arrangement underpinned by political incentives (not necessarily limited to nuclear energy) that would encourage Iran to rely on outside sources for fuel and enrichment services for most of what it needs after the “final step” expires.
  • How much centrifuge capacity Iran would be permitted under the comprehensive agreement to produce EUP for Bushehr-1 would depend on the extent to which Iran satisfies the EU3+3 on issues it believes essential.
  • Accordingly, the longer the term of a comprehensive agreement, and the more Iran cooperates with the IAEA in answering PMD-related questions, addresses concerns about the IR-40 heavy-water reactor, and permits access and verification beyond what’s in Iran’s Additional Protocol (AP-plus measures would be developed in part from what the IAEA learned from Iran about its nuclear weapons-related capabilities), the more centrifuges Iran would be permitted to produce the EUP it needs.

An approach like the above won’t satisfy fundamentalists--either in the U.S. or in Iran. It could run aground on the cold logic of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) based on preventing Iran from “breaking out” and making a nuclear bomb using its declared population of centrifuges and enriched uranium. It could also falter on Russian commercial designs to infinitely supply all the enriched uranium and fuel for power reactors in Iran.

The claim of Iranian leaders that Iran needs a uranium enrichment capacity which would represent about 240,000 of the P-1 centrifuges which Iran has set up so far doesn’t even remotely reflect Iran’s “practical needs”—the benchmark for Iran’s future enrichment capacity which was set up by the JPOA. For as long as a comprehensive agreement with Iran will be in force, Iran will not have sufficient infrastructure, experience, and intellectual property to make power reactor fuel for its sole unit, Bushehr-1. Iran’s clerical leaders may not understand or accept that, but the scientists and engineers running Iran’s nuclear power program know it to be a fact. Iran can enrich uranium to its heart’s content, but without Russian cooperation that won’t translate into fuel supply security for Bushehr.

Iran has a weak hand to play in negotiating with Russia to make fuel for Bushehr and other reactors which no one will supply without the Iran nuclear crisis having been diplomatically resolved. Iran has built up its enrichment capability while neglecting the other skills and infrastructure it needs to make reactor nuclear fuel to generate electricity in reactors. The approach outlined above can put Iran squarely on the path of rectifying that deficit. An agreement which provides Iran a stepwise peaceful-use rational for its enrichment program should be in Iran’s interest. To make that happen, Russia’s enrichment industry may have to be compensated to accommodate a greater Iranian stake in the commercial nuclear fuel cycle. But Russia also knows that without a comprehensive deal with Iran, its revenue stream from nuclear business in Iran cannot increase.

A deal like the one outlined above could also serve the long-term interest of the powers negotiating with Iran. The architects who drafted the JPOA as a blueprint for a final deal with Iran set it up as a numbers game to demonstrate to critics in Israel and the U.S. Congress that diplomacy would measurably reduce the threat that Iran would dash to a nuclear bomb using the enriched uranium and centrifuges that Iran had declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That logic implies that, if giving Iran more centrifuges shortens the theoretical timeline to an Iranian bomb, the U.S. administration’s critics will reject the negotiated outcome. Bob Einhorn, the former U.S. State Department negotiator who has transmitted some of U.S. official thinking about these negotiations into the public space, says that Iranian demands for “an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability” and therefore be a “show-stopper.”

But the six powers should recall, as U.S. officials have said, that a comprehensive deal with Iran is a package deal—not a matter of checking boxes. Accordingly, if Iran goes far to accommodate the powers as outlined in the last bullet point above, they should be prepared to be flexible about permitting Iran to operate centrifuges which are declared to the IAEA. Seventy years after nuclear weapons were invented, it remains true that nuclear proliferators have by and large attempted to reach for nuclear arms secretly and by means of dedicated nuclear weapons programs—not by diverting declared nuclear materials and infrastructure. While the “breakout” math may assure critics, it may not accurately measure the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and its rigid application could stand in the way of a creative solution to a complex challenge. 

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk