Nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – have entered their critical stage. The original Geneva interim agreement expired last July, but both sides agreed to extend the deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement to November 24. Much progress has been made, but some difficult issues have remained unresolved.
Iran’s Concessions and the Issues Resolved
Several complex issues that had seemed unresolvable have actually been hammered out. One was Iran’s uranium enrichment facility built under a mountain in Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, 90 miles south of Tehran. The West, led by the United States, had demanded that Iran dismantle the facility altogether because it cannot destroy it by bombing. The facility is neither suited for military purposes, nor for large-scale industrial use; it was built by Iran either as a bargaining chip, or to preserve its indigenous enrichment technology in case the larger Natanz enrichment facility was destroyed by bombing, or both. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy Foreign Minister and a principal negotiator, has emphasized repeatedly and emphatically, "Iran would not agree to close any of its nuclear facilities." Iran has agreed to convert the site to a nuclear research facility, representing a major concession.
Another issue was the IR-40 heavy water nuclear reactor, under construction in Arak, 155 miles southwest of Tehran. When completed, it will replace the Tehran Research Reactor, an almost fifty year old reactor that produces medical isotopes for close to a million Iranian patients every year. The West had demanded that Iran convert the IR-40 to a light-water reactor, due to the concerns that if the reactor under the current design comes online, it will produce plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons. But Iran refused to go along because, first and foremost, all the work on the reactor has been done by Iranian experts and thus the reactor is a source of national pride and, second, Iran had already spent billions of dollars to design and begin constructing the reactor, and the West is not willing to share the cost of the reactor conversion to a light-water one. On its own initiative, Iran has agreed to modify the design of the reactor so that it will produce much smaller amounts of plutonium. Iran has also agreed not to build any reprocessing facility for separating the plutonium from the rest of the nuclear waste. This was again a major concession by Iran.
The third major issue resolved is the inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although Iran had lived up to its obligations under its original Safeguards (SG) Agreement with the Agency signed in 1974, the IAEA under its Director-General Yukiya Amano, a minion of the West who has completely politicized the Agency contributing to the complexities of reaching an agreement, has been insisting that Iran implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol of the SG Agreement, which Iran signed in 2003, and, without ratification by its parliament, implemented voluntarily until February 2006. Iran set aside the Additional Protocol after the European Union reneged on its promises made to Iran in the Sa’dabad Declaration of October 2003 and the Paris Agreement of November 2004. Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement in November 2013, according to which Iran allows much more frequent and intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities, way beyond its legal obligations under its SG Agreement. Since then, the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed that Iran has lived up to its obligations.
Two of the remaining issues are the number of centrifuges that Iran keeps, and the duration of the comprehensive agreement. Limiting the number of its centrifuges for the duration of the agreement is yet another significant, but unacknowledged, concession by Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Iran’s SG Agreement with the IAEA places no restriction on the number of centrifuges that Iran can have.
The issue of the number of centrifuges (NoC) is also totally superficial. The efficiency of a uranium enrichment program is not measured by the NoC, rather by the Separative Work Units (SWU) count, which is essentially the effort (energy, for example) used in separating a certain amount of mass (of, say, uranium 235 and 238) into a product (uranium 235, used as nuclear fuel and for bomb making if enriched to 90 percent or higher) and "waste" and, hence, measures the efficiency of centrifuges. So, a nation can have a relatively small number of highly efficient centrifuges, and still be able to produce large quantities of enriched uranium.
The number and efficiency of the centrifuges are related to the question of the "breakout time" – the time that Iran would need, if it leaves the NPT, expels the IAEA inspectors, and begins a race to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make one crude nuclear weapon. Aside from the fact that even if Iran did leave the NPT and did succeed at all the stages, it would be able to produce only a crude nuclear device, not a nuclear warhead, as there is no evidence that Iran actually possesses the know-how for miniaturizing a nuclear bomb to be carried by its missiles, the breakout time depends on a variety of factors, only one of which is the number of the centrifuges.
The issue of the number of centrifuges has been mostly created by David Albright, the President of Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). Although unlike the jihadist ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – Albright’s ISIS is of non-jihadi type, it has nevertheless been waging a "jihad" against Iran’s peaceful nuclear program by constantly taking maximalist positions, alarmist view of Iran’s program, and even advocating crippling economic sanctions against the people Iran. Albright’s obsession with Iran and his often outlandish reports on its nuclear program have earned his institute another ISIS nickname, Institute for Scary Iran Stories.
When it comes to estimating the SWU of Iran’s centrifuges, Albright and his non-jihadi ISIS invariably present high numbers, often (but not always) without providing any source for the data that they supposedly use in their calculations, hence trying to make Iran’s centrifuges seem more efficient than they really are and, thus, arguing for severe restriction on the number of centrifuges that Iran can have for the duration of the agreement. Their estimates for the same types of centrifuges have also varied over time, hence pointing to the shaky foundation that they use for their calculations. As Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich noted, "When given the choice between a higher value attributed to unnamed sources and values he calculates himself, Albright consistently chooses the higher values. This is especially misleading when dealing with weapon production scenarios, which evaluate what Iran can currently achieve."
Albright and his ISIS reject practically any other view or plausible scenarios about the breakout time. When Iran presented its own estimate for the breakout time under the conditions that currently exist in Iran, which indicated that the time is at least three years (rather than a few months that Albright and his ISIS have been advocating), they quickly rejected it. When last June a group at Princeton University offered a series of compromises to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, Albright quickly rejected that also, calling it "pro-Iran."
This labeling of a report by well-known experts comes from a man who has aligned himself with such neoconservatives as Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and such conservative "pundits" as Michael Yaffe who "in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, served as a coordinator on the counter-terrorism task force in support of Operation Enduring Freedom [invasion of Afghanistan in 2001]," Leonard Spector, a featured speaker at meetings of Israel’s lobby, AIPAC, and Orde Kittrie, a Senior Fellow at the FDD who has always advocated economic sanctions against Iran. Albright also gives speeches in such places as the American Enterprise Institute that played a leading role in provoking invasion of Iraq in 2003, while presenting his institute as a "scientific and objective" organization. Read also here how Albright insults and viciously attacks journalist Gareth Porter.
The second issue is the duration of the comprehensive agreement. The US began the negotiations by demanding a twenty-year agreement. But, it is abundantly clear that it would be a total political suicide for the administration of Iran’s moderate President, Hasan Rouhani, to accept such a long-term agreement. Iran has indicated that a seven-year agreement is acceptable, moving from its original position of 1-3 years. The US has been insisting that the duration must be a "two-digit number," meaning at least 10 years. Even if Iran agrees to the US proposal, the Obama administration will not be able to cancel its crippling economic sanctions against Iran, because Congress will block it. It has promised only suspension of the sanctions, which does not require Congressional consent.
The Alleged "Possible Military Dimension" of Iran’s Nuclear Program
Another issue pushed by Amano, and helped by Albright and his ISIS, is the allegations about "possible military dimension" of Iran’s nuclear program. One issue related to such allegations has to do with Parchin, a non-nuclear military complex in southeast Tehran in which since 1940s Iran has been producing conventional ammunitions and explosives for its military. In 2004, John Bolton, then an Under Secretary of State and an ardent supporter of Israel, charged that satellite imagery showed a building at Parchin appropriate for large-scale explosives tests, such as those needed to initiate a nuclear reaction leading to explosion of a bomb. The US then pressured the IAEA heavily to demand visiting the complex. Though Iran was under no legal obligation to allow the IAEA to visit the complex as Parchin is a non-nuclear site, it did so for two visits in 2005. If Iran had hidden anything in Parchin, or had done any test of alleged by the IAEA, it would have never allowed the visits.
Both times the IAEA team was headed by Olli Heinonen, Albright’s "buddy," his source at the IAEA when Heinonen was Deputy Director-General for safeguards, and his current collaborator with whom Albright has published several reports. No evidence was found, and Heinonen was reported by the Iranian press at that time saying that the Parchin case "has joined history," meaning its case was closed.
In this case, too, Albright contributed "mightily" to the hysteria over Parchin. Before the two visits, he and his non-jihadi ISIS completely sensationalized the allegations in report after report. After the two visits did not turn up any evidence, Albright refused to retract any of his sensational reporting. The man apparently believed, and still does, that he makes no mistakes, and if no evidence was found, it was the IAEA inspectors’ fault, not his.
Although there have been no new allegations since 2004 about any such tests at Parchin, the issue was revived by Amano in 2010, and Albright and his ISIS have been helping him along by once again issuing alarmist report after alarmist report about the purported activities at Parchin, refusing to consider any other plausible alternative to their interpretation of satellite imagery based on which they make their outlandish claims. And, in order to arrive at their preconceived conclusions, Albright and ISIS make such ridiculous claims and strange interpretation of the information that they have that, if the issue were not so important, they would be good for some long hearty laughs.
After a recent report on an explosion at Parchin, Albright and ISIS even began speculating about what might have happened there, trying to insinuate a link with a building at Parchin where there was supposedly a chamber for the alleged high-explosive tests of many years ago, or somehow relate it to some sort of nefarious activities there, even though the location of the blast is far from that "controversial" building, a fact that even the satellite images shown in Albright’s own report indicates. Otherwise, why should a non-nuclear site be of interest to the ISIS – the non-jihadi one?
At the heart of the allegations about "possible military dimension" is a mysterious laptop that was supposedly stolen in Iran and delivered to Western intelligence agencies. The laptop allegedly contained documents indicating some activities in that past related to the development of nuclear weapons. I have written extensively on the subject in the past – here and here – arguing why the laptop, if it existed at all, was manufactured by Israel or a Western intelligence agency. Porter has reported that the documents were fabrications by Mujahedin-e Khalgh (MEK) Organization, an Iranian opposition group that up until 2013 was listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department. Amano has been pressing Iran to explain the allegations, claiming that the IAEA has obtained corroborating evidence from other sources. Iran has demanded to see the "evidence," but the IAEA has refused to show it to Iran. Despite this, Iran has promised to provide more clarifications of certain aspects of its nuclear program.
Here, too, we see the finger print of Heinonen, and ultimately Albright. It was Heinonen who first talked about the alleged laptop and its alleged contents in a February 2008 meeting of the IAEA board of Governors, in which he made all sorts of allegations that are now made again by Amano, who had revived them in his November 2011 report on Iran’s nuclear program. In his vicious attacks on Porter, Albright states that, "I was sympathetic to criticisms of these documents [in the alleged laptop], which I was initially also articulating." Where did he articulate his views publicly? At least I have not been able to locate a single public document in which Albright had cast doubts on the authenticity of the alleged documents in the alleged laptop. As I wrote in 2009, Albright did not express his skepticism publicly because he knew Heinonen believed in the authenticity of the alleged documents.
Then, Albright states, "Later, confirmatory evidence from multiple countries, including evidence that the lap top documents were not forged, led me to view the allegations as credible." Where did Albright get the "confirmatory" evidence from? From the IAEA? If so, why is it that the Amano-led IAEA made the evidence available to Albright, but not to Iran, while making accusations against its nuclear program? If Albright saw the "evidence" through other channels, what are these "channels?"
At a symposium in Washington on October 23, Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State who leads the US negotiation team with Iran, asserted that, "We hope the leaders in Tehran will agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that this program will be exclusively peaceful. If that does not happen, the responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran." Given all the concessions that Iran has made, given US excessive demands on Iran, and given the fact that, in effect, the US is trying to impose a new and illegal interpretation of Iran’s obligations under the NPT and its SG Agreement and the meaning of "peaceful nuclear program," it will be the US that will be blamed for the failure of the negotiations, not Iran.
Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.
Read more by Muhammad Sahimi
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- Deconstructing Neoconservatives’ Manifesto for War With Iran – September 24th, 2017
- James Mattis Doesn’t Understand Iran or ‘Moderate Arab Regimes’ – July 17th, 2017
- ISIS Attacks in Tehran Expose US-Saudi Lies About Iran – June 7th, 2017