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Number of centrifuges should not prevent nuclear deal

Previous attempts at a nuclear deal between Iran and West fell apart over the number of centrifuges; will it happen again?
Technicians work at a uranium processing site in Isfahan 340 km (211 miles) south of the Iranian capital Tehran.  Technicians work at a uranium processing site in Isfahan 340 km (211 miles) south of the Iranian capital Tehran March 30, 2005. France, Britain and Germany are considering letting Iran keep nuclear technology that could be used to make bombs, an apparent move towards a compromise with Tehran, diplomats said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi - RTR6IQH

The current status of the nuclear talks is not dissimilar to that of talks between Iran and the European Union in 2005. At that time, too, there was huge optimism around the complete resolution of Iran’s nuclear case but disagreements over the permitted number of centrifuges gradually mounted and eventually caused the failure of the talks, leading to mutual distrust. There are lessons of the 2005 talks, which can prevent the failure of the current round of negotiations.

Following the Paris Agreement of November 2004, the parties were close to an agreement in 2005. As a reassuring gesture, Iran suspended enrichment activities, import of centrifuge parts and all research and development (R&D) activities and actually took cooperation to such a level that for the first time in two years, Iran’s nuclear case was not even mentioned in the March 2005 sitting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

At that time, IAEA inspectors were given full daily access to Iranian nuclear sites and the agency’s director-general confirmed that in his reports. The actual agreement covered more than just the nuclear issue; it included economic, political and even security cooperation between Iran and the three European countries (France, United Kingdom and Germany, or EU3).

It was then Europe’s turn to deliver on the commitments made in the Paris Agreement. However, on the anniversary of the agreement (November 2005) and under circumstances that hardly left much room for optimism, Iran’s case had been prepared to be sent to the UN Security Council. What prevented the talks from reaching a final agreement was the same issue that hangs over the success of the talks today, namely the number of centrifuges that Iran is allowed to have. In 2005, it was the actual number of centrifuges, but today it is their capacity.

In 2005, President Hassan Rouhani, who was then Iran’s chief negotiator, wrote a letter to the EU3 in which he proposed the use of 500 centrifuges for R&D purposes with an option to increase the number to 3,000 over time. This was much less than the capacity of the Natanz site, which was developed to accommodate 54,000 centrifuges, according to Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the former head of the Iranian Atomic Organization. But the proposal was rejected.

Hoping to reassure the Europeans and reach commercial and political agreement with them, Iran had suspended enrichment at an industrial level but the George W. Bush administration insisted that Iran should not be allowed to use even one centrifuge. Meanwhile, the Iranian negotiating team was under a great deal of internal pressure to show a significant achievement after months of negotiations.

Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the IAEA, explains in his book “The Age of Deception” that he told both Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Robert Joseph, that a small R&D program was nothing to worry about. “Had Iran wanted to complete their enrichment technology at R&D level, they could easily have done so. No one is smarter than they are in this,” ElBaradei explains, adding that the fact that Iran insisted on having more than that level was actually a good sign because it was more difficult to break out of an authorized activity program into military activity under IAEA surveillance.

In any event, the Europeans, and as it turned out later, the United States, did not agree to allow Iran even a limited number of centrifuges for R&D purposes. When Iran reopened the Esfahan enrichment facility on Aug. 10, 2005, the Paris Agreement and Iran’s proposed package, in which the only gap was the agreed number of allowed centrifuges, both failed. Later, on July 3, 2006, Iran took a calculated risk and announced the decision to resume enrichment. The domino effect of the decision was clear. Iran’s case was sent to the UN Security Council and Iran decided to suspend its voluntary enhanced cooperation under the "additional protocol" of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran’s parliament had not yet ratified. The stage was thus set for confrontation and escalation.

Controversy over the number of centrifuges at a scale that even IAEA’s director-general would not consider a threat turned a potentially historic agreement between Iran and the Europeans into a complete failure. But after nine years, Iran’s nuclear status is now quite different. The R&D level of centrifuge capacity has now been increased to industrial-level capacity with 19,000 centrifuges, while the 5% enrichment level has increased to 20%. Yet, the controversy over the number of centrifuges and the enrichment capacity has returned to become, once again, a major bone of contention between the two sides.

What has happened over the past nine years proves that the numbers of centrifuges or the enrichment capacity are not the main challenges to a theoretical military "breakout" of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. IAEA’s frequent inspections can completely eliminate the possibility of a breakout and indeed, since the formation of IAEA, not a single breakout has been recorded among NPT member states. North Korea, which opted out of the NPT, and Pakistan and India, which never joined, did not access nuclear weapons through increasing their enrichment capacity under the supervision of IAEA. Therefore, such a suspicion cannot be raised regarding Iran’s civilian program.

A year after the commencement of talks between P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and President Rouhani’s administration, Iran has clearly expressed readiness to address the West’s concerns; and in the Geneva agreement, the West has shown that the centrifuges taboo is now broken and that they have grudgingly accepted Iran’s right to uranium enrichment. Iranian officials have stated that Iran needs 190,000 separative work unit (SWU) centrifuges to create the capacity for future development, but according to the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, this level has not been reached yet. Salehi has said that Iran is prepared to keep capacity at the current level for eight years.

Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges, only 9,000 of which are fully utilized in enrichment activities. The United States insists on only 5,000 centrifuges for the next 20 years. At this point, the controversy is over 4,000 centrifuges and the period of implementation of any agreement. This is where the parties believe the main disagreement lies. Other controversial topics are the future of the Arak heavy water reactor and suspension of US-imposed sanctions against Iran. Having proposed a solution for Arak, Iran is directing that issue toward full resolution. However, lifting the sanctions is not in the hands of the Obama government.

Giving so much weight to the number of centrifuges or enrichment capacity, neither of which is a guarantee to abide by the NPT, at this critical stage of negotiations can only lead to the failure of the talks, as was the case back in 2005. Even more so, because there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has deviated from the treaty and its additional protocols over the past 10 years.

The parties to the current talks should work on a solution around improving the IAEA’s controlling power through the safeguard agreement instead of centrifuge numbers. This would address Iran’s sovereignty concerns and the West’s concerns over enrichment, thus preventing the talks from going down the same path as the Paris Agreement nine years ago.

The IAEA’s comprehensive inspection regime has proven effective in countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Japan, which are already enriching uranium at industrial levels. There is no reason it should not work in the case of Iran. As talks reach a critical point, it is only fair to advise the negotiating parties to beware of the “centrifuges.” They once prevented the sides from reaching what seemed to be an almost-certain agreement.

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