Although Iran and the international community failed to achieve a breakthrough in Geneva last week, Iran has slowed its nuclear program in what could be a goodwill gesture intended to show that it will abide by a nuclear agreement.
According to the latest quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has added only four rudimentary centrifuges to its main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz since August, for a total of 15,240 — of which about 10,000 are operating. In the previous reporting period of May to August, Iran put more than 1,800 new centrifuges into Natanz.
The Iranians continued to enrich uranium and now have a stockpile of more than 7,000 kilograms of uranium enriched to 5% U-235. But its stockpile of 20% uranium — perilously close to weapons grade — remains largely in a form difficult to further enrich, according to the IAEA. Iran added only 10 kilograms to its stockpile of greatest concern, for a total of 196 kilograms – still below the Israeli “red line” of 240 kilograms sufficient, if further processed, to make a nuclear weapon.
The report comes at an extremely sensitive time, with negotiations due to resume in Geneva next week between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) on an agreement that would pause much of the Iranian program and roll back some of it in return for moderate sanctions relief. The Barack Obama administration is trying to convince the US Senate not to approve more sanctions while the negotiations continue; this IAEA report could help its case.
“I personally will argue that it is the wrong time to pass new sanctions if the Iranians sign the agreement in Geneva next week,” Gary Samore, an influential former senior proliferation official for the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor Thursday. Samore said that judging from the IAEA report and the behavior of Iranian diplomats in Geneva, “I think the Iranians are trying to find a way to get an agreement because they are so strongly motivated to get relief of sanctions.”
Samore, executive director for research at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, recently became president of an organization that has been hawkish on Iran sanctions, United Against Nuclear Iran. Samore said that he doubted that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would be able to accept the sorts of constraints on the Iranian program that would be required in a final agreement.
“Obviously, they want to give away as little as possible and keep their options open,” Samore said.
Still he praised the interim accord on the table now in Geneva as “better than what we were trying to get last year. This is a more ambitious proposal at both ends [in terms of constraints on Iran and sanctions relief.] It is a positive step forward but whether it creates conditions for an ultimate agreement is much less clear.”
Other nuclear experts also reacted positively to the IAEA report.
“The Iranians have now sent two signals that they are serious,” Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense dealing with Iran, told Al-Monitor.
The first signal was the way in which the Iranians have re-engaged in talks with the P5+1 since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, Kahl said. The second is that “they are slowing down their nuclear program so as not to do anything overly provocative.”
Kahl testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Nov. 13, that under the proposal made to Iran in Geneva last weekend, Iran could repair 10,000 currently operating centrifuges, not install any new ones. Iran would also have to suspend enrichment to 20 percent, convert its stockpile to a benign form, restrict the growth of its low enriched uranium stockpile, provide more access to foreign inspectors and stop building fuel assemblies for a heavy water reactor at Arak.
In return, Iran would get about $6 billion in sanctions relief, including access to about $3 billion in hard currency currently frozen in banks in the countries still importing Iranian oil.
Still unclear is how the issue of Iran’s self-declared “right” to enrichment would be handled in defining the Iranian nuclear program’s permitted end state. The other sensitive issue is the Arak facility, which is of particular concern because it could yield plutonium, another potential bomb fuel.
The reactor, which was supposed to come on line early next year, is now scheduled for completion at the end of 2014. According to the latest IAEA report, Iran has not completed production of “any other fuel assemblies [for the reactor] … in addition to 10 previously verified” although the Iranians are “in the process of producing another one” and told the IAEA they planned to make another 140 fuel assemblies by August — the full complement necessary. The report said the agency visited the reactor and found that “while the reactor vessel was connected to cooling and moderator piping, no other major components such as control room equipment, the refueling machine and reactor cooling pumps, had been installed.”
While Iran did not agree to provide the latest design information for the reactor, as requested by the IAEA, Iran did sign a “framework for cooperation” with the agency earlier this week (Nov. 11) that the IAEA called “an important step forward.” It provides “managed access” to a uranium mine and the heavy water production plant at Arak as well as promising timely notification to the IAEA of any plans to build new nuclear reactors. It does not provide access to a military site called Parchin where Iran is believed to have carried out nuclear weapons-related research in the past. The IAEA and the Iranians will meet in Vienna Dec. 11 to discuss the agreement, the report said.
Taken together, the slowdown in the program and the new pledges of cooperation could facilitate progress next week in Geneva.
“Regardless of efforts to keep these two tracks separate, they are cross-referencing all the time,” Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor.