The mistaken rationale behind the Iran nuclear deal
By Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser
web posted September 14, 2015
The Bigger Problem
The main problem with the deal is not its numerous weaknesses, each of which in itself casts doubt on whether the deal can prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons whenever it decides to do so – whether during the period when the restrictions pertain to it or afterward. The main problem is that the deal basically gives Iran all that it has dreamed of without any real payment on its part and hence is extremely dangerous to the future of the Middle East, the world order, U.S. interests, and Israel's security.
What is the problem that Iran confronts in the nuclear sphere, and what is the optimal solution from its standpoint? The core of the problem is the high risk currently entailed in attempting to cross the threshold (the requisite length of time) between mastering the technologies and building the required infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons on the one hand, and, on the other, producing an arsenal of nuclear weapons. In other words, how can Iran shorten the threshold until it is close to zero without taking a risk?
The solution is to create a reality in which one greatly diminishes the threshold in a legitimate process that does not justify either a military operation or harsh sanctions. The deal gives Iran everything it needs to arrive, in 10 to 15 years, at precisely the point where it wants to be, where the width of the threshold will be close to zero. Iran achieves that point without any risks or payment at all, since it receives an international stamp of approval to arrive there, and the sanctions are lifted at a very early stage. This is what is meant by saying that the deal paves Iran's way to a nuclear arsenal.
What Is Needed to Produce Nuclear Weapons?
Producing nuclear weapons necessitates obtaining fissionable material (by enriching uranium or separating plutonium), transforming it into a weapon (a bomb or a warhead for a ground-to-ground missile), and having the means (planes or missiles) to deliver the nuclear weapons to the target.
The claim that Iran's enrichment routes to a nuclear bomb have been blocked has no basis. In fact, Iran will have four routes to enriching uranium to a military level.
(Incidentally, characterizing an enrichment level of 3.67 percent as unimportant is misleading because enrichment to that level consumes about 40-50 percent of all the effort required for military-level enrichment, which occurs at about 90 percent.)
- The option of breaking the rules – "Break out": Notwithstanding the U.S. Administration's claim that during the first 10 years of the deal the time span required to amass enough fissionable material for a first bomb will be about a year, the required time is actually about six months. From the moment that Iran violates the deals and expels nuclear inspectors, it will be able to reinstall the 13,000 centrifuges that will be removed from the various enrichment facilities and stored in the underground facility at Natanz, along with the equipment needed for their reassembly and activation. The more the Iranians progress in reassembling the centrifuges, the more they will bolster their enrichment capability.
Some of the centrifuges will probably be installed at the military enrichment facility at Fordow, which is not to be destroyed. It should be noted that about a thousand of these centrifuges are advanced ones of the IR-2M kind. Because Iran is being allowed to keep developing advanced centrifuges of different kinds, including the faster IR-6 and IR-8, once it breaks the agreement it will immediately be able to start manufacturing these centrifuges and using them for enrichment. It should also be noted that there is no restriction on the quantity of unenriched UF6, of which Iran has a huge amount. This substance is the raw material of enrichment.
- The option of crawling to a bomb – "Sneak Out": This option, too, is feasible during the time span of the deal, along two routes:
a. Building clandestine facilities in Iran and using raw material that is not under IAEA supervision (though it is not clear if such material exists in Iran, it can be procured abroad in any case – such as from Iran's ally, Venezuela). In light of the limited nature of the monitoring, which will be effective only at declared sites, it is doubtful whether such clandestine facilities will be detected and whether it will be possible to visit them before the evidence is removed from them. It should be recalled that huge facilities such as Natanz and Fordow (like the Syrian reactor at Deir ez-Zor) were detected after a delay of years and not necessarily by the Americans.
b. Using enrichment and weapons facilities abroad: Supposedly, if Iran wants to engage in nuclear cooperation with foreign actors, it has to request permission from the supervisory committee. But given the lack of mechanisms to monitor either activity abroad or the activity of Iran's own nuclear scientists, Iran will have no particular trouble conducting such activity surreptitiously.
- "Wait out," version 1: The option of adhering to the deal for 10 years: After the 10 years Iran can increase the number of centrifuges without limit and use advanced centrifuges. This means it will soon have an enrichment capability that will generate fissionable material of a sufficient quantity to produce a large number of bombs within a short time.
- "Wait out," version 2: The option of adhering to the agreement for 15 years: After 15 years the stipulation that uranium can only be enriched to 3.67 percent will expire, and Iran will be able to produce and amass high-level enriched material legally and without limitation. In other words, Iran will be able produce a nuclear arsenal within a very short time.
The issue of the enrichment site at Qom/Fordow merits special emphasis. This is a site that was built solely for military purposes. It was built deep in the mountain and can contain 3,000 centrifuges. The fact that this facility is left in place, despite President Obama himself having asserted that it has no justification, is a shameful indication of the weakness of the deal.
In sum, the deal paves Iran's way to building a capability to produce a substantial military nuclear arsenal via uranium enrichment within 10 to 15 years, and enables it to race to a bomb before then if it decides to do so.
The Plutonium Route
The Nuclear Reactor at Arak
Despite its original opposition, the United States has agreed that the Iranian reactor will be moderated with heavy water, which will probably enable future changes in the reactor's structure that will increase its capability to produce substantial quantities of plutonium. But because it is not known at this stage what the reactor's final configuration will be, it is not clear to what extent this possibility is significant.
The Iranian concession at the Arak plutonium reactor should be seen as a "give-away" in return for incredible Western concessions on the uranium enrichment track.
After 15 years Iran will be able to build additional heavy-water-moderated nuclear reactors that can produce plutonium in considerable amounts and develop capabilities for separating plutonium and processing it so that it can be used for military purposes. This is despite the fact that Iran undertook in the deal to see whether there will be new technologies at that stage that will enable it to achieve the purposes (ostensibly civilian) of the reactor by using light water.
Weaponization Issues (Turning the Fissionable Material into a Bomb)
Will Anyone Know the Important Information About Past Weaponization Activity (the "Possible Military Dimensions" of the Nuclear Program – PMD)?
Although the formula crafted between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran on resolving the issue of past weaponization activity has not been made public, it is apparently problematic. The reports on the issue indicate that Iran does not have to provide full information (the U.S. Administration claims that the Americans already know everything in any case – which is not only nonsense, since it is clear that no intelligence actor knows everything about anything, but intentionally misleading, since some of the existing knowledge did not come from U.S. sources). Furthermore, to enable sweeping the problems under the rug, Iran has been authorized to provide the evidence about its past activity without the indispensable IAEA supervision (for example, collecting soil samples at Parchin). It appears, though, that the gravest problem of all is that it is IAEA Chairman Yukiya Amano who has the prerogative to cancel the whole deal if it is not reported by October that Iran has met its commitments on this issue. However, it is hard to imagine that he will assume such a heavy responsibility in the face of pressure from the world powers, and it is likely that he will announce in any case – even if the Iranians do not meet their commitments – that they have done so.
Since, however, these commitments remained secret, no one can know if that has indeed occurred apart from those who have signed the agreements and been updated on the understandings, and they, of course, will have no interest in casting doubt on Amano's affirmation. Thus, the PMD issue will come to an end without anyone knowing to what extent the Iranians had actually progressed in their nuclear weaponization project by 2003 (the time at which the program was interrupted or ended) or have progressed since that time.
Detecting Renewed Activity in The Weaponization Domain:
Just as in the enrichment sphere, monitoring in the weaponization domain is a fiction unless one can conduct immediate inspections at suspicious sites, taking into account Iran's proclaimed opposition, first to inspectors' visits at sites belonging to the Defense Ministry, the army, intelligence bodies, and the Revolutionary Guard, and second, to any monitoring of the scientists who have worked on weaponization in the past. Hence it will probably be impossible to prove that the Iranians are engaging in prohibited activity in this domain.
All that remains, then, is to trust Iran's declaration at the opening of the agreement that it will not produce and does not want to produce nuclear weapons. If this declaration were true, Iran could have avoided spending about $150 billion on the program so far – even as it remains clear to all that it has no need to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.
Developing Means to Deliver Nuclear Weapons
The current Iranian goal is to develop a nuclear warhead for ground-to-ground missiles utilizing the enriched uranium. Beyond the attempt to develop such a warhead for Shahab-3 missiles, of which Iran has many (with their range of up to 1,700 kilometers, which covers all of the Middle East), Iran is working to develop missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead for much longer ranges (up to 10,000 kilometers, or as far as the east coast of the United States).
The deal does not restrict the development of such missiles but prohibits external assistance for their development until the eighth year. Thus, even if Iran honors the deal, from the eighth to the fifteenth year, exactly when it is mastering capabilities to produce large quantities of fissionable material, it will be permitted external assistance in developing long-range missiles whose only raison d'être is to carry nuclear warheads.
- The restrictions on weapons procurement will be lifted after five years. This means that until that point Iran will be able to sign contracts, weapons will be produced, and Iranians will be trained in their use in the supplying states. In the sixth year the weapons will reach Iran, and Iran will then enjoy improved defensive capabilities, including for nuclear facilities, and improved capabilities of deterrence and response. Under these conditions Iran will have a growing incentive to free itself from the restrictions of the deal. It is clear that, with the lifting of the other restrictions, after 10 to 15 years Iran will be well armed and prepared both to defend itself and to attack whomever it defines as its enemy.
- Not making the lifting of restrictions on the nuclear activities (sunset) conditional on a change in Iranian policy regarding support for terror, subversion, human rights violations, seeking to destroy Israel, and denying the Holocaust.
- Restoring the sanctions (snapback): The mechanism to restore the sanctions is cumbersome, and in any case, when the time comes to do so, Iran will already have enriched its coffers with many billions of dollars. Foreign investment in Iran will also have resumed, along with large-scale commerce between Iran and the world.
- The price of violations: Beyond the possible renewal of sanctions in case of a major violation, it is not clear what price will be paid for more limited violations. The Americans have already made clear that violations in the sphere of military procurement will not cause the renewal of the international sanctions, and in any case, it is not clear what could induce the United States to use force to check Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons.
- Ramifications of Iran's status in the region and the world: The Iranians, whose goal is to become a hegemonic power in the region as a step toward changing the world order, openly proclaim their intention to ramp up assistance to their allies in the region. Meanwhile, the West does not conceal its intention to grant Iran a leading role on the issues that concern it in the region (Islamic State, Syria) and to tighten its ties with the regime in Tehran. All this is already occurring before Iran has realized its objective of going nuclear, and without any change in the regime's radical nature.
- At the end of the day, Iran's nuclear weapon is not only an end for itself but also a lever for hegemonic pressure in the region. As such, the deal offers Iran the persuasive powers even before the production of the weapon. It is no wonder that the Iranian regime already presents the deal as a major victory over the United States and as proof of the American weakness and loss of U.S. will to defend its interests. Iran therefore concludes that it is the second leading power in the world and the strongest power in the Middle East.
- Ramifications of the stability of the Iranian regime: Notwithstanding the U.S. Administration's claim, which reflects wishful thinking, that the Iranian regime will moderate or weaken, the likely scenario is that the regime will gain strength and exploit Iran's improved economic condition, enhanced regional and international status, and progress toward nuclear weapons to fortify itself and step up its repression of opposition elements. It is precisely Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, the major shareholders of Iran's economy, who are among the main beneficiaries of the removal of the sanctions.While the Americans try to present their Iranian partners (Rouhani and Zarif) as the more "realistic" members of the regime, in fact, the weapons will be under the control of the extremist elements such as Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards' commanders like Qassem Suleimani – and their successors.
- Ramifications for Israel's security: Israel, which is not a partner to the deal, will face growing dangers in all spheres and will have to invest even greater resources than before in improving its intelligence and defense capabilities vis-à-vis Iran.President Obama has indicated that he "understands" Israel's opposition to the deal and the objections of those with special affinity to Israel, but in supporting the deal, proponents of the deal ignore Israel's security concerns, a major component in Western security interests.
- The regional nuclear arms race—the future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: A regional nuclear arms race is likely to develop with the participation of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and possibly other countries. Despite the deal's commitment to the NPT Treaty, it is likely to be greatly weakened.
- A conventional arms race in the region is a likely result of American attempts to compensate countries in unstable Middle East. The weapons buildup, particularly with new technology weapons, may undermine Israel's qualitative edge.
- The United States is perceived as weakened in the Middle East with negative implications for its traditional partners and allies.
- Protecting the enrichment facilities from attack: The deal promises that the world powers will help Iran improve its nuclear facilities' safety and protection from sabotage (presumably including cyber-attacks).
- Granting Iran access to civilian nuclear programs abroad: This is apparently done in the name of improving Iran's cooperation with foreign countries in the field of nuclear safety.
- Reducing the quantity of enriched material: From an actual quantity of about 12 tons of material enriched to the 3.67-percent level, or from a quantity of 7.5 tons of such material permitted by the November 2013 interim agreement (JPOA), to only 300 kilograms (the quantity of this material required to produce a bomb at the end of the enrichment process is about 1,200 kilograms).
- Improving the monitoring of the declared sites: The monitoring there is already quite satisfactory, but the deal upgrades it to an especially high standard.
- Reducing the number of active centrifuges: From 19,000 installed centrifuges, of which 9,000 are enriching uranium, to 6,100 installed centrifuges of which 5,060 are enriching uranium.(In the Joint Plan of Action of November 2013 it was stated that Iran could enrich uranium for its civilian needs. It was clear then and today, however, that Iran doesn't have any civilian requirements, and the fact is that end-products of the enrichment process are supposed to be shipped out of Iran. This raises a major question why the P5+1 negotiators conceded to Iran 5,060 centrifuges.)
- Significant restrictions in the plutonium sphere: A significant reduction of the Arak reactor's output while restricting the ability to use its output to produce nuclear weapons.
- The price of violating the deal: Despite the criticisms in this regard that were detailed above, the Iranians could assess that major violations would exact a price that is not negligible, possibly even a military operation.
The nuclear agreement with the main world powers is set to enable Iran safely, legally, and without economic hardships or changes in its rogue policies, to overcome the main obstacles on its way to possessing a nuclear weapons arsenal and becoming a regional hegemonic power. Regardless of what the deal's champions say, it appears that the deal's rationale was to postpone and contain – and not prevent – Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. This is why the U.S. Administration tried to compare the period the deal postpones nuclear weaponization (under the logic of containment) with the period a military attack would set back the nuclear program. This ignores the very purpose of a military attack – prevention. By endorsing the deal, its supporters actually surrender the most effective tools to convince the Iranians to make concessions and give up their nuclear program, namely the biting sanctions and the credible military threat. A containment policy by definition makes a military option irrelevant.
The claim that after 10-15 years the US will have all options in case Iran resumes its nuclear program is false because the Iranian defense, industrial and nuclear infrastructures in place will make any military reaction futile.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on the Regional Implications of the Syrian Civil War at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research and Analysis and Production Division of IDF Military Intelligence.