The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “kicks the can down the road”: How to prepare for the day when the can finally lands

After ten years, however, the picture is far from clear. After year 10, and particularly after year 15,as limits on its nuclear program end, Iran could reemerge as a major nuclear threat. Even if thedeal succeeds during the first ten years, it is unknowable whether the agreement will continue toaccomplishits fundamental goal of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons in the long term. Iran mightabide by its commitments and value the benefits of international nuclear cooperation, in the processdeciding to give up any remaining aspiration to build a weapon after the major nuclear limitations end, butit could also, after these limits sunset, choose to build up a large nuclear weapons capabilityand ultimately seek nuclear weapons. Because the agreement does not prohibit Iran from building alarge uranium enrichment capability and even a reprocessing, or a plutonium separation, capability,the agreement essentially delays the day when Iran reestablishes a nuclear weapons capability andpossibly builds nuclear weapons, that is, the agreement essentially “kicks the can down the road.” Prudentplanning requires careful efforts now to prepare for the day when the canlands.

Iran’s intentions, as expressed during the negotiations, are that it will deploy a large gascentrifuge program after year 13. But there is nothing in the agreement requiring the parties to accept,or endorse, Iran putting together dangerous, unnecessary, and uneconomic uranium enrichmentand plutonium separation programs. (There is also, of course, not text forbidding it, thus the requirementfor the parties to make thisclear).

During the negotiations, according to discussions with negotiators, Iran laid out its plans forexpanding its nuclear programs, in particular its gas centrifuge program. Iran’s priority program was itscentrifuge program, and it stated its intention to deploy advanced centrifuges, such as the IR-2m, IR-4, IR-6,and/or IR-8 centrifuges, after year 10 of the agreement and in particular greatly ramp up their deploymentafter year 13.

Formally, in the JCPOA, Iran has agreed to “abide by its voluntary commitments as expressed in itsown long term enrichment and enrichment R&D plan to be submitted as part of the initialdeclaration described in Article 2 of the Additional Protocol.” Although Iran’s nuclear plan and apparentlythe associated annex to the JCPOA are secret, Iran’s commitments are known to include limits on theramp-up in enrichment capacity from year 10 through year 13. At year 13, the breakout timeline will beabout six months, which will constrain the number of IR-2m, IR-4, IR-6, and IR-8 centrifuges Iran can deployat the Natanz plant. After year 13, the breakout timelines are expected to reduce, as Irandeploys centrifuges at an expanded rate. After year 15, this rate could increase significantly. This plannedramp- up after year 13 combined with the removal of limitations on enrichment level after year 15 meansthat Iran’s breakout timelines could shrink to justdays.

The breakout timeline for the centrifuge program is expected to transform from one year at year tento about six months at year 13 and then it could shrink to days after year 15, in particular if Iranresumes production of near 20 percent LEU. At that point, Iran could have in place a nuclear infrastructurethat could produce significant quantities of weapon-grade uranium rapidly and turn that materialinto nuclear weapons in a matter of months. Within a few short years, Iran could emerge with anuclear arsenal of many nuclear weapons. Clearly, this outcome poses significant securityconcerns.

Some intrusive verification measures, such as the Additional Protocol, will remain in place after year15 of the deal, but they are not sufficient to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Likely, Iranmoving to break out to make nuclear weapons would be detected. However, even with intrusiveverification, the production of the first one or two significant quantities of weapon-grade uranium could wellbemissed by inspectors until after the fact, since breakout could happen so quickly at that point andIran could take a few simple steps to delay the inspectors from becoming aware of the breakout.Moreover, small, secret enrichment plants using highly advanced centrifuges could escape detection formonths. So, even with the planned verification arrangements, Iran could cheat successfully, at least for awhile. And that period would be enough to allow Iran to create facts on the ground that would makea response, even a military one, highly risky and thus doubtful. Moreover, Iran could also withdrawfrom the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and move to obtain nuclear weapons. Stopping Iran couldbedifficult, as it proved difficult to stop North Korea in the early 2000s from withdrawing from the NPTand building nuclear weapons. For these reasons, relying on verification alone is not adequate orprudent.

It should also be recognized that the JCPOA is not a typical non-proliferation agreement, if such athing truly exists. Nonetheless, for all the criticisms of the U.S./North Korean Agreed Framework, if it hadbeen fully implemented, it never would have allowed North Korea to reestablish its largeplutonium production and separation capabilities of the early 1990s. It would have in fact permanentlyended those dangerous capabilities in exchange for light water power reactors, such as the one at Bushehr,and a commitment not to separate plutonium. The Agreed Framework was structured to permanentlyend the threat posed by North Korea’s breakout capability implicit in its plutonium productionand separation programs, not just temporarily delay these programs from reaching full maturity. Thus,the shortcomings, leading potentially to undesirable outcomes, of parts of the JCPOA shouldbeacknowledged and ways sought to remedythem.

Since the agreement is unlikely to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful after itsfirstfifteen years, the United States needs to take steps today to increase the chance that it canrespond successfully to stop Iran moving to build nuclear weapons after the major nuclear limitations end.Thispolicy may help deter Iran from trying later. One part of that effort is the United States and itsP5+1 partners not accepting or approving of Iran’s nuclear plans after year 10. The negotiations showedthat Iran does not need an enrichment program; Iran accepted an arrangement that would require itto enrich uranium and then blend it down to natural uranium, demonstrating vividly that it does notneed to produce enriched uranium. In reality, Iran could demonstrate no practical need forproducing enriched uranium. Ten to fifteen years from now, Iran will still have no reason to produceenriched uranium for civil purposes. The deal facilitates Iran establishing contracts with overseasreactor suppliers, who will also be providing enriched uranium. Its nuclear program will be evenmore integrated into the international civil nuclear system, and it will be able to readily acquireenriched uranium for civil purposes. So, the United States and its allies should make clear that they do notaccept or approve that Iran needs an enrichment program, particularly one that could grow many-fold asthe limits in the agreement end. It should state that an Iranian semi-commercial enrichment program(or any reprocessing program) will be neither economic nor necessary and unlikely to be consistentwith international non-proliferationnorms.

Iran may protest such a statement. It may even cite the following provision in theagreement: “Successful implementation of this JCPOA will enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energyfor peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in linewith its obligations therein, and the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as thatof any other non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT.” But the NPT does not give Iran the rightto enrich uranium or separate plutonium. At least the former position has been made by U.S.officials,including Secretary of State John Kerry, who said, “There is no inherent right to enrich.”* Moreover,the United States has frequently insisted that non-nuclear-weapon states refrain from dangerousnuclear programs when they live in regions of tension and pose a proliferation risk. Overall, the JCPOA doesnot contain unconditional provisions requiring the acceptance or approval of Iran scaling up itsgas centrifuge program or instituting a reprocessing program. Neither does the agreement containany language where the United States has approved of Iran developing enrichment andreprocessing programs. In fact, the United States should oppose giving such an approval, even as it argues forthe deal.

* Aaron Blake, “Kerry on Iran: ‘We do not recognize a right to enrich,’” Washington Post (24 November2013)

The brief is published courtesy of the Institute for Science and International Security