The Iran Accord -- Profoundly, and Primarily, Symbolic
November 24, 2013
William O. Beeman
Posted: 11/24/2013 7:33 pm
The principal benefit of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 nations
on November 23 is that Iran and the United States were able to down to talk
and reach an agreement on *something*. Given 33 years of estrangement and
non-communication, this is an extraordinarily important development --
nearly equivalent to the U.S. breakthrough to China -- perhaps the signal
achievement of the Nixon administration.
The profound symbolism of the moment more than outweighs the lighter
substantive elements of the temporary agreement. The United States and its
partners appeared tough and got very little. Iran appeared tough and gave
up very little. Both sides saved face. This is the essence of a successful
agreement. No one "won" and no one "lost."
Iranians have been both sincere and clever in the negotiations. They played
up to the insubstantial straw-man accusations promulgated by the U.S. and
its partners, making them seem weightier than they were in reality. By
yielding to the P5+1 demands, in essence Iran has allowed itself to be
persuaded to stop temporarily doing what it never intended to do -- make a
nuclear weapon. The bottom line is that Iran did not give up very much in
the negotiations, (but it didn't gain very much either).
Reviewing the terms of the agreement in conjunction with the reality on the
ground in Iran, one can see how easy it was for Iran's negotiators to agree
to these terms.
Low Enriched Uranium
Iran's enrichment of uranium was the crux of the matter. The United States
and its allies had fetishized Iran's uranium enrichment program. They had
made the improbable leap that having enriched uranium would immediately
lead to a nuclear weapon. This is an immense mistake -- so large that one
must suspect that it is essentially hyped for public consumption. The
public has certainly been convinced of this.
However, Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpile cannot be used for any
military purpose, short of the rather improbable construction of a "dirty
bomb" -- a conventional warhead containing radioactive material, not to
explode, but to pollute. Such a primitive weapon has no practical use.
Under the agreement, Iran would cease adding to this stockpile.
Under the agreement, Iran will be allowed to continue to enrich uranium at
less than 5 percent purity -- a concession that preserves Iran's rights
under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to peaceful nuclear development
-- its fundamental demand going into the talks.
High Enriched Uranium
Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would be eliminated through
conversion to fuel plates for use in a research reactor or oxidized. It
could then not be further enriched or weaponized in any way. This seems
like a major concession, but when one understands why Iran was enriching to
the 20 percent level to begin with, it is less so.
Iran has a research reactor, the Tehran Research Reactor
(TRR)<http://www.nti.org/facilities/182/>that produced medical
isotopes for the treatment of cancer. The reactor had
been supplied by the United States in 1967. The United States at that time
provided weapons grade fuel for running the reactor. Iran was running out
of 20 percent fuel, and was expected to deplete the supply entirely by
2011. Iran tried to broker a deal for more 20 percent fuel with the United
States. A preliminary agreement was reached on October 1, 2010. The United
States reneged on the agreement. Iran then began enriching its own uranium
to the 19.75% level -- technically below the high-enriched uranium
threshold of 20%. After converting part of this this indigenously produced
fuel into non-weaponizeable reactor plates, it was introduced into the TRR
in February, 2012 <http://www.isisnucleariran.org/static/443/> . The
November 23 agreement will allow Iran to do what it was going to do anyway,
and finish converting the rest of its 19.75 percent fuel into
non-weaponizable reactor plates.
Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor
The agreement requires Iran not to activate its new small heavy water
research reactor in Arak. This small reactor was known to nuclear
inspectors for some time, but because it contained no fissile material, it
was not required to be monitored. The reactor was suddenly seized upon by
Israel and later by French Prime Minister François Hollande as a "path to
plutonium" -- a massive over-reaction. This was quickly echoed and
exaggerated in the press. The Christian Science monitor suggested that this
facility was in truth a "red herring" in the
The reactor has faced considerable delays in construction and is not
scheduled to open until 2016. It will produce a small amount of
electricity, but it is designed to eventually supplement then replace the
TRR, producing medical isotopes. Plutonium can be extracted from spent fuel
rods, but only if there is a completely new facility constructed to so
this. Iran has no such facility. If Iran were to decide to make a weapon
from this extracted plutonium, it would then need a third facility.
Additionally, as former IAEA nuclear inspector Robert Kelley points
out:"the reactor doesn't do anything without fuel, and so if you don't
have fuel, the reactor doesn't run. If the reactor doesn't run, it doesn't make
All of this time, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be
monitoring the use of the fissile material. Parallels with India, Pakistan
and Israel , who did use heavy-water reactors to extract plutonium and
build bombs are inaccurate, because as non-signatories to the NPT, the
actions of these nations were not monitored.
Building a Bomb?
There is a strange irony in President Obama's announcement of the temporary
agreement. He mentioned the term "nuclear weapon" multiple times in his
announcement, implying that Iran was on a path to develop such a weapon.
One wonders if he actually believes this or if his repeated implied
accusation was a rhetorical device designed to placate his hard-line
The president must know by this time that there is no evidence that Iran
has or ever had a nuclear weapons program. Every relevant intelligence
agency in the world has verified this fact for more than a decade. Two U.S.
National Intelligence Estimates that were made public in 2007 and 2011
underscored this. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also
consistently asserted that Iran has not diverted any nuclear material for
any military purpose.
Even Israeli intelligence analysts agree that Iran is "not a danger" to
Israel. Typical is ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy who said on March 16 this
year that Iran "will not make it to the bomb," and that Israel's existence
"is not in danger and shouldn't be questioned"<http://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-is-dead-scared-of-israel-says-ex-mossad-chief/>
What Iran Gets in Return
Though Iran is not giving up very much in the November 23 agreement, it is
also not receiving a great deal in return. It will receive 6 to 7 billion
dollars' worth of sanctions relief, more than 4 billion of which is money
already owed to Iran in oil revenues, but frozen. In addition, Iran has
saved face; it did not give up on its inalienable right to enrich uranium
as guaranteed in the NPT. This may be enough to placate hardliners in the
Islamic Republic who have objected to dealings with the United States and
its allies in the past.
There will be some good feelings both in Washington and Tehran that this
astonishingly long impasse has finally been broken. Could either side have
gotten more from these talks? Probably not. In fact the limited gains for
both sides may well be a sign of the success of the negotiations.
The vitriolic nay-sayers trying to torpedo these talks in both capitals and
elsewhere have been thwarted for the moment, but they will certainly begin
condemning this process immediately. However, leaders in both nations
should flatly ignore them. The world can only hope that this small accord
will lead to more substantive rapprochement in the near future.
CORRECTIONS TO THE ABOVE--November 25
I wish to make a few corrections to my comments above, based largely on technical feedback I received after publication. I have no desire to promulgate mistakes.
1. I probably should not have even raised the idea of a "dirty bomb" made from low-enriched uranium. It is a really crazy idea--but one that has been widely used as a rhetorical device in the press attacking Iran's program. The idea that a nation would go to the trouble of building centrifuges and enriching uranium only to pack it into a warhead to spew radioactive material, and not very lethal material at that, defies logic.
2. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007 asserted that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program after 2003. Numerous people have questioned whether the NIE had evidence of Iran having such a weapons program before 2003, and the NIE was silent on this issue. I am informed that Iran was in fact contemplating nuclear weapons in the late 1980's. Iran and Iraq fought a debilitating war from 1980-88 and Iraq was suspected of having or being in the process of developing nuclear weapons.
3. There is a typo in the original article, corrected above. Iran HAS (not had) the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) at present. It is aging but still active.
4. The Arak Heavy Water reactor is not accurately described as "small" It will be a large reactor by international standards. It was designed in the 1980's, so it has been in development. Its stated purpose to the IAEA is to serve as a research reactor for generation of medical and scientific isotopes.