Iran’s Fordo uranium enrichment plant, a nuclear facility built into a mountain deep in the Iranian desert and thought impervious to air attacks, emerged as a flash point in talks in Switzerland this week between Tehran and the P5+1 world powers, the New York Times reported. The political framework reached on Thursday sought to significantly curtail Iran’s program in exchange for the lifting of crippling Western sanctions.
Many experts anticipated the deal would require the closure of the site. In fact, as Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made clear on Thursday night, the agreed framework requires the closure of “none… of our facilities.”
Up until 2009, Fordo was a secret facility inside an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base and represented “a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime,” US President Barack Obama said at the time.
As recently as December 2013, Obama declared: “They don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordo in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly demanded that it be dismantled, along with the rest of Iran’s nuclear military capabilities.
In 2011, Iran had hundreds of centrifuges at the site and began enriching uranium at 20 percent, just below weapons-grade, according to the report. Centrifuges can be used to enrich uranium to lower levels for use in energy, medicine and science, and to higher levels for weapons-grade use in nuclear warheads. By 2012, the site had over 2,000 centrifuges installed and some 700 of them were in use, the Times reported.
According to the Times report, many nuclear experts expected a nuclear deal with Iran to mandate the dismantling of the site. But under the political framework reached in Lausanne between Iran and the world powers, Fordo and another nuclear site, Natanz, are instead supposed to undergo conversions into peaceful nuclear centers and be subject to inspections.
Iran committed not to enrich uranium in Fordo for at least 15 years and agreed to convert the site into a nuclear physics and technology research center. The deal also committed Tehran not to do uranium enrichment-related research and development or store fissile material at Fordo for 15 years.
Centrifuges will still run at Fordo — a Western official told The Associated Press this week that almost 1,000 of the machines will be spinning. But they will not enrich uranium. Instead, the official said, they will produce isotopes for medical, industrial and research uses.
In Natanz, Iran has nearly 20,000 centrifuges, with almost 10,000 enriching.
The deal, intended to be finalized by June 30, aims at restricting the number of centrifuges standing to 6,104, and those running to 5,060. All will be mainstay IR-1- models, Iran’s present workhorse, which enriches at much lower rates that the more developed machines Tehran would like to install.
Under the agreement, Iran committed to enriching uranium substantially below weapons-grade and to reduce its enriched uranium stockpile from about five tons to 300 kilograms (less than 700 pounds) for 15 years.
But the framework deal left many questions unanswered. The limits are vague on Iran’s research and development of advanced technology that could be used for producing nuclear weapons. Inspectors still might not be able to enter Iranian military sites where nuclear work previously took place. The Americans and Iranians already are bickering over how fast economic sanctions on Iran would be relaxed. And Obama’s assertion that the penalties could always be snapped back into force is undermined by a US fact sheet on the deal describing a “dispute resolution process” enshrined in the agreement.
The biggest issue, however, may be one US officials have emphasized above all others: the “breakout time” Iran would need to surreptitiously produce a nuclear weapon. The framework imposes a combination of restrictions that would leave Iran needing to work for at least a year to accomplish that goal, rather than the two-to-three months currently.
According to R. Scott Kemp, a centrifuges expert at MIT cited by the New York Times, given that the deal allows Iran to retain some centrifuges at Fordo and doesn’t ban other from being built as long as they do not enrich uranium, Tehran could potentially acquire the fuel needed for a bomb in a little as three months. He later walked back that assertion.
“Fordo would be permitted to have only IR-1 centrifuges for stable-isotope separation, and even if subsequently repurposed for uranium enrichment, the one-year breakout would be maintained. The concern previously raised is thus resolved,” Dr. Kemp wrote in a statement.