The devil is in the nuclear details

When talks resume, narrow specifics could make the difference between a deal that will keep Iran a safe distance from a nuke and one that will put it on the cusp of the bomb

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

P5+1 delegations meet for talks on Iran's nuclear program at in Geneva November 7, 2013. (Photo credit: State Department/Twitter)
P5+1 delegations meet for talks on Iran's nuclear program at in Geneva November 7, 2013. (Photo credit: State Department/Twitter)

There are four possible deals that may be reached during the next round of talks in Geneva, following the narrow failure of the attempt to reach an agreement on Sunday morning. Amos Yadlin, a former IDF military intelligence chief who heads the INSS think tank, labeled them in an October article in the Wall Street Journal as such: Ideal, reasonable, bad and in phases.

Ideal – the complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program and the transfer of all enriched uranium out of Iran – is the deal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly called for. But it is not realistic at this time, and one can safely presume it was never discussed in Geneva.

The difference between reasonable and bad resides in the details. The first such details relate to uranium enrichment. Netanyahu, who was briefed by President Barack Obama on the particulars of the unfinished Geneva deal and called it “a grievous historic error,” may have made a regrettable mistake of his own in this area in September 2012. Speaking before the UN General Assembly, he famously held up a cartoon drawing of a bomb and painted a single red line. “The red line should be drawn right here,” he said. “Before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu’s diagram, splashed on the front page of newspapers worldwide, placed the emphasis on the quantity of enriched uranium, not centrifuges. A bad deal, however, would demand of Iran that it relinquish its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium but allow it to keep its gas centrifuges in place. Such a deal would offer sanctions relief for a slight and insignificant hindrance in what one nuclear policy expert here called “Iran’s relentlessly expanding breakout capacity.”

The expert, Oded Brosh, a former senior analyst in the Prime Minister’s Office and a fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, noted that Iran has over 19,000 centrifuges and that it has increased production of its newer IR-2 centrifuges by 50 percent over the past three months alone. The number and speed of those centrifuges, even if Iran forgoes its medium enriched uranium, keep it perched on the cusp of a bomb.

Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of Tehran. (photo credit: AP/ISNA,Hamid Foroutan, File)
Iran’s heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak, 150 miles (240 kilometers) southwest of Tehran (photo credit: AP/ISNA/Hamid Foroutan/File)

The second area of details separating a bad deal from a reasonable one relates to the plutonium reactor in Arak. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who told France-Inter radio that “we want a deal… but not a sucker’s deal,” said France was “absolutely firm” in its demand that construction of the reactor be halted. Sanctions relief now, without at least a verifiable commitment from Iran to cease all operations on the heavy water reactor – which has no civilian use at all – would, Yadlin said, be “disastrous for western interests because it would allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon rapidly and whenever it wants, under the cover of an agreement with the international community.”

Uzi Eilam (Photo credit: Facebook)
Uzi Eilam (Photo credit: Facebook)

Professor Uzi Even, one of the founders of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, told The Times of Israel that the heavy water reactor, which, once operational, is no longer a legitimate target, should be on top of the P5+1 powers’ list of components that must be dismantled. Others, however, noted that Iran has had significant difficulty constructing the reactor and that it would not be a true menace until the end of 2014, by which time the world powers would presumably have reached a final agreement.

Two other details that stand between a reasonable and a bad deal are the nature of sanctions relief and the degree of transparency. Both might be handled as part of the phased or reciprocal agreement, under which the timing of sanctions relief or the degree of transparency will be pivotal.

The painstakingly assembled sanctions regime can be thought of as a fence around Iran. The key in signing a preliminary deal that offers the regime some form of sanctions relief is that the easement be temporary — the fence opened just a crack, and easily shut in the event of non-compliance. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, in an October 16 column for Bloomberg, called for “non-sanctions-related financial relief,” suggesting that the sanctions remain in place and Iran, in return for concessions, be offered a chunk of its own money frozen in banks around the world.

But Eilam, a former director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, told The Times of Israel that the most critical element of a future deal lies in verification. “The emphasis should be on transparency,” Eilam said. “If the Iranians don’t allow access, to places such as Parchin” – where Iran is believed to have conducted experiments relating to the development of a nuclear weapon – “then all of the other details are secondary.” He concluded: “The important thing is, was there development for military means? If not, then offer transparency. If yes, then there’s nothing to talk about.”

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