As negotiations between the P5+1 world powers (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are set to resume Wednesday in Geneva, with an interim agreement in view according to various reports, Israelis were reassured to hear visiting French President Francois Hollande pledge that France would keep up the pressure on Iran and not remove sanctions until it was clear that Iran had given up its quest for nuclear weapons.
At a press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, Hollande laid out four conditions for France to support an interim agreement: placing all of Iran’s nuclear installations under immediate international supervision; suspending uranium enrichment to 20 percent; reducing Iran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium; and halting the construction of a heavy-water reactor in Arak, a city in west central Iran.
But he has not backed Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand for an end to all Iranian uranium enrichment, including to the low level of 3.5 percent.
How advanced is the nuclear programme?
Against the background of the nuclear negotiations between the world powers and Tehran, one has to look at the advancement of the nuclear programme itself.
A year ago, at the United Nations General Assembly the Israeli Prime Minister presented a red line of not allowing Iran to acquire sufficient 20 per cent enriched uranium for one atomic bomb. Whilst the Iranians were careful not to cross this line they managed to marginalize it. Whenever they have got close to this line they have converted much of the material into oxide form, but this can be converted back within a matter of weeks.
They have also installed many more centrifuges and newer and faster centrifuges. If unabated, it is estimated that from mid-2014 they will be able to reach one bomb’s worth of enriched material within several weeks, starting with their stock of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium. So the stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium is less relevant.
This complicates the diplomatic picture because until now the negotiations focused on this one element of enriching to 20 per cent. This was considered most urgent because it is easy to breakout fast from 20 per cent. But this focus on 20 per cent enriched uranium has neglected all other elements of the programme, including the quantity and quality of centrifuges, weaponisation, and the plutonium track in Arak, which is even more dangerous than uranium enrichment.
On 17 November, Netanyahu said during a joint press conference with Francois Hollande:
“The deal that is being put on the table in Geneva is not a good deal. I believe it’s a bad deal and a dangerous one. I applaud the fact that you, personally, have taken a stance to make it tougher and firmer, but I‘m concerned, gravely concerned that this deal will go through and in one stroke of the pen it will reduce the sanctions on Iran, sanctions that took years to put in place. And in return for this Iran gives practically nothing.’’
He added, “Like you, I want to see a peaceful solution, a diplomatic solution, and like Secretary Kerry, I strongly believe that no deal is better than a bad deal. And I believe that this deal is not merely a bad deal. Look how eager, just look how eager the Iranians are, how eager they are to return to Geneva and sign the deal. Now they said that they will not demand that the agreement include a specific reference to their so-called right to enrich, their already backing off of that, predictably. They know, everyone knows, that the agreement enables them to continue enrichment, so they say, we already have the right to enrich in practice.”
What would make a good deal on Iran’s nuclear programme?
The conditions that Netanyahu has set out (stopping all enrichment, removing all enriched material, closing the Fordow enrichment facility, and stopping the plutonium track) are maximalist conditions, but one cannot expect the Israeli government to be the first to show flexibility on a critical issue of national security.
Nonetheless, the Iranians are dangerously close to critical breakout capacity, so slowing them down or even stopping the clock is not sufficient. The clock needs to be set back.
According to IDF Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog, the critical elements for a good deal are as follows:
The most important element is to ship out the enriched uranium, including low enriched uranium. They should be left with an amount less than one bomb’s worth, so if they decide to violate the agreement and breakout it will take them a long time. The enriched material could be sent back to Iran as fuel rods or metal plates which they cannot use militarily. If that happens, the question of symbolic enrichment on Iranian soil is of lesser importance.
There needs to be intrusive inspections, including to all sites which are suspected by the IAEA of being related to weaponisation research, such as Parchin, which the IAEA has been demanding access to for years.
The plutonium track needs to be solved. Once the Arak heavy water reactor (which is capable of producing weapons grade plutonium) becomes hot it will be impossible to stop it. Israel took out the Iraqi reactor at Osirak in 1981 before it went hot, and according to media reports, did the same with a Syrian reactor in 2007, so the situation is very dangerous.
There needs to be a strict timeframe. It would be best if during talks the Iranians freeze their programme, so the clock is stopped. If the Iranians insist on continuing their programme, there must be a very limited timeframe, otherwise they are just buying time until they reach a critical breakout capacity.
The heaviest sanctions should be left in place until it is clear the Iranians are serious. If the major sanctions are lifted and then they fail to fulfil their obligations, it will be very difficult to regain the momentum and build up the pressure again.