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Iran Fact File: Analysis of Iranian Breakout Calculations

      A report recently published by quasi-official Iranian website NuclearEnergy.ir claims Tehran would need at least 18 months to produce enough enriched uranium for one bomb. But that timeline differs drastically from the U.S. estimate of two months because of questionable methodology, according to Iran Fact File, a project of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Ferenc Dalnoki Veress notes that the Iranian report “ignores the risk of clandestine nuclear facilities, such as centrifuge plants, conversion plants and hot cells,” which factor in to Western estimates of Iran’s breakout time. The following are excerpts from Iran Fact File’s response to the Iranian article.

Issue 1
“Iran is also constructing a heavy water research reactor. The nascent reactor in Arak, known as the IR-40, has a capacity of 40 Mega-watt (MW) and is designed to meet Iran’s need for radioisotopes, material test and other neutron therapy and neutron studies. The United States and its allies claim that this reactor can produce weapon-grade plutonium. Although plutonium is an inherent element of any reactor of any type, Iran has declared repeatedly that it does not need the IR-40’s plutonium in any shape or form.” (NuclearEnergy.ir)
            It is true that every reactor can make the “element” plutonium, but not every reactor is well suited for producing weapons grade plutonium. In fact, ordinary light water reactors tend to produce reactor grade plutonium when the fuel is removed not weapons grade plutonium. Weapons grade plutonium is much easier to use in a bomb than reactor grade plutonium, although, it must be said that they are both dangerous. Simple, back-of-the-envelope estimates and calculations that are more elaborate, predict approximately 8-10 kg of weapons grade plutonium produced per year from the IR-40 reactor. The type of reactor that Iran has chosen to build is exactly the type of reactor that is of concern for weapons grade production.
Issue 2
“Enriching uranium above 90 percent U-235: although Iran now has the required technology and infrastructure for enrichment of uranium, Iran’s current centrifuge machines are not capable of directly enriching uranium from natural U-235 concentration (or even up to 5 percent) to above 90 percent.” (NuclearEnergy.ir)
            The wording in the article is troublesome. Iran is certainly capable to enrich uranium to 90% enrichment. Say 25 kg of 90% enriched uranium is the goal. You can think of this as a final destination on a long road. A centrifuge is like a vehicle to get to the final goal. You can decide to stop at the 5% milestone or you can continue on along the road to get to 90% final destination. The same vehicle is used either way.
Issue 3
“Assuming the highest estimate of Iranian separative work unit (SWU) capacity, the required time for producing 6,000 SWU will be 6.6 months. But a very obvious and underlying principle has been neglected here . The theoretical critical mass is not reachable even within that timeframe for any non-nuclear weapon states which does not have the expertise. There is some loss and waste of material in the process of learning. Moreover, any chemical conversion and transformation process has its inherent loss in the form of solid and liquid waste as well as in-process holdup. Thus, as a rule of thumb, there is a need for more than 6,000 SWU of HEU as raw material for diversion.” (NuclearEnergy.ir)
            No underlying principle has been neglected. The 25 kg Significant Quantity (SQ) already takes into account processing losses etc. Many analysts suggest that the 25 kg SQ rule is too high. It is NOT the minimum amount that you would need to have to make a nuclear bomb, and it is NOT the critical mass. You could make as much as two 10 kt bombs with that much HEU for a nuclear weapon newcomer country.
Issue 1
“There is no significant amount of plutonium in Iran. Thus, the claimed breakout in this manner is tied to the commissioning of the IR-40 reactor, which is planned for 2015. However, even after commissioning, the reactor must work for many months to irradiate the fuel for production of plutonium. In this regard, the first step, which is to produce the required fissile material, would take at least 2 years after the commissioning of the IR-40. ”
            I am not sure it would take 2 years. However, commissioning the reactor as a violation of safeguards would bring back sanctions and would make a start of the reactor very difficult for Iran. Regardless of Iran’s stated intentions, there is once again a valid concern because of historic precedents: the first nuclear weapon of many countries (Soviet Union, UK, France, India, DPRK (probably)) have been with plutonium. [10] While at the moment Iran may not have ill intentions, it is hard to predict the future.
Issue 2 and Issue 3
The irradiated fuel assemblies comprise different high radioactive materials, which cannot be contacted or worked with except via special facilities called “hot cells.”
Iran has no “hot cell”, which is needed for plutonium extraction and further processes. Construction of such a facility would require at least 4 to 5 years, and the commissioning and the operation would require another 1 to 2 years.
            It is true that Iran would need to have a hot cell and a reprocessing facility to extract the plutonium. However, I think 5 years as an estimation seems too long. Iran’s intentions have to be questioned, because of previous declarations that Iran planned to construct a hot cell for the IR-40. See para 44 and GOV/2003/75:
            "In its letter of 21 October 2003, Iran acknowledged that two hot cells had been foreseen for this project. However, according to the information provided in that letter, neither the design nor detailed information about the dimensions or the actual layout of the hot cells was available yet, since they did not know the characteristics of the manipulators and shielded windows which they could procure. On 1 November 2003, Iran confirmed that it had tentative plans to construct at the Arak site yet another building with hot cells for the production of radioisotopes. Iran has agreed to submit the relevant preliminary design information with respect to that building in due course."
            See also para 74 (Annex) in GOV/2003/75:
            In its letter of 21 October 2003, Iran acknowledged that two hot cells had been foreseen for this project. However, according to the information provided in that letter, neither the design nor detailed information about the dimensions or the actual layout of the hot cells were available at the present time, since they did not know the characteristics of the manipulators and shielded windows for the hot cells which they could procure. Iran indicated in that letter that manipulators would be needed for: 4 hot cells for the production of medical radioisotopes, 2 hot cells for the production of Co-60 and Ir-192 sources, 3 hot cells for waste processing, and 10 back-up manipulators. The 21 October 2003 letter included a drawing of a building which Iran said would contain hot cells for the production of isotopes. In the meeting on 1 November 2003, upon further Agency inquiry, Iran confirmed that there were tentative plans to construct at the Arak site an additional building with hot cells for the production of radioisotopes. Iran stated that that first building was to contain hot cells for the production of “short lived” isotopes, and that it intended to construct the other building to produce “long lived” radioisotopes. Iran agreed to provide preliminary design information for the second building.
            Clearly, there was interest in 2003 for a hot cell that could be used to produce “long-lived” isotopes. Many analysts have taken this these long-lived isotopes to refer to plutonium. Now, hot cells are used for peaceful purposes, but some analysts are concerned that there may be clandestine facilities which could be used to extract plutonium, in batch form, smaller quantities in smaller labs that would pose less risk.
Click here for the full analysis.  

So what happened? Rouhani visits Turkey

Henri Barkey

Why did President Rouhani visit Turkey?
          On June 9-10, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made his first visit to Turkey since his election a year ago. It was the first by an Iranian leader to Turkey in 18 years. By contrast, many senior Turks, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, had visited Iran multiple times.
      Accompanied by a gaggle of businessmen, the trip had all the earmarks of a commercial mission. Turks and Iranians often say that they want to substantially increase the volume of trade. Turkey buys large quantities of oil and gas from Iran, but its export markets for other goods have been constrained, often by political considerations. President Rouhani seemed to want to encourage Turkish businessmen to engage with Iran.
      Turks also wanted to renegotiate the price of gas imports from Iran. Turks have long complained that the cost of Iranian gas is far too high given market conditions. Despite long periods of negotiations between the respective energy ministers, however, no deal was reached.
How did events in Iraq impact their discussions?
           The sweep of Mosul by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria happened on the second day of Rouhani’s visit. The magnitude of the loss must have shocked both countries. Jihadist victories do not help either country. Turkey may suffer from a blowback effect, while Iran’s main allies are at risk from an ever-expanding jihadist force now equipped with some of the best armaments in the world.
           The fact that Syria and Iraq have now become one theater of war may force both countries to look for alternatives. Both countries tough their assets in Iraq: Iran particularly with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan. But their ability to dictate events on the ground is limited.
How important was Syria to talks between the Iranian and Turkish leadership? The two countries have differed deeply, with Turkey demanding President Bashar Assad’s ouster and Iran providing Damascus with pivotal diplomatic and military assistance.
            Syria was the elephant in the room during Rouhani’s visit. Its conflict is perceived to have existential importance for both countries. Along with Russia, Iran been one of two key lifelines for Assad’s minority regime. Assad would not have remained in power without Iran and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia that played a vital role in critical battles with the Syrian insurgents. The Iranians are probably more confident about the regime in Damascus than they have ever been. Hezbollah’s help has been quite decisive at times, and Assad has just “won” reelection.
            Turkey, on the other hand, has backed the fractured Syrian opposition. Erdogan’s most important foreign policy objective has been the fall of the Assad regime, and Assad’s resilience has turned into an embarrassment for the Turkish prime minister.
      Yet the Turks and the Iranians have managed to agree to disagree on Syria; they have not allowed the Syrian conflict and their differences to mar their relations, which is quite surprising given the stakes. But Iran needs Turkey for its gas exports, and for Turkey Iran is the only alternative to Russian gas. Turkey’s economy has an insatiable appetite for energy, which has convinced the Erdogan administration to make deals it would have never contemplated before.
           The Turks have been quite supportive of the Iranian nuclear cause. All in all, despite the Syria difference, the Iranians must feel better about their relations with the Erdogan government than one that would have been dominated by Turkey’s traditional secular elites.
Henri J. Barkey is chairman of Lehigh University’s international relations department and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Click here for Barkey's chapter on Iran-Turkey relations.

Photo credits: President.ir


Event- Nuclear Flashpoints: US-Iran Tensions Over Timetables and Terms

           A final deal with Iran will have to sort out a dizzying array of timetables and disparate interpretation of terms. Among them: How many years will an agreement last? Iran prefers a few; the U.S. is thinking decades. Breakout time - how long it'd take to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb - is now estimated to be two months; how long will a deal defer it? When will Tehran have to take what action - and in what steps or phases? And when will the U.S. have to act - and how? As the last round of talks proved, Iran and the world's six major powers have deep differences on these basic questions and more. The following are the main points from a panel discussion led by former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Stephen J. HadleyModerator and Lead Discussant
Former National Security Adviser (2005 - 2009), Chairman of the Board, USIP
  • A nuclear agreement will only mark the beginning of a decades-long process of implementation. Keeping that process on track will be a huge challenge.
  • Both the U.S. and Iranian sides face enormous political challenges selling a deal at home. In Washington, issues of Congressional versus presidential prerogatives and separation of powers will be raised.
  • The Obama administration will only be able to sell a deal based on enforcement and deterrence measures. It will also have to provide reassurances to regional allies that Washington is not consenting to Iranian hegemony as long as Tehran does not have nuclear weapons.
Jon Wolfsthal 
Deputy Director, Center for Nonproliferation Studies
  • A nuclear deal must be able to outlast both the Obama and Rouhani administrations. Several years will be needed to regain confidence on both sides.
  • A step-by-step plan is being pursued because a one-step or “front-loaded” deal would not be viable or sustainable. But major sanctions relief up-front would build incentives for Iranian compliance.
• An Iran deal is about linking uranium enrichment and sanctions relief to milestones —and Iran coming clean on past activities.
• Placing permanent restrictions on Iran is not an option because Iran wants to eventually be treated as any other member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
• Iran wants to end its international isolation, which may give the United States leverage.
• A key difference between Iran and North Korea is that some parts of Iranian society want to engage with the outside world and are open to relations with the United States.
• Possible pitfalls to a deal include allegations of secret facilities and ongoing weapons research.
• New imposition of non-nuclear sanctions could impact the negotiating or implementation of a deal.
• The two sides seem unlikely to negotiate a deal by July 20. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But the limits of political trust will be tested if a deal is not reached after a six-month extension.
Daryl Kimball
Executive Director, Arms Control Association
  • Since 2007, U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iran has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons--if it chooses to do so. Tehran’s acquired nuclear knowledge cannot be easily destroyed.
  • A deal would not be built on trust, but on verification. The United States, for example, does not trust Russia but is able to work with it on issues of common concern.
  • A viable deal would establish verifiable limits on Iran’s program that will substantially increase the time it would take Tehran to build nuclear weapons. A comprehensive deal will also decrease the time necessary to detect and disrupt a breakout attempt.
  • A comprehensive deal would roll back Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, block a plutonium path to a bomb and enhance the U.N. inspections regime
• Producing enough enriched uranium would be a key hurdle to Iran building a bomb. But it also would need to design and construct a nuclear device, integrate a warhead into a delivery system, and possibly conduct several explosive tests.
• Iran would need two to three months to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium with its current stockpile and operating centrifuges.
• Possible options for capping Iran’s enrichment capacity include banning enrichment beyond the five percent level indefinitely and limiting the size of Iran’s stockpile to near zero indefinitely. Also, enrichment at the Fordow facility could be halted.
• Rouhani may find it politically impossible to admit Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the past.
Robert Litwak
Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations, and Director, International Security Studies, Wilson Center
  • For Iran, the nuclear issue is a proxy for a broader debate about Tehran’s relationship with the outside world.
  • For the United States, the nuclear issue is a surrogate for how Washington should deal with rogue or outlier states generally.
  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems concerned that the nuclear issue is a slippery slope and that a deal could lead to more demands on other issues, such as human rights.
  • Iran does not necessarily have realistic expectations of the United States. Tehran has not revealed what it would be willing to give up for sanctions relief.
• Obama’s two-track strategy of pressure and engagement has sharpened the choice for Iran. The alternatives to a deal are not good for either side.
• Iran will need to weigh the domestic political cost and possible risk of regime legitimacy against the economic benefits of sanctions relief.
• Sanctions relief could be phased in, beginning with presidential waivers and later through congressional action.
• Even if Iran complies on the nuclear issue, other issues will remain, such as human rights violations and state sponsorship of terrorism. Disentangling the sanctions will be difficult.
• Iran does not currently perceive an existential threat that necessitates nuclear weapons for protection.
           To assess this period of pivotal diplomacy, an unprecedented coalition of eight Washington think tanks and organizations is hosting three discussions to coincide with the last three rounds of talks. Click here for a rundown of the first event on the disparate issues to be resolved and the many formulations for potential solutions.

           The coalition includes the U.S. Institute of Peace, RAND, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Arms Control Association, the Center for a New American Security, the Stimson Center, the Partnership for a Secure America, and the Ploughshares Fund.

Click here for a factsheet on US-Iran tensions over timetables and terms.


Rouhani Visits Turkey to Boost Ties

           On June 9, Hassan Rouhani became the first Iranian president to officially visit Turkey in 18 years. The primary goal of the trip was to boost economic ties with Ankara. Rouhani was accompanied by a high profile 90-member trade delegation led by Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Mines Chairman Gholam-Hossein Shafei. Iranian ministers of foreign affairs, oil, finance and economy, interior, culture, telecommunications, and transport and urban development also went to Turkey, which is seeking a discount on natural gas imports from Iran. The two sides failed to agree on a price during the two-day visit. But the two countries signed 10 cooperation agreements on issues including tourism, joint ventures and customs cooperation.   

          Rouhani also discussed the growing threat of extremism in the region and the Syrian crisis. Relations between Ankara and Tehran have long been defined by competition and mutual suspicion. But the Syrian issue has particular strained relations since 2011. Turkey has taken the lead in supporting the Syrian opposition while Iran has remained a stalwart ally of the Assad regime. But Rouhani and his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, agreed that instability “is in no one’s interest” and said they would cooperate on combating extremism and sectarianism. The following are excerpted remarks by Rouhani and Turkish leaders.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
          “Iran calls for a Middle East without any nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction.
          “Iran and Turkey, the two important countries in the region, are determined to fight against extremism and terrorism. The fight against violence, extremism, sectarian conflicts and terrorism is Iran's major objective.
          “There is instability in our region and this situation is in no one's interest. Iran and Turkey are determined to increase their cooperation to establish safety and stability in the region.”
          June 9, 2014 in press conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul
            “We have decided to improve relations in gas, oil and electricity, even though there are some snags.
            “Everybody acknowledges both Turkey and Iran’s geopolitical importance. When these two countries come together, a link between the Gulf of Oman, the Black Sea and to the Mediterranean will be possible. In other words, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s why relations between these two important countries are not only significant for Turkey and Iran but also for the development of entire region.
           “The price of the natural gas has multiple parameters and is fixed through a special formula. It’s not an easy thing. Everybody is focused only on the price, but there are other issues as well.
            “Violence and extremism rooted in our region are against the interests of all countries. The terrorist groups that have emerged in Syria and those – mainly Western countries - who have supported or tolerated them have already regretted that. Those who did not regret until today, will regret it tomorrow. The fight against terror is the duty of us all. It’s an obligation for the security and stability of our region.”
           June 9, 2014 in a joint press conference Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
           “Targeting $30 billion of annual trade balance requires increased activity of the private sector. Today the Turkish economy is moving in the right direction by ceding economic affairs to the private sector and Iran's private sector should also feel responsible and step onto the scene of action in a proper way.
           “Turkey is a bridge connecting to the West and Europe, while Iran is a bridge to the Far East; we should use these two countries as a bridge for regional development. A stable and developed Turkey makes us Iranians proud.”
           June 10, 2014 in a meeting with the Turkey-Iran Business Council
Turkish President Abdullah Gul
           “Our relations are not just about two countries. They are important for the region and the whole world.
           Turkey “strongly supported a deal that will help remove all the sanctions. We don’t want any country in our region to possess nuclear weapons. We maintain our desire for a Middle East cleared of weapons of mass destruction.”
           June 9, 2014 in a press conference with President Rouhani
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
           “I hope we will reach a deal so that we can provide more Iranian gas to Turkish consumers. I hope our ministers will close the deal fast.
           “Of course, we are looking ways how to provide cheaper gas to our people’s consumption and to produce cheaper electricity.”
           June 9, 2014 in a press conference with President Rouhani


Nuclear Timelines: U.S. Perspective

            The following factsheet outlines the U.S.-Iran tensions over timelines and terms of a final nuclear agreement.

1) How long will a deal last?
      The United States, along with the other five major powers, is looking for a deal measured in years, even decades, that will limit or curtail Iran’s current program and ensure its “break-out” time is a year or more. A long-term deal would also provide space for confidence-building and improving relations that might alter Tehran’s strategic calculus about the need for a bomb. 
      Iran wants a short-term deal that a) does not appear to compromise or intrude on its sovereignty, b) lifts sanctions related to nuclear issues as soon as possible and c) does not severely limit its capacity to enrich uranium, which it says would jeopardize its ability to provide “practical needs” for civil nuclear energy.
2) What are the possible phases of a deal—and over what kind of time periods?
      The U.S. is considering a deal that plays out in several action-for-action stages, modeled on the six-month Joint Plan of Action. The interim deal is sequentially releasing funds (eventually totaling up to $7 billion) as Iran limits its capabilities, including “down-blending” and converting its medium-enriched uranium stockpiles. All of these actions, however, have been reversible. The U.S. wants any new deal to include actions that are either irreversible or harder to reverse—and that last many years. It will likely seek to remove sanctions slowly in order to maintain leverage in later phases of the deal.
            Iran is likely to agree to a phased deal, but it is seeking the removal of sanctions at an early stage and the lifting of any limits on uranium enrichment much sooner than the six major powers want.
3) What are the goals in changing the breakout time for Iran to develop enough fissile material for nuclear weapons?  
          The U.S. estimates the “breakout” time—or the time to enrich enough uranium to fuel a bomb—is about two months. Actually building and fielding a bomb requires additional steps and time. But once Iran has enough fissile material, it could “weaponize” at smaller sites less detectable or vulnerable to airstrikes. So the U.S. wants new technical limits and safeguards to lengthen breakout time to a year or more.
            Iran has so far rejected proposals for lengthening breakout time. Tehran argues that its acceptance of more extensive international inspections and monitoring should provide sufficient confidence that its program is peaceful.

4) How long might new international monitoring last?
     The U.S. is pushing for more international inspections monitoring under terms of the Additional Protocol, which allows expanded access to information and inspections of undeclared sites. If ratified by Iran, the Additional Protocol would be unlimited in duration. The U.S. is thought to be seeking additional monitoring beyond the Additional Protocol that would last many years.
            Iran will likely agree to implement the Additional Protocol but will resist further intrusive measures that go beyond the practices applied to other signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
5) How long might it take the International Atomic Energy Agency to finish investigating Iran’s possible military dimensions (PMD), a diplomatic process separate from the Vienna talks? And how might that process impact the broader deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers?
      The U.S. and the IAEA want guarantees that Iran will finally answer long-standing questions about its activities with possible military dimensions (PMD) in the past. Iran’s failure to provide answers about its activities before 2003 has triggered a series of ever-tightening sanctions since 2006. The U.S. is likely to push for a provision in the comprehensive agreement that mandates Iranian cooperation to complete the PMD investigation by 2015.
      Iran has begun to provide some answers to the IAEA. But the investigation is now expected to extend beyond the July 20 deadline of the Vienna talks.
6) What is the timeline between detection of possible violations and response? 
            The U.S. believes the current IAEA inspections regime would likely detect any Iranian attempt to produce highly enriched uranium at its declared sites within days. The issue is instead how fast U.S. intelligence could determine if Iran did work at new secret facilities. The U.S. wants more extensive inspections of undeclared sites to detect and deter a possible “sneak-out” scenario.
            Technically, the U.S. could act militarily within days if deemed necessary. But depending on the violation, the U.S. also might want more time to take diplomatic actions at the U.N. or other diplomatic arenas to impose costs for any violations, which could slow a response.
           Iran claims it has no secret sites and no intention of building a bomb.
7) What are the possible timelines for sanctions relief under the deal?
     The U.S. president can use his authority to reduce some sanctions imposed by executive order and/or he can invoke legislative waivers on current sanctions legislation. These could be done fairly swiftly, in days or weeks. But Congress has to vote to remove sanctions that it imposed by law, which could be a lengthy, complicated and highly political process requiring many months. Sanctions relief could be sequenced to allow the president to issue initial waivers and other measures, leaving congressional legislation for a later stage.
      Iran has made clear it wants international and U.S.-imposed sanctions removed as soon as possible. President Hassan Rouhani needs to demonstrate that his policy of engagement can deliver sanctions relief, renewed foreign investment, and help improve Iran’s economy.
Photo credits: Amano and Zarif by Mueller / MSC [CC-BY-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons


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