The United States and its international partners in the P5+1 (China, Russia, France, United Kingdom and Germany) sat down with Iran this week to begin to lay out the details of a final deal. So far, implementation of the November 24 Joint Plan of Action, which provides for intrusive monitoring and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a small amount of sanctions relief, has gone smoothly, and both sides will aim to keep it that way. But there is a wide gap to bridge. Onlookers should not be surprised to see little movement in this first meeting and should even be prepared for a possible extension of the six-month timeline set out in the initial agreement. Initial progress, however, suggests some reason for optimism on what analysts see as the most likely path for a final deal.
While there is some room to negotiate, a final agreement will seek to ensure that any scenario in which Iran should choose to reverse its path would allow the international community sufficient time for action, including military force. Former US nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn suggested in October that a final deal must “sufficiently limit” Iran’s ability “to suddenly abandon constraints, kick out inspectors, disable monitoring equipment and use existing enrichment facilities to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more nuclear weapons – and to do these things before the international community can take effective action to stop them.”
While, ideally for the P5+1, Iran would not be allowed to continue to enrich uranium, the issue has been firmly established as an Iranian red line. After years of investment in the program, the country is unlikely to trade this ability away. For this reason, the United States and its partners will seek to limit the number of Iran’s first-generation centrifuges to a few thousand, rather than the 19,000 currently installed, cap its current stockpile and close or significantly convert its Fordow enrichment facility, which is buried deep underground. The six world powers also will seek to deal with Iran’s heavy water enrichment facility at Arak – which could be used to pursue a second plutonium path to a bomb – by converting or closing it down. While Fordow is likely to pose a continued proliferation risk if a significant number of centrifuges remain, the Arak reactor potentially could be converted to a light-water facility or have its power reduced to limit the quality and amount of plutonium that can be produced. Most importantly, a final deal will provide for the kind of intrusive inspections regime that will ensure any Iranian attempt to build a nuclear weapon is detected well in advance of its realization.
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