Iran backs away from key component of nuclear deal

After agreeing for months that it would ship most of its current stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be converted into nuclear reactor fuel rods, the Iranians have done a sudden about-face and now insist that the enriched uranium stay in Iran.

Getting the uranium out of Iran is a vital part of any deal with the mullahs.  If it stays where it is, Iran's "breakout" time period to build a bomb is reduced from about a year to just a few months.

There are several other aspects to a framework agreement that simply aren't coming together, leaving the impression that, with two days before the agreed upon deadline, the chances for a deal are diminishing.

New York Times:

Western officials confirmed that Iran was balking at shipping the fuel out, but insisted that there were other ways of dealing with the material. Chief among those options, they said, was blending it into a more diluted form.

Depending on the technical details, that could make the process of enriching it for military use far more lengthy, or perhaps nearly impossible.

Nonetheless, the revelation that Iran is now insisting on retaining the fuel could raise a potential obstacle at a critical time in the talks. And for critics of the emerging deal in Congress, in Israel and in Sunni Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, the prospect of leaving large amounts of nuclear fuel in Iran, in any form, is bound to intensify their already substantial political opposition.

If an accord allowing Iran to retain the fuel is reached, the Obama administration is expected to argue that it would not constitute a serious risk, particularly if it is regularly inspected. So far under an interim agreement negotiated in 2013, Iran has complied fully with a rigorous inspection process for the stockpiles of its fuel, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said.

But the development could give opponents another reason to object, adding it to a list of what they call concessions made by an administration in search of an agreement. If Iran ever bars the inspectors from the country, as North Korea did a dozen years ago, the international community would have no assurance about the fate of the fuel. Nor has Iran answered longstanding questions about its suspected nuclear design and testing of components that could be used to detonate a warhead.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of the emerging accord, said the development raised serious questions about a possible deal.

“The viability of this agreement as a reliable arms control accord is diminished by this,” Mr. Takeyh said. “One of the core administration arguments has been that the uranium would be shipped abroad as a confidence building measure.”

Another critical issue is the development of a second-generation centrifuge that could enrich uranium 16 times faster than their current setup.  The Western powers want to curb the development of this far more efficient machine, but Iran is insisting on going ahead with the research.

The Washington Institute for Middle East Policy has developed a fact sheet on where Iran is with regard to a breakout time period to construct a bomb:

What is Iran's current breakout time?

Natural uranium has only 0.7 percent of the isotope U-235, and the effort required to enrich it to one SQ of WGU is about 5,000 Separative Work Units (SWUs). Iran currently has about 9,000 functioning first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, with another 9,000 not in operation. The IR-1s installed in the Natanz and Fordow facilities have been performing at an average per unit rate of 0.75 to 1 SWU per year. Using the 1 SWU/year performance of the latest IR-1 model, the breakout time with 9,000 machines using a natural uranium feed would be six to seven months. However, Iran also has substantial stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) that can be used as an alternative feed, shrinking the breakout time to three months.

If Iran brought online its other nearly 9,000 IR-1s, breakout time would be about three months with natural uranium feedstock and four to six weeks with 3.5 percent UF6 feedstock. Iran has also developed the more advanced IR-2m centrifuge, rated at 5 SWU/year. If the 1,000 IR-2ms installed at Natanz were used in conjunction with all 18,000 IR-1s, the respective breakout times would be cut by a third.

According to media accounts, the proposed nuclear agreement would lower the number of operating centrifuges to around 6,500. In that circumstance, what would Iran's breakout time be?

Using IR-1s with natural uranium as a feed, the breakout time for 6,500 centrifuges would be about nine months. A crucial question will be how much 3.5 percent enriched UF6 will remain in Iran. Yet even if UF6 stocks are reduced from their current 7.5-8 tons to 500 kg, a breakout time of between seven and eight months would still be possible given the program's enrichment capabilities with natural uranium feed. Since these breakout times are less than the goals set by the U.S. administration, it is important to know what parameters Washington used for its estimates.

You can see how important it is to get that uranium out of Iran and prevent the manufacture of the second-generation centrifuges.  But if we concede both issues to Iran, the president's promise to prevent Iran from constructing a nuclear weapon in less than a year would be exposed as horse manure.

Perhaps the Iranians are trying to blow up the deal.  The byzantine inner workings of the Iranian regime are difficult to read, and perhaps the hardliners have gotten the upper hand and are trying to scuttle the deal.  Anything is possible – including a sudden about-face by Iran.  Both sides say there will be no extension of talks past Wednesday, so unless there is a craven cave-in to Iranian demands, it doesn't look like this deal is going to happen.

After agreeing for months that it would ship most of its current stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be converted into nuclear reactor fuel rods, the Iranians have done a sudden about-face and now insist that the enriched uranium stay in Iran.

Getting the uranium out of Iran is a vital part of any deal with the mullahs.  If it stays where it is, Iran's "breakout" time period to build a bomb is reduced from about a year to just a few months.

There are several other aspects to a framework agreement that simply aren't coming together, leaving the impression that, with two days before the agreed upon deadline, the chances for a deal are diminishing.

New York Times:

Western officials confirmed that Iran was balking at shipping the fuel out, but insisted that there were other ways of dealing with the material. Chief among those options, they said, was blending it into a more diluted form.

Depending on the technical details, that could make the process of enriching it for military use far more lengthy, or perhaps nearly impossible.

Nonetheless, the revelation that Iran is now insisting on retaining the fuel could raise a potential obstacle at a critical time in the talks. And for critics of the emerging deal in Congress, in Israel and in Sunni Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, the prospect of leaving large amounts of nuclear fuel in Iran, in any form, is bound to intensify their already substantial political opposition.

If an accord allowing Iran to retain the fuel is reached, the Obama administration is expected to argue that it would not constitute a serious risk, particularly if it is regularly inspected. So far under an interim agreement negotiated in 2013, Iran has complied fully with a rigorous inspection process for the stockpiles of its fuel, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said.

But the development could give opponents another reason to object, adding it to a list of what they call concessions made by an administration in search of an agreement. If Iran ever bars the inspectors from the country, as North Korea did a dozen years ago, the international community would have no assurance about the fate of the fuel. Nor has Iran answered longstanding questions about its suspected nuclear design and testing of components that could be used to detonate a warhead.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of the emerging accord, said the development raised serious questions about a possible deal.

“The viability of this agreement as a reliable arms control accord is diminished by this,” Mr. Takeyh said. “One of the core administration arguments has been that the uranium would be shipped abroad as a confidence building measure.”

Another critical issue is the development of a second-generation centrifuge that could enrich uranium 16 times faster than their current setup.  The Western powers want to curb the development of this far more efficient machine, but Iran is insisting on going ahead with the research.

The Washington Institute for Middle East Policy has developed a fact sheet on where Iran is with regard to a breakout time period to construct a bomb:

What is Iran's current breakout time?

Natural uranium has only 0.7 percent of the isotope U-235, and the effort required to enrich it to one SQ of WGU is about 5,000 Separative Work Units (SWUs). Iran currently has about 9,000 functioning first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, with another 9,000 not in operation. The IR-1s installed in the Natanz and Fordow facilities have been performing at an average per unit rate of 0.75 to 1 SWU per year. Using the 1 SWU/year performance of the latest IR-1 model, the breakout time with 9,000 machines using a natural uranium feed would be six to seven months. However, Iran also has substantial stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) that can be used as an alternative feed, shrinking the breakout time to three months.

If Iran brought online its other nearly 9,000 IR-1s, breakout time would be about three months with natural uranium feedstock and four to six weeks with 3.5 percent UF6 feedstock. Iran has also developed the more advanced IR-2m centrifuge, rated at 5 SWU/year. If the 1,000 IR-2ms installed at Natanz were used in conjunction with all 18,000 IR-1s, the respective breakout times would be cut by a third.

According to media accounts, the proposed nuclear agreement would lower the number of operating centrifuges to around 6,500. In that circumstance, what would Iran's breakout time be?

Using IR-1s with natural uranium as a feed, the breakout time for 6,500 centrifuges would be about nine months. A crucial question will be how much 3.5 percent enriched UF6 will remain in Iran. Yet even if UF6 stocks are reduced from their current 7.5-8 tons to 500 kg, a breakout time of between seven and eight months would still be possible given the program's enrichment capabilities with natural uranium feed. Since these breakout times are less than the goals set by the U.S. administration, it is important to know what parameters Washington used for its estimates.

You can see how important it is to get that uranium out of Iran and prevent the manufacture of the second-generation centrifuges.  But if we concede both issues to Iran, the president's promise to prevent Iran from constructing a nuclear weapon in less than a year would be exposed as horse manure.

Perhaps the Iranians are trying to blow up the deal.  The byzantine inner workings of the Iranian regime are difficult to read, and perhaps the hardliners have gotten the upper hand and are trying to scuttle the deal.  Anything is possible – including a sudden about-face by Iran.  Both sides say there will be no extension of talks past Wednesday, so unless there is a craven cave-in to Iranian demands, it doesn't look like this deal is going to happen.