Opening the door to a bad Iranian nuclear deal


European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a photo opportunity before the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva October 15, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Iranian officials' statements suggest that any nuclear proposal they offer will be a meaningless half-measure.

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  • A deal, as it is currently being framed and discussed, would fall short of the verified suspension and dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

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  • The emerging framework for negotiations opens the door to a bad deal on Iran's nuclear program.

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Key Points

  • Obama administration officials have signaled their willingness to consider a deal that abandons key U.N. Security Council demands aimed at rolling back Iran’s developing nuclear weapons capability.
  • Iranian officials’ statements suggest that any nuclear proposal they offer will be a meaningless half-measure intended to retain their core nuclear capabilities while relieving sanctions pressure. 
  • The emerging framework for negotiations opens the door to a bad deal – one that abandons the standard of verifiably suspending and dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons program. 


Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. diplomat in talks with Iran, recently provided insight into the administration’s thinking regarding negotiations over the nuclear issue:

You know, a negotiation begins with everybody having their maximalist position. And we have ours, too, which is, they have to meet all of their obligations under the NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] and the U.N. Security Council resolutions. And they have their maximalist position. And then you begin a negotiation.

This position should alarm anyone serious about preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s adherence to its obligations under the NPT and fulfillment of UNSC resolution requirements are essential steps the Iranians need to take. Describing this minimum threshold as a “maximalist position” indicates an Obama administration willingness to surrender and settle for a half-measure at grave cost to American interests.

Senior administration officials have said that the U.S. will not be roped into a bad deal with Iran.  The emerging framework for this week’s discussions over Iran’s nuclear program, however, all but guarantees that a bad deal – one that leaves Iran marching towards a robust nuclear weapons capability and the U.S. without any meaningful assurances – is in the offing.

There are three key elements required for the development of nuclear weapons.  The first, and most technically challenging, is acquiring fissile material in the form of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. The second is the design and construction of an explosive device capable of initiating a chain reaction. The third is a vehicle for delivering the device to a target. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the strategic decision to develop nuclear weapons capability some time ago, as evidenced by the well-documented work Iran did on weaponization-specific research that was clearly unnecessary for a peaceful nuclear program.

Iran has continued to pursue all three elements of a nuclear weapons program. It possesses the raw material and the expanding infrastructure with which it can rapidly produce weapons-grade uranium and it is building a reactor that gives it the capacity to produce fissile material in the form of weapons-grade plutonium. It possesses a stockpile of enriched uranium large enough to fuel at least seven nuclear weapons after further conversion. Its total declared natural uranium stockpile is enough for several dozen nuclear weapons. It has conducted research and experiments related to the development of technology required for building a nuclear warhead.  Iran has ballistic missiles with the payload to carry nuclear warheads and it continues to improve the quality and extend the range of these missiles.  It is unclear if it has mastered the technologies required to deliver a nuclear payload via an exo-atmospheric ballistic missile. The intelligence community has assessed for several years that it has the technical and industrial capability to produce nuclear weapons.  The National Air and Space Intelligence Center estimated this year that Iran could develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.  Iran is on a path that will allow it to rapidly build and deploy a sizable atomic arsenal at a time of its choosing.

We have no reason to assess that Iran is preparing to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability by verifiably suspending and dismantling its nuclear program. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new and supposedly-flexible president, declared recently that the regime’s supposed enrichment “right” is non-negotiable, but that he would “enter into talks to see what would the other side proposes [sic] to us about the details.”  Iran’s leaders claim that the NPT gives Iran a specific right to enrichment, which is an expansive reading of Article IV:  “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”   Yet Iran remains in violation of a key provision of Article II:  that signatories are “not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”   Its continued violation of that provision and of aspects of the safeguards agreements required by the NPT are exactly what has caused the international community to insist that it suspend enrichment until all concerns about the purpose of its nuclear program—which is the heart of the NPT—have been allayed.   

Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator has gone one step further in dismissing the UNSC resolutions as a basis for talks.   The head of Iran’s atomic energy organization ruled out the prospect that Iran would consider dismantling the Fordow enrichment facility as “pure lies.”  That facility was a covert site designed to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran’s failure to disclose its existence to the IAEA before it was discovered by Western intelligence in 2009 was a clear violation of Iran’s NPT obligations, inexplicable if the intent of the program were for purely peaceful purposes.  It is also unlikely that Iran is preparing to relinquish its stockpile of enriched uranium or roll back its existing enrichment infrastructure, which includes advanced centrifuges capable of enriching at rates faster than first-generation machines. Construction of a heavy water reactor, an alternative pathway to fissile material acquisition, continues apace. The concept of allowing enrichment “only up to 5%” is often touted as the basis for a technical compromise on the enrichment issue that its advocates claim would represent an acceptable outcome.  This measure would perversely legitimize Iran’s illicit enrichment program and do little to curtail the threat. Uranium enriched to this “low level” is roughly three-quarters of the way to weapons-grade fuel. Iran can further enrich this material rapidly using its centrifuge infrastructure.

Beyond the infrastructure and material it has at its known facilities, Iran also possesses an indigenous centrifuge production program and uranium mining operations that are not under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The IAEA may see the centrifuges Iran has installed at its known enrichment facilities, but it does not have visibility into how they got there or how many centrifuges of what variety are being built, stored, and deployed elsewhere. Iran has similarly refused to open up its operation of uranium mines to the IAEA. These mines will provide at least 50 tons of uranium per year at full operation.  This lack of transparency presents a separate problem, especially given Iran’s history of covert activity. Iran has never proactively declared a nuclear-related facility to the international community. Its current “declared” facilities were all detected and exposed by U.S. and allied intelligence efforts, which forced the Iranians to acknowledge their existence. The IAEA can only request access to inspect facilities it knows about. Any deal relying primarily on IAEA safeguards or inspections is based on the assumption that the Iranians will not try to deceive inspectors. There is no credible “trust but verify” feature to such a deal no matter how stringent any monitoring schedule is; it would be based entirely on the hope of goodwill from Iran’s leaders.     

Iran is not preparing to come clean on its weaponization program and provide the IAEA unfettered access to related facilities, personnel, and documents. Iranian officials continue to claim that they have never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons despite detailed evidence to the contrary. Iran’s new ambassador to the IAEA recently rehashed the regime’s position that the credible and corroborated body of information the IAEA possesses regarding Iran’s weaponization activities is “forged, fabricated and false.”  He also accused the IAEA of operating beyond its mandate and the UNSC of pursuing illegal measures. Moreover, he dismissed any discussion regarding Iran’s missile program—another core element of UNSC Resolutions stemming from concerns that Iran is trying to acquire a workable nuclear missile warhead—as an attempt to “interfere with Iran’s national security concerns on the pretext of Iran’s nuclear program.” This statement effectively rules out the possibility that the Iranians will offer greater transparency into their weaponization activities as part of upcoming negotiations. 

This rhetoric reflects an obvious Iranian desire to neuter the IAEA while pretending to resolve outstanding issues with the safeguards agency. The NPT assumes that signatories intend to cooperate with safeguards inspectors, not that they intend to deceive them and the international community. The obligations on Iran imposed by numerous UNSC resolutions are a consequence of Iran’s obvious intent to deceive and obfuscate. By claiming that the IAEA has no right to address UNSC demands, Tehran is attempting to re-establish relations with the IAEA that would be suitable for an honest state pursuing a licit nuclear program, whereas the UN Security Council has explicitly placed Iran in a different category as a result of Iran’s repeated violations of its NPT obligations (and previous UN Security Council Resolutions). Allowing Iran to succeed in this attack on the IAEA and the UN Security Council would effectively dismantle the international sanctions regime and demands for Iran to come clean on its nuclear program. It would also gut what remains of the “global nonproliferation regime.”

Activities contributing to weaponization capability, which can be pursued and mastered prior to the acquisition of fissile material, are the easiest for Iran to conceal and the most difficult for us to monitor and assess. Many of these activities, unlike parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, do not require large facilities and can be conducted under the cover of dual-use applications. Iran has already cut the time it needs to produce weapons-grade fuel and the time it needs to manufacture a complete weapon. Iran can now produce fuel for a nuclear weapon within a period of a few weeks to a few months. It can finish building a weapon within approximately one year, according to official estimates.  Some independent estimates are shorter. Olli Heinonen, a former senior IAEA official and head of the agency’s safeguards department, recently wrote that “Iran would need a month or two to complete the straightforward, well-known process of converting [weapons-grade uranium] to metal, manufacturing the components of an explosive device, and assembling a weapon.”   There is ample reason to believe that, starting from its current baseline, Iran can work toward perfecting its technical capabilities and that it will over time improve its ability to build a weapon in a shorter timeframe.

The evidence presented by the IAEA in November 2011 suggests that Iran has continued to conduct research and other activities in recent years—including under the auspices of the same personnel that oversaw its structured weaponization program in the past—that are relevant to the development of nuclear weapons. This includes information on a program between 2006 and 2010 focused on the further development of a neutron initiator (a component embedded inside a fissile material core in order to kick-start a chain reaction in an implosion-type bomb). 

There are additional data demonstrating that Iranian universities and scientists tied to the nuclear effort and Iran’s military are now conducting research and acquiring expertise that would contribute toward the manufacture of nuclear weapons. For example, Iranian researchers at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), which is owned or controlled by Iran’s defense ministry, have acquired and are employing a sophisticated software code that can be used to simulate a chain reaction and determine whether a nuclear weapon would function properly.  The IAEA has identified SBU identified as a center for research on neutron transport, the process at the core of a chain reaction in atomic weapons.  Ongoing Iranian scientific research and experimentation conducted in the areas of explosion physics can be applied to the development of a nuclear explosive device.  Iran also maintains access to precision machining and diagnostic equipment in its research centers and universities that would be useful for the manufacture and assembly of non-nuclear components and parts for a weapon.  The fact that some weaponization-related tools, theoretical concepts, and scientific research are drawn from non-nuclear fields, both military and civilian, means that a weaponization effort can be embedded and buried in seemingly innocuous organizations and bureaucracies in an attempt to avoid scrutiny and reduce the risk that outside observers will detect efforts aimed at perfecting the ability to develop nuclear weapons. This approach would be especially attractive to the Iranians because they know that the U.S., Israel, and others may be looking for indications of an entity that resembles the late 1990s/early 2000s iteration of the weaponization program, with its distinct organizational features and military signatures. The ongoing advancement of critical weaponization-related research and development is contributing to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

Iran’s president has said that his negotiating team will put forth a proposal during meetings with the U.S. and other members of the P5+1 group this week.  What might the proposal look like? Iran is attempting to scope negotiations over its nuclear program as narrowly as possible. The proposal it is reportedly crafting revolves primarily around one aspect of its enrichment program.  It is sticking to its refusal to acknowledge its past and recent weaponization-related work and demanding that its hollow claims that its program has been exclusively peaceful be accepted. By refusing to even broach the subject of ballistic missiles, Iran is attempting to decouple its development of increasingly advanced delivery systems from its nuclear program. Lastly, it is demanding that the U.S. and international community permanently cede to it the core elements of the nuclear fuel cycle (namely uranium enrichment- and reprocessing-related activities) and the inherent capacity to produce nuclear weapons fuel.

A deal, as it is currently being framed and discussed, would fall short of the verified suspension and dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It would allow Tehran to retain and continue developing its fissile material production capability and its delivery systems and effectively grant it a pass on its weaponization-related activities. It will put Iran’s leaders in a position to rapidly cross the nuclear threshold at a time of their choosing and it should be recognized for the bad deal that it is.

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About the Author


  • Maseh Zarif is the deputy director and Iran research Team Lead for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. He works on national security issues related to the Middle East and South Asia, with a particular focus on Iran’s nuclear program and its regional activities. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, and Foreign Policy, among others, and has appeared on CNN and Fox. Before joining AEI, he worked for several years in corporate finance as an analyst and a consultant.

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