Let's Make a Nuclear Deal with Iran

"Now is the time to finally resolve the longstanding nuclear dispute with Iran."

Editor’s Note: Please see our recent interview with Iran’s Foreign Minister here.

While the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has triggered parallel efforts and possible tacit cooperation between the United States and Iran to address this common threat, Washington and Tehran have been concurrently working to prepare for a new phase of negotiations to reach an agreement on the latter’s nuclear program. As nuclear talks are slated to resume on September 18 in New York ahead of the annual UN General Assembly, the United States and Iran have already met bilaterally on two separate occasions since extending the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in late July, indicating their respective interest of negotiating a comprehensive agreement by the extended November 24 deadline. Indeed, now is the time to finally resolve the longstanding nuclear dispute with Iran. As the world faces major international crises, such as the rise of ISIL, the events in eastern Ukraine and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relationship that was once marked by brinksmanship is now among the most stable and contained international issues facing both Washington and Tehran, at least until the extended November deadline. The United States, the other members of the so-called P5+1 and Iran must come to terms on a comprehensive agreement in the coming months as only a marginal chance exists for the JPOA to be extended once more, and presumably only if significant headway is made in the upcoming rounds. If the JPOA is allowed to expire without a comprehensive agreement replacing it, the United States and Iran could find themselves again on the brink of conflict, perhaps not in the near term, as the international community confronts ISIL, but potentially in the medium-to-long term.

To be sure, the JPOA signed between the P5+1 and Iran last November has thus far achieved its intended purpose, to pause Iran’s nuclear program, regress it in some areas and increase its transparency, while offering Tehran limited economic-sanctions relief. Indeed, according to the latest report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has limited its uranium enrichment to 5 percent (LEU) and reduced its stockpile to below 7,800 kilograms; and diluted its 200 kilogram stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium or converted it into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which should be sufficient for its lifespan. Iran has also refrained from developing its heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak and has reduced the opacity of its uranium enrichment processes by allowing daily IAEA inspections at the Natanz and Fordow nuclear facilities. For their part, the United States and the European Union have eased their economic sanctions on Iran for a limited time, originally until July 20 and now until November 24 as result of the JPOA’s extension.

Obstacles to a Comprehensive Agreement

The JPOA’s success and the progress made on key issues, including the future of the heavy water reactor in Arak and the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow demonstrate that bridging the divide between the P5+1 and Iran to achieve a comprehensive deal is not impossible. To this end, the two sides will have to agree to the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the duration of a comprehensive agreement all the while avoiding political pitfalls at home.

Arguably the most difficult issue to surmount will be determining the capacity of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program under a comprehensive agreement. Iran has declared that it wants to reduce its reliance on the international market for LEU to fuel its light water plant in Bushehr by developing an industrial-scale, uranium-enrichment capacity consisting of nearly 200,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges in place by the time its supply contract with Russia expires in 2021. On the other hand, the P5+1 are calling for Iran to reduce its centrifuges from 19,000, of which about 10,000 are currently operating, to a maximum 4,000 IR-1 centrifuges in order to prolong Iran’s breakout time to more than six months. To power Bushehr, the P5+1 believe that the most efficient way forward would be for Iran to extend its fuel-supply contract with Russia.