The Road to a Bad Nuclear Deal with Iran

"This would leave Iran with a legitimized nuclear program, including the potential to break out at will and produce a nuclear explosive device in short order."

The decision to extend nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 beyond the July 20 deadline was based on an assessment that despite remaining lack of agreement on key issues, enough progress had been made to justify a four-month extension of the talks. U.S. Secretary of State Kerry announced on July 18 that the term was extended in order to give the parties “time to continue working to conclude a comprehensive agreement…warranted by the progress we’ve made and the path forward we can envision.” For its consent to continue the talks, Iran gained access to an additional $2.8 billion of its restricted assets, the four-month prorated amount of the original Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) commitment. This financial relief will not only ease some of the economic and political pressure on Iran, which is the only leverage the P5+1 has in this difficult negotiation, but also sends a problematic message that not only are there no negative consequences for not reaching a deal by the July 20 deadline, the benefits continue.

Significantly, in a June 30 op-ed in The Washington Post, Kerry stated that the United States would not agree to an extension “merely to drag out negotiations.” He complained in the article that Iran’s public optimism about the potential outcome of the negotiations had not been matched by the positions Iran had articulated behind closed doors, and that “Iran must show a genuine willingness to respond to the international community’s legitimate concerns in the time that remains.” If that was the case at the end of June, what had changed by mid-July? With absolutely no indication of any softening of Iran’s steadfast intransigence on the nuclear front—if anything, positions have hardened—what could have convinced the Secretary of State that there was suddenly reason to believe that the next four months might see the significant Iranian concessions that had proven elusive in the previous six? This question will no doubt remain a cloud over the coming months of negotiations.

In his July 18 statement, Kerry referred to a preliminary text on the table—with holes, gaps and disagreements—that sets forth the by-now-well-known issues under discussion: the plutonium production capabilities of the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak, the underground uranium-enrichment facility at Fordow, the enrichment capacity of the Natanz facility, and the need for enhanced monitoring and verification measures. From official U.S. statements (including by unnamed officials), and from statements that come from the Iranian side, the situation seems to be as follows: The plutonium production capabilities of the Arak reactor are likely to be limited, but not eliminated, and it is not yet clear whether by physical or administrative means. The Fordow facility is likely to be transformed into a nonnuclear research and development (R&D) facility, but will not be closed down entirely, as had been demanded by the P5+1 back in 2012. A major point of contention remains the uranium-enrichment capacity of Iran, which was exacerbated by Khamenei’s statement that the Natanz facility should provide the enriched uranium for Iran’s planned nuclear-power program. So instead of indicating a move toward the drastic reduction in Iran’s enrichment capacity that the P5+1 demands, Iran is set to pursue a ten-fold increase in its indigenous enrichment capability. Without a severe reduction in Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, its potential for an undetected ‘breakout’ capability and the production of a nuclear explosive device will remain a significant one.

But there are additional critical issues at stake. One regards a probe of the weaponization aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—also referred to as the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD)—which is indispensable for understanding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and cannot be ignored. According to recent reports, the IAEA is concerned about Iran’s ongoing lack of cooperation in providing answers to hard questions in this regard, and lack of engagement with the Agency’s current investigation ahead of a late-August deadline regarding two of the issues at stake.