I got 99 problems but enrichment ain’t one (aka The Geneva Deal)

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You might be tired of reading about the Geneva nuclear deal by now, given that apparently every single person on the internet has a view about it (mine, for the record, is that the deal is overall a Good Thing).

But there are three things about the Geneva agreement I can promise that you won’t have read elsewhere:

1) We came pretty close to global conflagration.

2) There’s nothing in the deal text on the Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program – which might actually be a good thing.

3) Get ready for some interesting discussions between military and civilian authorities in Iran.

Want to know more? Read on.

1. How Iran almost triggered the apocalypse

Were you sleeping well on the evening of November 4, 2013? Perhaps you shouldn’t have been – because on that night we were closer to a real red line than ever before.

If you carefully dissect the last IAEA Board of Governors report and do some rudimentary calculations, you’ll work out that through either recklessness or carelessness, Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium hexafluoride very nearly reached the amount that Benyamin Netanyahu declared as an Israeli red line.

Here’s how the near-crisis went down. Buried in that IAEA report are two paragraphs that describe how in August, Iran switched off (or broke) the uranium conversion process line that had been reducing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium stockpile. Meanwhile, by accident or design, the centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow merrily continued enriching uranium, with the 20% stockpile growing ever higher.

By November 4, Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium had spiked to about 225kg. And if that trajectory continued, by the time the IAEA report was released in mid‑November, the stockpile would be sailing through the Israeli redline of 250kg.

We were potentially set for a spectacular repeat of Operation Opera until 5 November when Iran – thank goodness – apparently turned the conversion process back on and started furiously reducing the 20% stockpile.

Whether this was all a breathtakingly risky gambit by Tehran as a demonstration of self-confidence or just a bureaucratic stuff-up is unclear. It’s more likely to be the latter – but that brings into question just how carefully Iran’s leadership keeps a grip on important nuclear developments.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.

2. Why not mentioning the Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program might actually be a good thing.

The Geneva deal rightly focuses on the most pressing aspects of Iran’s nuclear program – the dual pathways to the accumulation of fissile material suitable for nuclear weapons.

What’s not addressed is Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons: the so-called Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s program that the IAEA has been investigating for almost the last decade.

It’s not surprising that the PMD issue wasn’t addressed in the deal, because everyone hates it. It’s an elephant in the room with an albatross flailing limply around its neck. Attempting to finagle a mutually agreeable paragraph on PMD in the Geneva deal text would have been the end of the talks, I’ve no doubt.

But left unresolved, PMD will prevent a comprehensive settlement of the sort desired by all parties. The PMD evidence is incontrovertible, and the more statements President Rouhani makes that Iran has never had a nuclear weapons program, the worse the situation gets. These statements are not true, which Rouhani – as the Winston Wolf who cleaned up the mess of the AMAD nuclear weapons program – knows very well. And hey, if there’s anyone out there who can update me on the current state of Iranian PMD, get in touch!

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So where does that leave us with respect to PMD? Actually, thanks to one of the seemingly unrelated provisions of the deal, in a surprisingly good place.

The agreement promises that no new UN, US or EU sanctions will be levied on Iran for at least six months, so long as Iran sticks to its side of the deal (or for the duration of the deal). That was a key inducement to get Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program, obviously. But what this provision also creates is a six‑month amnesty period where Iran can admit to past nuclear activities without fear of recrimination by more sanctions.

So if they’re smart, Iran can acknowledge the truth of PMD – in whatever lawyerly language it wants to use in order to please the hardliners in Tehran and Washington.

Indeed, here’s the sort of press release that in an ideal world you might see coming out of Tehran:

In light of the Geneva Joint Plan of Action, Iran has undertaken a review of all past activities of relevance to the Joint Plan. This review acknowledges historic activities that could be seen as inconsistent with our obligations under the Plan. The extent of these past activities were not authorised by Iran’s leadership. These past activities are not continuing. For reasons of national security, we can provide no further comment on them.

It would help, of course, if then President Rouhani moved to shut down SPND (سپند), and send Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (محسن فخریزاده), Kamran Daneshjou (کامران دانشجو), SA Hosseini-Tash (سید علی حسینی تاش), Ahmad Vahid Dastjerdi(احمد وحید دستجردی) et al to house arrest in a nice Caspian Sea spa resort, AQ Khan style.

PMD problem solved...if Iran is smart...

3. Get ready for some interesting discussions between military and civilian authorities in Iran.

One aspect of the deal that came from left-field is the access that it provides to Iran’s centrifuge supply chain. The deal text allows for IAEA inspectors to visit the sites where Iran’s centrifuges are assembled, as well as the sites where centrifuge rotors are made. Iran has been wary of letting the IAEA anywhere near these sensitive sites since it abandoned its expanded obligations back in 2005.

The IAEA knows very well where these sites are, and Iran most likely won’t try to hide them. There’s TABA Tools (شرکت تولید ابزار برش ایران) in Karaj, amongst others.

Problem is, some of these sites are under military control. Iran’s military is not running its own enrichment program (that we know of), but its industries are very good at making precision components of the kind that go into centrifuges. That’s why military-owned factories like Seventh of Tir Industries (صنایع هفتم تیر) used to, and probably still do, make centrifuge components.

Expect MODAFL to have some stern words with the MFA about letting the IAEA into these sites – the Ministry of Defence wasn’t too happy about having to do that after the last deal in 2003.

Anyway, Happy Deal Day!

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