Nuclear Restrictions and Inspections in Exchange for Lifting of Sanctions: The Details of the Iran Deal

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Overview of a last plenary session of the talks on the Iranian nuclear program that is being held at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, July 14, 2015. Credit: AP

After more than two weeks of marathon talks, a deal on Iran’s nuclear program was announced in Vienna on Tuesday.

The preamble includes an Iranian pledge never to develop or purchase nuclear weapons. The rest of the 159-page agreement, along with its five annexes, detail all the provisions meant to ensure this pledge is kept.

But Tuesday’s announcement is just the start of a lengthy process that will be overseen by an eight-member committee, comprised of representatives of the eight parties that negotiated the agreement – Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union. 

The first step, expected in the coming days, is to pass a UN Security Council resolution that will repeal all previous resolutions related to Iran, endorse the agreement just signed and detail which sanctions against Iran will remain in place and for how long.

Implementation of the deal will begin no later than three months after the resolution is passed. A crucial part of the implementation phase will be the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report on whether Iran has met all its commitments regarding the limits placed on its nuclear program. Only after the IAEA confirms this will international sanctions on Iran be removed.

As part of the deal, Iran is also obligated to give the IAEA written responses by August 15 to all the agency’s questions about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. By October 15, it must allow IAEA inspectors to visit the military facility at Parchin, where nuclear experiments are thought to have taken place. By December 15, the IAEA must report on whether Iran has met its commitments on this issue, and here, too, a positive report is a condition for lifting certain sanctions.

Neutralizing the bomb

The agreement limits the number of centrifuges Iran can possess. At its Natanz facility, it can have only 5,060 old-model centrifuges. The thousands of additional centrifuges currently at Natanz will be dismantled and stored in a warehouse under IAEA supervision.

Moreover, for the next 15 years, Iran will be able to enrich uranium only to a level of 3.67 percent. It will also be allowed to stockpile no more than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to this level. The rest of its 12 tons’ worth of enriched uranium will have to either be diluted or shipped to another country in exchange for raw uranium.

Iran will not be able to set up any new uranium enrichment facilities during these 15 years. 

The underground enrichment facility at Fordo will be turned into a nuclear physics research center. For the next 15 years, Iran will be forbidden to bring any fissionable material of any kind into this facility. 

Of the 2,800 centrifuges currently installed at Fordo, only 1,044 will remain; the rest will be sent to the IAEA-supervised warehouse. But Iran will not be able to use the Fordo centrifuges to enrich uranium. Instead, 348 centrifuges will be used to make medical isotopes and the rest will be used to provide spare parts for any centrifuges that break down.

A senior American official said the agreement would increase Iran’s breakout time – meaning the time needed to obtain enough fissionable material for a nuclear bomb – to a year or more during the deal’s first 10 years. After that, its breakout time will decrease, but only modestly. “It won’t be like falling off a cliff,” he said.

The reason, he explained, is that the ban on Iran possessing more than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium will remain in force for 15 years. That quantity isn’t sufficient to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.

One key issue addressed by the agreement is what kind of research and development into advanced centrifuges Iran can pursue. Developing advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium much faster would significantly reduce its breakout time.

The agreement restricts R&D on new centrifuges for the first eight years, but those restrictions will be gradually lifted in the subsequent years. For the first 10 years, Iran will be able to operate no more than 100 of the 300 advanced centrifuges it currently possesses, and it may not use those centrifuges to enrich uranium.

The senior American official said that Iran will submit its R&D plans for new centrifuges to the IAEA and the agreement’s other signatories, but these will not be made public. 

Iran, however, claims that the deal imposes no restrictions on its R&D into advanced centrifuges.

Regarding the heavy-water reactor in Arak, the agreement states that it will be reengineered so that it can produce only one kilogram per year of plutonium – not nearly enough for an atomic bomb. The reactor will also be under IAEA supervision to ensure that this plutonium isn’t misused. 

Additionally, the deal limits the amount of heavy water Iran can possess to the amount needed to run the Arak reactor at a low capacity. 

All these steps will make it harder for Iran to produce a plutonium-based nuclear bomb.

A map of Iran's nuclear facilities. Infographic by Haaretz

Iran has also promised not to conduct any activities that could be related to nuclear weapons development, such as developing missile warheads, conducting computer modeling of a nuclear explosion and experiments with neutron explosions or nuclear detonators. It will need permission from an arbitration committee if it wants to conduct activities of this type for civilian purposes. This Iranian commitment includes no time limit.

Stringent inspections

As part of the deal, Iran pledged to sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which enables more stringent supervision by the IAEA. It also agreed to additional supervisory measures, including monitoring of its uranium mines and its production of raw uranium for 25 years. Its production of centrifuges and centrifuge parts will be under supervision for 20 years.

A key section of the agreement deals with access by IAEA inspectors. The deal states that inspectors must be allowed to enter any suspect facility in Iran within at most 24 days. If they aren’t, this will be considered a violation that could lead to renewed sanctions.

The procedure for those 24 days is as follows: If IAEA inspectors suspect that illicit or undeclared nuclear activity is taking place at an unmonitored facility, like a military base, it must first request explanations from Iran. If the explanations don’t satisfy the inspectors, they can ask to visit the facility.

The Iranians can then suggest ways of resolving the issue that don’t involve a visit. But if the inspectors remain unsatisfied 14 days after first broaching their suspicions to Iran, the matter will be transferred to the eight-member committee overseeing the deal’s implementation.

The committee will have seven days to try to find a solution that satisfies everyone. But if no such solution is found, the committee will then vote on whether Iran must allow the visit. 

That decision requires only a simple majority – five of the eight members. Since Iran enjoys reliable backing from only two other panel members, Russia and China, it will have trouble preventing a decision ordering it to allow the visit.

If such a decision is made, Iran must permit the visit within three days.

Iran also agreed to increase the number of IAEA inspectors stationed in the country to 150. But only inspectors from countries with which Iran has diplomatic relations will be allowed to enter its facilities, so American inspectors won’t qualify.

Removing sanctions

The Security Council resolution will cancel all the sanctions the council previously imposed on Iran. But it will also reinstate certain sanctions for specified periods of time. The sanctions on selling sensitive nuclear equipment to Iran will remain in force for 10 years, those on selling it missile technology for eight years, and those on conventional arms sales by or to Iran for only five years.

After the IAEA confirms that Iran has met its commitments, all EU sanctions will be removed, first and foremost the embargo on oil imports from Iran and the sanctions on Iran’s banking system. Senior American officials said that as a result, $100 billion in Iranian bank accounts overseas that have hitherto been frozen will be released. However, a few Iranian banks involved in financing terror will remain under sanctions.

Washington, for its part, will suspend the sanctions it imposed on foreign companies that buy Iranian oil. It will also let American companies sell civilian aircraft to Iran, let American-owned companies located outside the United States do business with Iran and permit imports from Iran of Persian carpets and foodstuffs. However, Iranian companies will still be denied access to the American economy and the American banking system, and American banks won’t be able to do business in Iran.

Reinstating sanctions

The agreement contains a mechanism for reinstating sanctions if Iran violates its commitments. But the mechanism is extremely cumbersome and would be effective only if the violation were blatant. If the violation is questionable, it’s hard to see this mechanism leading to sanctions being reinstated.

Any member of the eight-member committee can submit a complaint about ostensible Iranian violations. The committee will then have 65 days to resolve the dispute and decide whether a violation occurred. If the dispute isn’t resolved, the country that filed the complaint will be free to reinstate its own sanctions.

The complainant country can also seek to pass a UN Security Council resolution on the matter. But since a resolution seeking to reinstate sanctions could be vetoed by any of the council’s five permanent members (America, France, Britain, Russia and China), the resolution in this case would instead call for continuing the process of removing the sanctions. Then, if any country vetoed that resolution, all the Security Council sanctions that had been canceled under the agreement would automatically come back into force.

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