The nuclear talks between the P5 plus 1 (the permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran entered the drafting phase in Vienna on May 13. The objective is to reach a final deal in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program by July 20, although the talks could be extended by mutual agreement for another six months. But the Obama administration is demanding a deep reduction in Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, which makes a successful conclusion of the negotiations highly unlikely.
This deal-killing demand is not based on an objective assessment of Iran’s nuclear program. It has been justified by the highly politicized concept of “breakout,” which refers to the time it would take Iran, in theory, to enrich enough uranium to weapons-grade level for a single nuclear weapon. But the administration’s embrace of the breakout concept is based on a false narrative about an alleged past covert Iranian nuclear weapons program, which the Obama administration inherited without the slightest questioning from the George W. Bush administration.
The Obama administration’s decision to demand draconian cuts was adumbrated by Robert Einhorn, who was the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control until June 2013. In a report published this past March, Einhorn wrote, “The number and type of centrifuges will be limited to ensure that breakout times are…a minimum of 6 to 12 months at all times.” And in a later article in The National Interest, Einhorn explained what that would mean in terms of reduction from Iran’s present 19,000 centrifuges: “an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability.”
Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that Einhorn revelation in testimony on April 8 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Responding to committee chairman Robert Menendez’s complaint that the administration would allow Iran to accumulate enough weapons-grade uranium to make a single nuclear weapon within six to twelve months of a decision to do so, Kerry said, “I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for,” hinting that the administration might demand an even longer breakout period. And he defended six to twelve months as “significantly more” than the two months he said was estimated to be the existing Iranian breakout capability.
The insistence on such a reduction in Iran’s enrichment capability is certain to be rejected. Iran has long asserted that it needs a much greater number of centrifuges than specified in US demands, enough to provide nuclear fuel for future nuclear power reactors as they come online. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explained to me in an interview on June 3 that Iran is proposing to reassure the United States and its negotiating partners that it isn’t interested in breakout; it will do so by converting all low-enriched uranium immediately into a form that would not be available for weapons-grade enrichment (around 90 percent purity), and then into fuel assemblies for a nuclear reactor.
The Obama administration has taken the position that Iran has no legitimate need to produce its own reactor fuel and should rely instead on the Russians and the French for its supply. Zarif told me, however, that it is “thirty years too late” to tell the Iranians that they must rely on other states for their nuclear fuel. He pointed to the long history of agreements with other states, both on nuclear fuel supply and other forms of nuclear cooperation, on which the other states have reneged.