Jeffrey LewisWarm Standby On Offer?

Despite White House denials that the U.S. is “considering any proposals that would allow the Iranians to retain any enrichment-related activities,” AP’s George Jahn reports that the United States is considering a “cold standby” proposal for Natanz that would Iran to retain, but not operate, some number of cascades:

Recognizing that Iran would never accept a complete freeze, the powers are considering “a new definition of enrichment,” one diplomat said. Under the proposal, Iran would could keep some of its program intact without actually producing enriched uranium.


“We purposely left open the possibility that direct talks could happen by being a little less committed to the requirements to have a meeting,” said [another U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity]. He alluded to previous demands of an all-encompassing freeze on all enrichment related activities.


The United States might accept a version of “cold standby” allowing a set number of centrifuges to remain standing and assembled in series but not running, a diplomat said. Iran, he said, would likely push for keeping the machines operating, if not producing enriched uranium.

If you want a thorough overview of the cold and warm standby options for the centrifuge cascades at Natanz, I highly recommend Matt Bunn’s paper arguing that either would be preferable to an unconstrained Iranian program.

There is nothing wrong with pressing for cold standby from the outset. But what if Iran counter offers a “warm” standby approach where the centrifuges spin empty? I’ve argued before that we should accept warm standby as an interim measure—provided that warm standby is coupled with other arrangements:

To be clear, warm standby would not meet the UN Security Council demand to cease all centrifuge related R&D—Iran, according to the IAEA, would still learn about “the life expectancy and durability of key mechanical components, the failure of materials, the effects of vibrations, electric power requirements…a detailed understanding of the different ways that centrifuges can fail, and information needed for the development of more advanced centrifuge systems.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that warm standby might not be part of a verifiable pause in Iran’s centrifuge program. Under “warm standby” Iran will not learn some things that have bedeviled the Iranian program, including “the relationship between UF6 gas flow, temperature and stress corrosion.”

It would seem to me that, if Iran makes [such an offer], the United States and its European allies should move swiftly to consolidate the suspension, er standby.

Warm standby could be part of a verifiable pause in Iran’s program, if coupled with other measures including renewed adherence to the Additional Protocol and progress on resolving outstanding questions about Iran’s past activities, particularly its P2 centrifuge program.

Warm standby is not a comprehensive or indefinite solution to the problem, but it does present a face-saving measure for Iran to return to negotiations. We should reciprocate, modestly.


  1. J (History)

    Your post sheds some light on this intriguing reference to “new ideas” in this Global Newswire article:

    EU, Iran Start Nuclear Meeting

    EU and Iranian diplomats began meeting today in Turkey to search for ways to resume formal negotiations to resolve the crisis surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, April 24).

    “This time we will be able to move on in preparatory talks that may lead the sooner the better to meaningful negotiations,” said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana after arriving in Ankara (Michael Adler, Agence France-Presse/Yahoo!News, April 25).

    Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani told reporters before the meeting that he expected to hear new proposals from Solana, considering that Iran has steadfastly refused to accede to calls to freeze its uranium enrichment program.

    That demand is “irrational,” Larijani said. “That’s why there are other new ideas. We are supposed to be introduced (to them). That’s why we are here” (Mark Heinrich, Reuters, April 25).

    However, Solana spokeswoman Cristina Gallach denied that the EU official would make any new offers.

    There were “no changes in the position of the international community,” she said (Adler, Agence France-Presse).

  2. yale (History)

    Let’s hope that something is agreed that will stop any LEU production and the ramping-up of more capacity. Cold or warm, just so the UF6 stays out.

    The timeline is shorter than generally believed. As I have pointed out, the “official” estimate bracketing from 2011-12 to 2015 or later is a pile of crap.The physics and the engineering just can’t co-exist with that range. The Iranians are not idiots. They have experienced, world-class talent trained over many decades at the foremost engineeering and scientific academies on this planet.

    Even Negroponte pointed out a year ago

    “We don’t have a clear-cut knowledge but the estimate we have made is some time between the beginning of the next decade and the middle of the next decade they might be in a position to have a nuclear weapon, which is a cause of great concern.”

    In other words, as early as 2010. (Still way too conservative.)

    IISS recently estimated as early as 2 years (which I see as a real likelihood):

    1/31/2007 LONDON (AP) — Iran is two to three years away from having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, a leading security think tank said Wednesday… While Iran could conceivably build a bomb in two years, a three-year time frame was more likely, said Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert at the [International Institute for Strategic Studies]. He said estimates floated by U.S. intelligence were conservative — a likely result of its chastening experience in Iraq. … [IISS chief executive] Chipman [said] “Getting the centrifuge cascades to function properly is then another task of an entirely different order of magnitude” from installing the centrifuges, he said, adding that this process could take at least a year.Once Iran’s planned 3,000-centrifuge cascade was operational, the institute predicted it would take another nine to 11 months to produce about 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough for a single weapon, he said.

    Now it appears that there are cracks forming in the “official” estimate:

    Iran May Be Closer To Nukes Than Thought – U.S. Intelligence Moves Up Worst-Case Scenario Date To 2010,(CBS News) Apr 26, 2007 NEW YORK CBS News has learned that a new intelligence report says Iran has overcome technical difficulties in enriching uranium and could have enough bomb-grade material for a single nuclear weapon in less than three years. U.S. intelligence officials caution that before Iran could meet or beat that 2010 date, it would have to make further technical progress in operating a uranium enrichment plant now under construction, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. As a result, there is no change in the official estimate that it will take Iran until 2015 to become a nuclear power. But David Albright, a leading expert, thinks that doesn’t give Iranian scientists enough credit. “I think Iran can get enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon sooner than that,” Albright says. “I think the 2015 number reflects too much skepticism about Iran’s technical capabilities, and they are making progress.”

    Whatever the true potential timeline may be, Churchill said something like “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”

    Amen to that.

  3. Binh (History)

    The main sticking point from Iran’s POV I think would be: OK, so where do we get uranium from for our power program if we’re not enriching it ourselves?

  4. abcd

    Binh: Russia has already made the offer, several times, to provide Iran with enriched uranium haven’t they? It would be in accordance with Putin’s broader goal of implementing the Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure.

  5. hass (History)

    And we’ve all seen the consequences of relying on Russia as an energy provider – even Cheney accused Russia of using energy blackmail. Would the US agree to rely 100% on Russia? Why should Iran?

  6. Binh (History)

    abcd: Russia may have already made the offer, but the Iranians have been adamant that they don’t want to be anyone’s vassal. Their drive for energy indepenence (however flawed/utopian) combined with Russia’s history of using their control of energy as a political weapon will mean Iran will probably say “no thanks” to such a deal, especially if it’s with the Russians.

  7. hass (History)

    Why not take up Iran’s offer to operate the facilities as international joint ventures on Iranian soil?

  8. abcd

    Or the U.S.’s, or NTI’s, or El-Baradei’s, or Russia’s, or the UK’s, or 6 party’s + Japan’s, or Germany’s, or Eisenhower’s, or Baruch’s…