Jeffrey LewisIran: Fuel Cycles, Verification and MNAs

I am sitting in a very cool meeting that the New America Foundation is co-sponsoring with the Stanley Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The meeting is invitation only, and off-the-record, but I can share the agenda:

Iran: Fuel Cycles, Verification, and Multinational Fuel Assurances Workshop

September 5, 10:30am – 3:30pm
The Stanley Foundation (co-located with the Henry L. Stimson Center)

1111 19th St., NW, 12th Floor, Washington, DC

Note: Each session will begin with a pair of five-minute introductions to the key technical aspects of the topic by two of the workshop participants, with the balance of time dedicated to a structured discussion moderated by one of the hosts.

Coffee and pastries will be available beginning at 10:00 am.

10:30 am Welcome and Introductions

10:45 am – 12:00 pm Status of Iran’s Nuclear Programs

Mr. Mark Fitzpatrick, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Ms. Corey Hinderstein, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, New America Foundation, Moderator

12:15 pm – 1:30 pm Verifying a Suspension or a Pause
This will be a working lunch.

Mr. David Albright, Institute for Science and International Security
Ms. Sharon Squassoni, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Dr. Benn Tannenbaum, AAAS, Moderator

1:45 pm – 3:00 pm Multinational Nuclear Arrangements

Dr. Geoff Forden, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. Frank von Hippel, Princeton University
Mr. Matt Martin, Stanley Foundation, Moderator

3:00 pm Wrap up and next steps

We will adjourn by 3:30 pm.


  1. hass

    Hmmm…and not a single Iranian. Tsk tsk.

    Groupthink, anyone?

  2. hass

    Let me guess the groupthink at work: all the talk was about how to get Iran to suspend then give up enrichment, and absolutely no mention made of Iran’s offer to operate its enrichment program as an MNA on Iranian soil. No, see, thats’ an option which is “off the table” but nuking Iran is on the table…

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Actually, you are wrong on both counts.

    We did have an Iranian participant.

    And, if you exercised those reading comprehension skills, you’d notice fully 1/3 of the meeting was dedicated to the subject of a multinational nuclear arrangement on Iranian soil.

  4. Benn Tannenbaum

    As one of the other organizers, I find your comments offensive, hass. We were looking for technical solutions to this problem. I don’t think that any of us consider “nuking Iran” to be a technical solution. Further, I don’t think any of us would support such action under almost any circumstances.

  5. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Can someone from this panel (or at large) give a little background as to what might be motivating the Iranians to pursue nuclear technology?

    Is it solely for military purposes, or is there a bona fide agenda to acquire it for power generation as well?

    I am particularly intrigued by the latter because the larger question is whether Iranian oil resources have shown itself to be inadequate to meet their needs in the future.

    Could it be that the Iranians are expecting oil production to sharply drop in the next decade?


  6. SQ


    You’ll have to decide for yourself what Iranian motivations might be. The nuclear programs in question have been going on for decades and can be presumed to have involved an extensive and changing cast of characters. There could be as many motivations as individuals — or more. The pursuit of nuclear technology lately seems like an end in itself, or a way of proving a point about national sovereignty. So perhaps, in a sense, it is no longer really about either energy or weapons.

    All that said, the following can be observed:

    Iran’s work on the front end of nuclear fuel cycle started during the mid-to-late 1980s, during the war with Iraq, whose military used chemical weapons with impunity against Iranian troops and Iraqi civilians. The long-term adequacy of Iran’s energy supplies were not particularly in doubt at this time. Nor has Iran made comparable efforts to advance its hydrocarbon energy infrastructure and technology since this time, although there is any potential number of explanations for that.

    The Iranians dealt with AQ Khan’s network to acquire centrifuge enrichment technology in secret, and also received from the network certain information on uranium reduction and casting with no known purpose besides weapons fabrication.

    The Iranians took risks by violating their IAEA safeguards agreement in the course of acquiring uranium supplies from abroad, building and testing centrifuge cascades, and other matters, all without providing the required notifications.

    The overall pattern of activities in Iran uncovered by the IAEA since 2003 looks much more like a weapons program than an energy program. Of special note are secrecy and deception (e.g., the assembly and testing of centrifuges behind a wall of boxes in a “watch factory,” the storage of undeclared uranium supplies in a hidden attic space), the pursuit of technologies with more obvious military than civil applications (e.g., the 40 MW heavy-water reactor, the polonium experiments), the role of the Iranian military (in fabricating centrifuges), and the disposition of the cascade halls (in secret, underground, surrounded by anti-aircraft weapons). I may have missed a few points there, too.

    Explanations of all these matters have tended to be unconvincing or not forthcoming. The overall effect is to leave little doubt in the minds of most close observers what has been going on. You will hear some differences of opinion among U.S. experts on whether the Iranians were ever hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons at the earliest possible date, or whether they were simply intent on creating a nuclear-weapons option. But that is about all.

    Iranian spokesmen have declared that they are pursuing energy self-sufficiency. But as it turns out, Iran’s known and anticipated uranium reserves are slight, so if they are ever to fuel the 20 or so reactors now planned, they would have to import pretty much all of the uranium anyhow. Some argue that the great expense, trouble, and risk of secretly creating a front-end fuel-cycle was all to create a hedge against interruption of supply, but it’s the very reason for sanctions in the first place, so go figure. Certainly, defying the UN Security Council on the nuclear question doesn’t seem like a path to energy security.

    Still, Iranian leaders are only human, and nobody can claim that the country is well led. So we don’t have to suppose that they are taking such great risks and behaving so much at odds with their own declared interests in pursuit of any nefarious, well-thought-out plan. They have their pride and can be stubborn.

    Or perhaps it’s about both the Bomb and pride now. Like I said before, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

  7. arnold evans


    My reading skills are just as bad as Hass’. I don’t see anything about a multinational nuclear arrangement “on Iranian soil” in the agenda. Hass and I have yet to master the art of reading (and comprehending) things that aren’t even there.

    While the first segment is broad enough that it could include questions of how could Iran be motivated to suspend enrichment and accept its enrichment done in a multinational arrangement – and the only multinational arrangement that has been offered publicly by the West has been in Russia – the other two segments seem presumptuous for the exact reason Hass says.

    Verifying a suspension or pause? A whole segment? One third of the event? What if Iran doesn’t suspend or pause, as it says it won’t? Where has there been any indication that anyone in Iran is remotely considering suspending or pausing the enrichment program? The “moderates” aren’t calling for suspension. The conservatives aren’t. The students aren’t. Nobody is. How’d verifying something that at the very least plausibly never will happen get to be a whole segment?

    As to multinational arrangements – being that, as Hass says, multinational arrangements on Iranian soil have been repeatedly offered by Iran and rejected by the US – the safe assumption without further information would be Hass’ assumption. That the second third of the meeting would be a discussion of multinational enrichment arrangements outside of Iran that Iran has already said it will not accept.

    If the third segment was instead a discussion of the reversal of the US position up till now, and an acceptance that there will be enrichment on Iranian soil then it looks like this dispute such as it is, is about to be over. But that is a major piece of news if it reflects the current US expert consensus.

    If the one Iranian there was an Iranian nationalist, that could well have added a dose of realism to the meeting. If it was an Iranian Chalabi, better to not even invite him.


    My take on Iran’s motives for wanting domestic enrichment are as follows:

    1 – Iran wants and has a right to a theoretical nuclear capability. The NPT was negotiated and agreed such that a signatory retains the right, if it feels its national interests demand, to leave the treaty and build a weapon. The NPT does not guarantee that nations will never build weapons in the future. It guarantees that while inspections are on, material is not being diverted to weapons today.

    I would love to see a more stringent NPT agreed to. One that requires nations to never build weapons and that requires weapons states to both disarm and apply strong pressure on non-signatories to disarm. But the NPT as it was negotiated left non-weapons states with the right to have the capability to build weapons. Just as it left weapons states with the right to build more weapons.

    That right has some strategic value and Iran wants to exercise that right.

    2 – Enriched uranium is harder to buy, and from sellers more hostile to Iran than natural uranium, and is also more expensive. Iran would prefer to have South Africa as a supplier of natural uranium than Russia as a supplier of enriched uranium, and may well stockpile a large supply of natural uranium in case the US comes up with another sanctions episode.

    As Russia reneged on its promise to fuel Bushehr, it has shown that it is subject to US pressure and cannot be counted on as a supplier. Better to learn that now than after the Iranian economy is dependent on imported nuclear fuel.

    Two sub-points: If Iran has the ability to enrich, but Russia is its primary supplier, that decreases the effectiveness of US pressure on Russia, because if the US applies pressure on Russia to withhold, Iran can threaten to increase its domestic production. The second is that the US has had sanctions against Iran since the revolution. The US wants sanctions against Iran any way it can get them. Iranians believe that conceding enrichment will not lead to a decrease in US efforts to get sanctions on in the long-term effectiveness of those efforts.

    So the second motivation is that Iran wants fuel independence.

    3 – Israel has a technological monopoly over its region that Iran wants to break. The west will not sell enrichment technology not only to Iran, but also to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and any other country that could be considered a rival to Israel.

    Iran intends to break this monopoly and ensure that Muslim countries also have access to enrichment technology and therefore also exercise their rights to nuclear weapons capabilities.

    Doing so, would increase Iran’s stature as a leader of Muslim states and will increase the likelihood that the Palestinian dispute is resolved in a way acceptable to most Palestinians – which is to say including a full right of return for Palestinian refugees.

    That also would increase Iran’s stature as a Muslim state.

    So the third reason, probably the most important reason to the west, is that Iranian domestic enrichment plays a part in Israel’s strategic dispute with the Muslim world.

    Those are essentially Iran’s motivations as I understand them. Iran wants the capacity to build a bomb in theory, it wants some shelter from US-led campaigns to deny Iran nuclear fuel and it wants to redress what it sees as an unfair situation where Israel has access to technology that is denied the Muslim world.

    There is absolutely no indication that Iran has short term plans to build a weapon. There would be no tactical or strategic use for a weapon in the short term.

    I laugh at loud at formulations like SQ’s “some people say they want the capacity, some people say they are going all out for a bomb”.

    Everyone informed says they want the capacity. So SQ could just as easily have said “some say they want the capacity, some say they want to do a dash to the bomb, some say they want aliens from the gamma quadrant to appear in the centrifuges – but that is the only dispute”

    There is no evidence that Iran is hoping for aliens from the gamma quadrant. There is no evidence that Iran wants a mad dash to a bomb.

    Iran wants the theoretical capacity to build a weapon, it wants its enrichment not to be subject to US pressure and it wants to end what it sees as an embargo on technology against Muslim countries in the Middle East.

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Geoff’s proposal for a multinational facility on Iranian soil has been extensively discussed in the press and on this blog, twice in fact.

    This is, primarily, a blog for specialists. A certain level of familiarity with the topic at hand is assumed, unless otherwise specifically stated.

  9. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Let me thank everyone for the very helpful comments to my question. I learned a lot from your replies.

    I can see I am not the only one who have problems with their motives.

    Like many mega projects, these programs involve a range of motives (from a range of players, both institutional and individual). (Think Graham T. Allison for the theorists.)

    The desire for parity against their nuclear weapons armed neighbors (India, Pakistan, Israel, etc.) is an issue, and the immediate threat of another war with Iraq (before the first gulf war), so is the issue of ‘because they can’.

    What is interesting is the existing uranium program does not address the issue of self sufficiency unless they went ‘all the way’ toward a breeder program.

    How about this interpretation:

    The program started like many national military technology programs as a ‘science project’ decades ago.

    Over time, it became more and more compelling as the Iran-Iraq war showed the weakness of their conventional forces to the US embargo, and demonstrated how nuclear weapons might have been the trump card.

    As other countries that are similar demonstrated the ease with which nuclear weapons can be acquired (and how the know-how can be bought from players like Pakistan), the option become more and more compelling even as the most immediate threat to Iran: Iraq faded after the first Gulf war.

    Possibly petroleum depletion is far more serious than generally believed, and how soon will Iran cease to be an oil exporter and then an energy importer is likely a major factor in the program getting the push in the last few years.

    The issue of future directions of the program —- whether Iran will respond to ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ are intimately related to what they see as their goals.

    If this is a passably accurate narrative (and I would love to see someone from Iran address this), then it is likely that:

    The program is very difficult to stop because of the tightness of economic (energy, potential exports, etc.) and military / strategic (nuclear weapons) interests and the desire to preserve the autarky oil exports gave them.

    The program has to have an ultimate goal of autarky —- thus reprocessing —- while not stated as their goal now, has to be implicit.

    Solutions proposed like a multinational reprocessing facility would not completely address Iran’s publicly stated and actual needs, which is for nuclear technology for both energy and weapons for security reasons that would not leave it helpless like its former dependence on the US.

    In the history of proliferation, one of the most compelling reasons for a non-NPT state to stop or not pursue a nuclear weapons program is confidence in the credibility of their conventional forces and their existing security arrangements (Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, etc.).

    Can that issue be left out of attempts to resolve the Iranian problem?

  10. SQ


    I don’t think Iran has any nuclear path to energy self-sufficiency. Besides, it’s not a reasonable goal. Probably no country in the world enjoys energy self-sufficiency: either the resources or the capital or the technology or some aspect of the supply chain have to cross borders. It might play to the crowd, but as matters stand, it simply is not a realistic proposition. So we have to learn to play nicely with each other.

    I would modify your account of nonproliferation. When a country like Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea, depending heavily on a superpower patron for its security, hears from that patron that nuclear proliferation is strongly discouraged, there’s a reason to listen. With Iran, the dynamic works the other way around. They aren’t about to embrace Pax Americana; the entire justification of the regime is to regard it as a threat and to oppose it.

  11. hass (History)

    Actually Iran has repeatedly stated that it does not need nuclear deterence and that nuclear weapons would harm rather than help it security:
    Hossein Musavian wrote
    “It is incorrect to say that Iran’s nuclear activities constitute a response to perceived nuclear threats from other states, such as Israel, or to a strategic threat arising from the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is therefore also incorrect to adduce the existence of this threat as evidence that Iran is aiming at a nuclear-weapons programme. Naturally, Iran is concerned by the fact that Israel possesses a substantial nuclear arsenal, but Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would not reduce its fears on this score. Similarly, Iranian concerns regarding the US military presence in the region would in no way be allayed were Iran to possess nuclear weapons. The possession of nuclear weapons would neither conduce to Iran security nor in reality enhance the perception of security enjoyed by the Iranian people.”
    SOURCE: Iran and the West, the Path to Nuclear Deadlock” by Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, Global Dialogue Vol 8 No. 1-2 Winter/Spring 2006, pp. 69-78 LINK:

  12. Arnold Evans

    Just to be clear though, Iran has said repeatedly that it would be quite happy with a program like those of Japan, Taiwan or South Korea, each of which has the theoretical capacity to build a weapon.

    The position the US has taken is that Iran must not enrich or reprocess or have access to any technology that could create nuclear material for a weapon.

    Iran having a program like South Korea, Taiwan or Japan’s is the goal of Iran, and that Iranian goal is opposed by the US.

    It is problematic that the US considers a program with a theoretical capacity to create weapons as peaceful in the cases of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan but as indistinguishable from a military program in the case of Iran.

    That problem is the heart of the US dispute with Iran over its nuclear program.

    Iran has not rejected any level of safeguards on a program that includes domestic enrichment.

  13. Mark Hibbs (History)

    The US position may boil down to this Arnold. But in practice it is a lot more nuanced. The US has peaceful cooperation agreements with Taiwan, Japan, and ROK. In these cases the US government—and particularly in Taiwan and ROK—rubbernecks all over their installations, and the safeguards obligations of these countries is far beyond what is required under their bilateral SG agreements with the IAEA. Case in point. Under the US-Taiwan agreement, the US found out in the mid-1990s that Taiwan was working on some thorium research based on domestic monozite deposits. No one sugggested that by doing this Taiwan was about to set off a device using U-233. The point was that, under the bilateral agreement with the US, Taiwan was required to declare this activity to both the US and the IAEA and it didn’t do that. The US intervened and shut this program down. (I wrote that in 2000 and it was never contradicted by the IAEA, by ROC, or by the US people involved in it). I mention this little detail because it illustrates that US confidence in Taiwan (which after all was engaged in a plutonium program for awhile and clearly had political ambitions to develop a weapons option)is based on US leverage and access on Taiwan. The same goes for ROK and Japan (in the latter case, somewhat less regarding access and somewhat more regarding leverage). There’s nothing like that in Iran. That’s one of the reasons why the US (and for that matter, the EU-3) is worried about Iran.

  14. Arnold Evans


    The US position more than “boils down to” an assertion that Iran must not have a theoretical capability to build weapons (as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have). Those are the exact words of the President of the United States.

    You may have nuanced arguments that the position is reasonable, but that is the position. No boiling needed.

    If you have a nuanced argument that this position is consistent with the non-proliferation treaty, I’d like to see that argument. I’ve never seen any argument, nuanced or not, that even attempted to do that.

    So you seem to claim the US is proposing two classes of non-weapons signatories to the NPT. One class is nations the US feels it has leverage over and the other class is nations the US does not feel it has leverage over.

    The first class can have, domestically, both the materials and technologies that would allow them to build nuclear weapons if they choose, given IAEA safeguards.

    The second class, the class the US proposes for Iran and all other regional rivals of Israel, must not have technology or material that, in theory, could be used to build a weapon.

    This proposed class system, as I said earlier, is the core of the dispute between Iran and the US on the nuclear issue.

    This class system violently contradicts the language and intent of the non-proliferation treaty.

    The US (and for that matter, the EU-3) can worry all they want about Iran. They should not be able to unilaterally rewrite this notion of separate classes of non-weapons states into the NPT.

    Actually re-negotiating the NPT would be a different matter, but the non-weapons states would have some very valid demands of their own.

    This is a debate Iran deserves to win, and right now Iran seems to be doing pretty well.

  15. Anon

    You’re not telling the whole story, Arnold.

    To wit: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are in full compliance. Further, Japan ratified the Additional Protocol in December 1999; the ROK, in Febuary 2004; and the IAEA ‘also applies safeguards, including the measures foreseen in the Model Additional Protocol, in Taiwan [which, for political reasons, the Agency must treat as a non-government].’

    In stark eff-ing contrast, the Iranian government is still in noncompliance; stonewalled for years Agency verification activities (whether that’s really changed remains to be seen); and refuses ratify the AP.

    If Iran really wants to be like Japan, ROK and ROC, then it could start by ratifying, without any bullsh*t reservations or qualifications, the AP.

  16. arnold evans

    This isn’t interesting. If Lao Tao Ren or anyone has any other questions I’ll answer them from my point of view which is sympathetic to Iran.

    The US position is certainly not that Iran should have domestic enrichment if it ratifies the AP. Of course you know this.

    Not only that, your positions; anon, Mark, SQ, Benn and Jeffrey; are not that Iran should have domestic enrichment if it ratifies the AP. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Otherwise, what I’ve written above is pretty close to the whole story.

  17. Anon

    If Iran ratified and implemented, without qualification, the Additional Protocol, that would put ElBaradei, who’s already tilting heavily toward the Iranians, firmly on their side. With the legal authority to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and technologies in Iranian territory, the IAEA could unequivocally answer all of the questions surrounding Iran’s program. This would buy the Iranian elites more time, not months (as with the action plan), but years. US and EU arguments, that Iran is flouting the rules, would immediately be undercut. In time, Iran, having built international confidence and rehabilitated its image, truly would be on its way to becoming a Middle East-Netherlands or Japan, in terms of enrichment or reprocessing.

    But the Iranian government won’t do that, will it. Iranian elites want this confrontation.

    On a related note, I’m glad that you’re being honest about your sympathy — unfettered bias, really — towards Iran, Arnold.

    It’s consistent with your view, that regardless of a State’s egregious noncompliance, stonewalling of Agency verification, disregard for IAEA Board and UN Security Council resolutions, and unwillingness to ratify the Additional Protocol, that State should nonetheless be allowed to enrich. You appear to think that, unless IAEA inspectors catch red-handed an Iranian official stuffing special nuclear material into a nuclear explosive device, the Iranian government can do no wrong.

    In brief, Arnold, you believe that, when it comes to Iran, the rules don’t matter; the Iranian gov’t should enrich no matter what.

  18. hass

    Iran had implemented the Additional Protocol and allowed excess inspections at places like Parchin – which turned up zilch and resulted in the IAEA publicly criticizing the quality of US intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran has also offered to not only ratify the AP but to impose restrictions beyond the AP on its nuclear program – as long as its rights are recognized. Iran even offered to suspend “industrial scale” enrichment for several years, and to give up plutonium processing. All of these and many more offers by Iran were totally rejected by the Bush administration which has explicitly stated that Iran should not have even have the “knowledge” of nuclear issues. The nuclear weapons issue is clearly pretextual, and so no amount of compromises by Iran on the nuclear issue will suffice.

  19. Anon

    Hass, after concealing nuclear materials and technology for almost two decades, and thereby violating its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran should have ratified without qualification the Additional Protocol. To verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities in Iran, Mohamed ElBaradei and the IAEA have repeatedly said that they require, at the very least, Iran’s cooperation through an unqualified ratification and continuing implementation of the AP.

    It was wrong of Iran not to ratify the Additional Protocol from the very beginning. But to its credit, the Iranian government was moving, however slowly, the right direction when Tehran “implemented” the AP — which is to say, it granted in an absolutely legally non-binding way the IAEA the measures foreseen in the AP. In contrast, Iran was and is completely wrong to link cooperation with the IAEA’s verification activities to its pleasure/displeasure with the state of negotiations with the EU-3 and US.

    Iranian elites complain bitterly about how they perceive some governments as refusing to recognize their government’s rights to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Yet, if they completely de-linked IAEA cooperation from their complaints about nuclear rights and instead provided the Agency with genuine transparency and cooperation, then Iran would create a situation in which the IAEA could verify and conclude the absence of undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iranian territory. After having received such a conclusion from the IAEA, Iran would gain the support of many governments, including those in the West, that now criticize it for its ongoing noncompliance with its CSA and NPT’s Article III.