Michael KreponInterim Deal with Iran

Update | Read the text of the Joint Plan of Action.

From the White House release:

Halting the Progress of Iran’s Program and Rolling Back Key Elements

Iran has committed to halt enrichment above 5%:

Halt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical connections required to enrich above 5%.

Iran has committed to neutralize its stockpile of near-20% uranium:

· Dilute below 5% or convert to a form not suitable for further enrichment its entire stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium before the end of the initial phase.

Iran has committed to halt progress on its enrichment capacity:

· Not install additional centrifuges of any type.

· Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium.

· Leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, so they cannot be used to enrich uranium.

· Limit its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran cannot use the six months to stockpile centrifuges.

· Not construct additional enrichment facilities.

Iran has committed to halt progress on the growth of its 3.5% stockpile:

· Not increase its stockpile of 3.5% low enriched uranium, so that the amount is not greater at the end of the six months than it is at the beginning, and any newly enriched 3.5% enriched uranium is converted into oxide.

Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track. Iran has committed to:

· Not commission the Arak reactor.

· Not fuel the Arak reactor.

· Halt the production of fuel for the Arak reactor.

· No additional testing of fuel for the Arak reactor.

· Not install any additional reactor components at Arak.

· Not transfer fuel and heavy water to the reactor site.

· Not construct a facility capable of reprocessing. Without reprocessing, Iran cannot separate plutonium from spent fuel.

Unprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program

Iran has committed to:

· Provide daily access by IAEA inspectors at Natanz and Fordow. This daily access will permit inspectors to review surveillance camera footage to ensure comprehensive monitoring. This access will provide even greater transparency into enrichment at these sites and shorten detection time for any non-compliance.

· Provide IAEA access to centrifuge assembly facilities.

· Provide IAEA access to centrifuge rotor component production and storage facilities.

· Provide IAEA access to uranium mines and mills.

· Provide long-sought design information for the Arak reactor. This will provide critical insight into the reactor that has not previously been available.

· Provide more frequent inspector access to the Arak reactor.

· Provide certain key data and information called for in the Additional Protocol to Iran’s IAEA Safeguards Agreement and Modified Code 3.1.

Verification Mechanism

The IAEA will be called upon to perform many of these verification steps, consistent with their ongoing inspection role in Iran. In addition, the P5+1 and Iran have committed to establishing a Joint Commission to work with the IAEA to monitor implementation and address issues that may arise. The Joint Commission will also work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, including the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s activities at Parchin.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    And for this Iran gets what?

    “Limited, temporary, and reversible” sanction relief?

    Sounds like a pretty crappy deal for the other side.

    On the other hand, They have established a de facto right to enrich and to a right to nuclear technology. The things Iran is giving up are also “limited, temporary, and reversible” so if the US and / or P5+1 drops the ball they’re really not out anything.

    The big loser here is Bibi Netenyahu who just got shown the limits of Israeli influence on world politics. If anything, I think Israel is actually more secure with this agreement than without it, but I’m sure they don’t feel that way. Well, Bibi doesn’t feel that way, in any case.

    The good news is that Possible Military Dimensions got barely a footnote, because this is the single item that could be used by the hawks on this side to derail any agreement. As we’ve learned from Iraq, and to a lesser extent South Africa, it’s really really hard to convince some people that a nuclear weapons program doesn’t exist. In both the cases I’ve mentioned there are still people claiming that one still exists and we just didn’t find it.

    Another question I have is does Obama need the advise and consent of the congress to carry out his end of the bargain? If so, that could be problematic.

    It’s probably a good thing that the deal was reached and will hopefully be a step in the direction of more normalized relations with Iran. I just hope the Iranians feel like they left the table with enough that they will feel like coming back for the next round.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      Look at english.farsnews.com for a purported text of the agreement. There are a lot of interesting details – if this is the real, final version.

  2. Rob Goldston (History)

    The interim agreement will push Iran further below the red line that Bibi drew on his ACME bomb at the U.N., particularly folding in daily IAEA visits and de-linked tandem cascades. Would someone please photoshop in Obama drawing a blue line below Netanyahu’s red one?

    The question is how much of the AP and 3.1 will be implemented to get to the next stage. We need to know for sure whether any of the many underground bunkers in Iran house enrichment facilities. And we need to know enough about Arak to decide if it can be redesigned for light water. And we need to know the full history and present status of the “Possible Military Dimensions”.

    If Iran is going to have meaningful enrichment, say enough to fuel 1-3 domestic reactors, which represents enough enrichment capacity for about 25 – 75 weapons per year, it will need to have the AP, 3.1, fully real-time safeguards monitoring and an implicit understanding that breakout will result in rapid destruction of all enrichment facilities. Is this a possible scenario, from either side?

    The remaining, big, problem will be spent fuel. The cooling ponds would also require real-time safeguards. We would have to plan to bomb them if the fuel began to be removed, and make this plan understood. Because of the release of radioactivity, this constitutes a very, very major problem. Spent fuel is much harder to safeguard in a meaningful way than enrichment plants. One year’s fuel from a 1 GWe nuclear power plant contains enough Pu for about 25 weapons.

    • Magpie (History)

      My premise for a long time now is that Iran was only ever aiming for (and only ever needed) the ability to rush to weapons, which it will have with permitted 5% stocks and realistic safeguards. Job done. And the only rational thing for everyone else to do is to just accept that they’re de-facto nuclear-armed state, and get on with things. Pushing harder will only force them to the disastrous step of ACTUALLY making nukes. Virtual nukes do the job almost as well, and avoids the bad outcomes for everyone.

      They didn’t get a bad deal. They got the beginning of the end of the whole (mini) cold war. They won.

      For example, here’s what I was saying in March: http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/6443/emerging-powers-and-nuclear-politics

      “Iran, sticking to domestically produced LEU, holding on to cascades, is sprint-capable. Obfuscate the stocks just enough for people to be unsure if you’ve actually done it, and it’s about as good as having a weapon. Done.

      Now it’s just a matter of working through the process for everyone to calm down. Are Pakistan or India under crippling sanctions? Nope. Can the Iranians expect everyone to maintain this level of action? Nope. Does the Iranian regime value the sanction-vulnerable domestic economy over their own survival, anyway? Nope.

      So, with their own power (and hence lives) relatively secure from foreign interference with (at least) the implied threat of a potential weapon, now it’s just a matter of getting out of the current angst-swamp as advantageously as possible.”

      “They can already make nuclear weapons. All they need is to have installed some cascades nice and quite-like somewhere out of the way, and they could take 20% to weapons-grade in no-time flat, and there’s nothing anyone could do to stop them. They could have done it by now.

      So why oh why are they sitting in this in-between world? Because, I would submit, of the First Rule of Tinpot Dictators: hold on to power. There’s just enough threat to tell everyone to back off with their destabilisation efforts. It’s precisely calibrated.”

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I agree with Magpie that Iran, probably, is seeking a virtual bomb – as an option for an actual bomb someday – or perhaps simply for the prestige value. Unlike North Korea, the Iranian regime is not impervious to public opinion and economic sanctions. Hence, they are negotiating relief from these tight sanctions. If the final agreement is successful, a clear win for the world is that Iran will be forced to be more transparent, and to create more distance between bomb capacity and actual bomb. I am not sure that Pakistan and India were ever sanctioned this vigorously – so I do not see their experience as a reliable guide for Iran.

    • Eric Petersen (History)

      PU from a 1 GW reactor: Is this PU-239 or 240? My understanding is PU from a commercial reactor is so contaminated with 240, a bomb-makers nightmare as it spontaneously emits neutrons, that no one has ever tried to make bomb-grade material from this waste. Even 10% 240 contamination renders a theoretical weapon useless.

  3. Mike (History)

    I’m curious what was offered in regards replacing the stated “use” of the Arak reactor? I always thought that Arak was at least as big an issue as the centrifuges.

    One also has to wonder if this deal pans out if Bibi’s political career will be over?

    • Cthippo (History)

      Mike said:

      One also has to wonder if this deal pans out if Bibi’s political career will be over?

      Unfortunately, probably not.

      On the other hand, I don’t think the Israeli public has much appetite for a delaying at best and pointless at worst attack on Iran. If Bibi orders that attack then his career will probably be over.

  4. bob (History)

    Cthippo commented:-

    > And for this Iran gets what?
    > “Limited, temporary, and reversible” sanction relief?
    > Sounds like a pretty crappy deal for the other side.

    Yes, indeed. In fact the deal sounds too good to be true.

    So, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

    The Iranians have chosen to suck it down and swallow their pride in order to ensure regime survival and to secure Shia regimes in Syria and Iraq.

    So, now no Saudi shopping spree in Khans market. No Saudi/Zionist love-in. No casus belli.

    They are paying too high a price though. Or rather, they have agreed to pay too high a price.

    They are bound to welch on the deal at a time of their own choosing. I know I would.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Bob: “So, now no Saudi shopping spree in Khans market. No Saudi/Zionist love-in. No casus belli.


      The tea leaves say you are entirely wrong about 1 and 2; ask again later about 3.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      bob, not sure I understand why you think the interim deal is so “crappy” for Iran that “They are bound to welch on the deal at a time of their own choosing.” Assuming the interim deal turns into a final deal that lifts most of the sanctions, how is that bad for Iran? Are you saying Iran wants a bomb, and still plans to build one? Or something else?

    • Mac (History)

      Being an Iranian, I like Magpie’s interpretation and see it more near to the truth.

      The deal is fine if it ends all the sanctions and eventually let Iran continue low grade enrichment and allow them to have a domestic nuclear industry.

      Iran needed the 20% enrichment for the Tehran university reactor (achieved) and does not need it anymore. For the the Arak reactor a technical solution can be found (like diluting the fuel).

      What else would Iran want? Oh, possibly the virtual bomb others mentioned and the prestige.

  5. jeannick (History)

    It will be interesting to see how this agreement will affect other members of the NPT
    in particular the enrichment side

    a full rewrite might be useful embodying all the past experience.
    the new IAEA chairman is a Vietnamese ,he might not be as “obliging ” as Amano
    the boars also has roster , with countries no so amenable to Washington wishes .

  6. Cthippo (History)

    Accepting this as an interim deal, what does the final agreement look like?

    At a minimum the west is going to have to accept the Iranian right to enrichment and operation of light water reactors for power generation, and technical assistance with nuclear matters like any other NPT signatory. That’s going to piss a lot of people off, but the only way to change it is to go to war, and no one has much of an appetite for that. Well, at least no one who is actually going to fight that war.

    I think that Iran can live with no enrichment over 5% and reasonably intrusive monitoring of their enrichment capability, especially if it comes with a guarantee of fuel for the TRR. Possibly the west could even throw them a bone of TRR fuel fabrication done in Iran with western help. Doesn’t cost us anything from a proliferation standpoint and it helps them develop their skills for peaceful nuclear technology. The flip side of this is that if the west fails to come through with the promised TRR fuel, Iran has shown itself as ready, willing and able to produce it themselves. Hopefully the Iranians will drive a hard bargain on this point with firm deliverables and language that says that if the west fails to deliver then Iran would NOT be in breach of the agreement by making their own.

    Likewise, Iran can probably live with ongoing limits on the amount of hexaflouride on hand at any given moment. Again, hopefully they will negotiate for help with fuel manufacturing technology.

    My guess is that Iran is willing to bargain away Arak, but that remains to be seen on what’s offered in return. It’s going to have to be something big and concrete, not “temporary and reversible”.

    The big win for Iran, if it can be translated to the long term, is international acceptance of them as a threshold nuclear state and one with a viable commercial nuclear program. This agreement signals western acceptance of the new status quo and forecloses any meaningful further attempts to roll back enrichment capability in Iran.

    This agreement is a good start, but it remains to be seen if the west generally and the US specifically are really interested in reaching a long term agreement, and if they are willing and able to follow through with the terms of such an agreement if one is reached. My concern is that this will go the way of the Agreed Framework with North Korea and collapse due to US domestic politics reigning on the agreement.

    • Ya Think? (History)

      Cthippo: “At a minimum the west is going to have to accept the Iranian right to enrichment”

      The P5+1 has already conceded the point, though Kerry is trying very hard to pretend that they haven’t.

      Note this part of the preamble: “This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme.”

      Note that this isn’t just a rhetorical flourish: that text repeated in the Elements Of The Final Step Of A Comprehensive Solution: “Involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.”

      So the P5+1 has already agreed that it will take “no enrichment, no way, no how” off the table when the two sides sit down to negotiate the Final End Of This Saga.

  7. krepon (History)

    The President and Secretary of State will not get much help defending this deal — one of the consequences of the lack of standing the Secretary of Defense and NSC adviser have on Capitol Hill.

    On the other hand, do critics at home and in Israel want the responsibility of blowing up this deal, literally or figuratively?

    Instead, expect legislative initiatives setting conditions for an ‘acceptable’ final deal that can make one unlikely.


    • Scott Monje (History)

      Yes, I agree about conditions coming out of Congress and the impact they could have. Beyond that, the most sobering aspect about the future of the negotiations, I think, is that the most severe sanctions were imposed by act of Congress and so can’t be removed without the agreement of both houses.

    • Devil in the detail (History)

      Krepon: “Instead, expect legislative initiatives setting conditions for an ‘acceptable’ final deal that can make one unlikely.”

      Perhaps that’s why this interim agreement has a section entitled “Elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution”.

      As in: that section already pre-defines what is going to be regarded as an “acceptable final deal”.

    • Think about it. (History)

      Scott: “Beyond that, the most sobering aspect about the future of the negotiations, I think, is that the most severe sanctions were imposed by act of Congress and so can’t be removed without the agreement of both houses.”

      True enough, but note this: those are all unilateral sanctions imposed by the USA on everyone else i.e. none of those sanctions are underpinned by UNSC resolutions, and so none of those US sanctions impose a legally-binding obligation on other countries to observe those sanctions.

      So if a deal is struck and the Congress refuses to repeal these sanctions then…. the rest of the world can respond by treating the Congress with the contempt that it so richly deserves.

      In which case US firms will be legally obliged by US legislation to cut off their nose to spite their face while the rest of the world laughs all the way to the bank.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Let me elaborate a bit because it sounds like I said the same thing twice. The first concern is unrealistically high demands coming out of Congress. The second concern is whether Congress (the Republican Party, really) is capable of abiding by a set of conditions once it has been set and accepted. After you get past the impact that the Israel lobby will have on both parties and the simple obstructionism from some Republicans, there is the problem that the Republicans have been having in controlling their own caucuses. The House Republicans have been having this problem for some time now, to the point where they can no longer pass their own bills in their own house if it amounts to anything more than a symbolic jab at Obama. Now the Senate Republicans are getting as bad. Twice this year, Reid thought he had a deal to save the filibuster on nominations, and twice the Republicans were unwilling or unable to abide by it. In the most recent case, this past summer, they were in a position where they are unable to appear cooperative toward Democrats within view of their base, so they apparently planned to continue to filibuster all nominations but also quietly to assign five or six GOP senators to vote for cloture to undo their own filibuster. According to one argument, that fell apart because, after one or two successes, the Ted Cruzes of the world started outing the cooperators until they couldn’t get five or six people who’d do it anymore. Now that Republicans are promising to get back at the Democrats for undoing the filibuster (and have precious few areas in which cooperation can be reduced), it seems unlikely that many will stick their heads out to save a diplomatic deal with Iran.

  8. Magpie (History)

    They look like they lost, but they won.

    There’s been talk about the red line, but Bibi’s line don’t make no sense.

    At 20% enriched, you’ve done 95-odd-% of the required enrichment to get to 90% enriched. That is, you’ve pulled out 95% of the chaff that’s stopping things from getting all boomy.

    At 5% enriched, you’re down to 85-odd-% of the effort you needed to do. Which is A Thing, sure, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker if Iran feels like making a run for the line.

    Iran is “known” to have pushed pretty close to a full SQ through the 20% enrichment mark (then converted most(?) of it to fuel plates), plus I-dunno-how-much at 5%, plus god-knows-what that’s been diverted from domestic uranium mining into that secret cascade under Ramin Rahimi’s house. And then we note that a Significant Quantity is itself a pretty dopey measure (being something like 2-3 Realistic Quantities), and we see that, if Bibi’s red line is “having enough U-235 in the system to rush a bomb”, Iran is so far past the red line that it can’t even SEE the red line from where they are, not even standing on Bibi’s shoulders.

    This is an interim agreement, and on the surface it sucks for Iran, but honestly, I see this as the first part of the process called: “admitting that we couldn’t realistically stop you, so we’ll treat you like you’ve got nukes, and in return you don’t actually make nukes, kay?” Given the subtext, Iran won an epic win. As it was always going to.

    Again (again): if Iran’s national pride is publically put into NOT making nukes, they won’t (publically) make nukes (unless they feel seriously threatened). The immediate payoff for them is a reduction in current and future destabilisation attempts (not naming any names, but DAMN that KSA has been quiet about all of this, hasn’t it?). For your long-term-dynasty thinkers, this is a pretty huge deal. The partial lift in sanctions is chicken-feed by comparison.

    So the oversight will be tight(ish), but is sorta beside the point: Iran has shown they CAN, and no-one (not even them) actually wants them to DO it, so we’re all going to act like it’s a fait accompli and just get on with business. Iran is de-facto nuclear, with none of the messiness that would have gone along with the real thing (messiness such as, for example, KSA claiming they need nukes now, too). As long as the deal doesn’t completely prevent any chance of a rush to a bomb (and it won’t), it’s a win-win situation for everyone but those few holdouts who had convinced themselves they could realistically beat Iran up over the issue more than they already have, without potentially REALLY messy outcomes for everyone.

    Hurray for sense in diplomacy.

  9. Malcolm Davis (History)

    Going through the initial points made by Michael Krepon, and acknowledging that this is an ‘interim deal’, which I admit is probably a better deal than no deal, leading to either war or an Iran with nuclear weapons, I think the risk is that the Iranians can quickly reverse this.I’m going to throw a wet blanket here, but it needs to be thrown. My concerns are as follows:

    a) Though they must ‘dismantle’ the technical connections needed for enrichment above 5%, does the term ‘dismantle’ imply an ability to ‘rebuild’? How quickly could that occur – days, weeks, months? And what of enrichment occuring at other locations other than Natanz and Fordow? Are we absolutely certain that these are the only two locations where enrichment is occuring?

    b) They must convert their existing stockpile of 20% LEU to 5% before the end of the initial phase. But because this agreement allows them to do enrichment, they could always enrich again in the future and build up their 20% stockpiles again. Admittedly this would take time, so it slows things down in terms of a nuclear breakout, but its not impossible for them to re-enrich or undertake new enrichment. The agreement should have prevented this option for the Iranians in the future.

    c)The agreement supposedly halts progress on its enrichment capability by not building or installing centrifuges and not building additional enrichment capabilities. Once again, this is easily reversible – its a political choice on Iran’s part as to whether they continue to honour this, or break out. Certainly, they pay a penalty for breaking out, but it does not stop them from doing so if national interests dictate.

    d)The same applies to Arak – they have agreed to ‘freeze’ Arak – but it can be ‘unfrozen’ merely by political directive. It’s not being demolished. Everything is there in a manner that could allow work to recommence in the same way that the North Koreans have restarted Yongbyong.

    e)Verification – essential and good to see robust verification and monitoring mechanisms are included in the deal, but as we saw with North Korea, verification and monitoring is only effective so long as the state being verified and monitored agrees to such measures. Like North Korea, there is nothing stopping Iran choosing to withdraw its support, and then breaking out be ‘unfreezing’ everything from Arak to enrichment; or, seeking to circumvent verification and monitoring through undisclosed enrichment facilities – as Fordow once was. Once again, they pay a penalty, and if they have to rebuild stockpiles of 20% (or greater) fissile material, it takes time, so we’d respond accordingly, it does not change the fact that we’d be back to square one, and in the meantime the Iranians have had months of sanctions relief.

    So although I know everyone wants diplomacy to work, and result in some spectacular comprehensive agreement that leads to ‘detente’ with Iran, I remain skeptical it will work as hoped in the end. This agreement is too ‘reversible’, too easily and too quickly. I think that is what has the Israelis worried, and I personally sympathise with their concern.

    My real concern is that the Iranians – if they seek a nuclear weapons capability, irrespective of all their assurances – will use this agreement and the sanctions relief that comes with it to stretch out future negotiations on a final agreement to allow them to recover, and potentially, position themselves to breakout of any agreement at some point and quickly acquire a nuclear weapons capability. It is the issue of ‘reversability’ that concerns me the most – there is nothing really in this agreement that actually rolls back their nuclear capability in a manner that they cannot recover from quickly. This is a ‘nuclear freeze’ – and freezes can thaw.

    • kme (History)

      As Cthippo notes above, both sides have only committed to easily reversible steps. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect anything more at this stage – neither side is going to tie themselves to the mast until they see some evidence that the other side is going to take their commitments seriously. That’s what this is – a tentative first step that pulls everybody back from the brink, and if it goes well, provides a foundation for more permanent steps.

      You might wish for an agreement that razes Arak, Natanz and Fordow and blends all Uranium in Iran down to NU in return for a promise of future sanctions relief, but as they say: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

  10. Arch Roberts (History)

    Pretty good deal, way better than I predicted. Expect a new debate on “timely warning” vs. “timely detection.” As I’ve said elsewhere, don’t gainsay what you can’t foresee.

  11. John Schilling (History)

    Either Iran doesn’t expect to produce nuclear weapons in the next few years, or it does.

    If it doesn’t, then the sanctions were pointless and the deal is harmless.

    If it does, then presumably there are a thousand or so centrifuges spinning merrily away in Fordow II, wherever that is, and the sanctions and the deal are both pointless.

    A reduction in tension is usually a good thing, and mutually profitable trade is usually a good way to give nations a reason to avoid escalation, so yes, good deal. But we have long since crossed the line where no deal, nor anything else the West can plausibly do, will substantially impact Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons whenever they decide they want them. The idea that Iran was going to produce nuclear weapons (or not) with uranium enriched at Natanz, that we could observe and maybe influence, was only ever wishful thinking.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Fordow II, if it exists, is in great danger of being discovered. For the next few years, most likely, Iran is content with a “virtual bomb” – the capacity to build a bomb. Hence, there will be no Fordow II, now or in the near future. The problem for the final agreement is to make it difficult and time-consuming to convert knowledge of how to build a bomb into an actual bomb, and to persuade or dissuade Iran from ever deciding to build one.

    • John Schilling (History)

      In related news, the US National Security Agency has just announced that they will discontinue their pervasive surveilance of the world’s digital communications on account of, in the post-Snowden era, there is simply too much danger of discovery.

      Or not. And perhaps I don’t share your confidence in the caution, prudence, and honesty of national governments when faced with the possibility of security leaks.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Is the Iran government “honest”? No. Are they cautious and prudent? Most likely. I do not predict any of this for sure, I only look at the incentives and estimate the odds.

      Suppose we wish to deter a bank robber, we post guards outside and inside the bank (good chance of getting caught), and we make sure the would-be robber has a good job (something to lose if caught). The chance of getting caught does not have to be 100% – it can be less than that, if the penalty (maybe getting shot) and the loss for being caught are sufficiently high. Not all robbers will be deterred, but the odds of robbery go down.

      Same thing for Iran. The world has demonstrated that it can sanction Iran severely for bad behavior. Now the world needs to demonstrate that it can reward good behavior, and can distinguish the difference. Iran, of course, needs to demonstrate the good behavior, and needs to accept the guards and inspectors, and their freedom to rove about. Under the new scheme of incentives, the odds are, Iran will behave appropriately.

    • John Schilling (History)

      You are talking about elementary game theory, and bank robbers. I am talking about the observed behavior of national governments with security issues.

      Look, we know how the Iranian government deals with a situation where they have a well-known enrichment program, a widely-suspected nuclear arms program,no UN sacntions, and an international community looking for an excuse to impose sanctions. That’s the situation Iran faced in 2003-2006.

      And by 2006, they had decided to build Fordow I. Your confidence that this time things will be different, seems to me wholly unfounded. Banks do get robbed, in spite of the guards. More often than not, by people who have been caught robbing banks before.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I agree, Iran is not typical. The typical citizen does not choose robbery, but robbers do tend to be repeat offenders. Past misbehavior by Iran increases the odds of future misbehavior significantly, relative to how a more typical country might behave.

      Nevertheless, there is some reason to suppose Iran may change course. First, earlier on, Iran may have plausibly supposed it would not be caught, and if caught, punishment would not be severe. Iran has been disabused of both notions. Second, the Iranian people have spoken on this issue and the Supreme Leader has not silenced their voice. Their people don’t want sanctions. Third, the Supreme Leader has repeatedly said he does not want nuclear weapons (although his alleged fatwa is still unpublished). If he puts his words into observable action, he would not be contradicting himself.

      Hence, a number of reasons to suppose change is likely, but still good reasons for concern and for special supervision – details to be worked out as negotiations proceed.

    • kme (History)

      John, a difference which may be significant is that at the time of Fordow I, they could credibly say “We never promised not to build underground enrichment facilities, or to declare them until nuclear materials were actually introduced.”. That wouldn’t apply anymore.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      A little friendly disagreement with the premise John introduced.

      Iran didn’t have to come to the table. They did for some reason. Presumably, they value not being bombed, and the sanctions being reduced. In exchange they have agreed to a bunch of the things that we’ve all asked for regarding confidence building as to their not moving rapidly towards a bomb.

      We’ll see how that works out, but I think that the message was sent (in particular, the French apparent intransigence near the end) that “the world” was in fact playing hardball.

      We will have to see, of course. They could be intending to run the program in secret despite the monitoring; that would imply a complete parallel centrifuge facility and production logistics chain including factories and suppliers, either up and running or nearly so. That’s possible, but risky given the degree of intrusive inspection they agreed to.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I doubt Iran greatly feared being bombed, though I could be wrong. Certainly they wanted the sanctions removed or reduced.

      How much they wanted these things, relative to their nuclear ambitions, is unknowable. The recent negotiations are not particularly informative in this regard. Presuming Iran’s nuclear ambitions are associated with a covert enrichment facility and not with Natanz etc, they have given up nothing of any significant value in the interim deal, except possibly the known 20% stockpile.

      I believe the existence of Fordow I to be very strong evidence that Iran’s thinking is that nuclear weapons are to be produced via covert facilities and that overt nuclear facilities are for negotiation. So they promised to give up a thing whose only purpose was to be given up in negotiations, in favor of sanctions relief and no bombing – which is all they could realistically expect. We don’t know whether they consider this a marginal win or a great diplomatic coup, so we don’t know how much they feared the bombing or were harmed by the sanctions and cannot reliably predict how they would react if any real, covert nuclear program were threatened or tied to sanctions.

      And if Iran does harbor an ongoing desire to produce nuclear weapons, the logical time for them to have started building Fordow II was a year or so after the discovery of Fordow I. If they haven’t done so yet, they probably won’t start now. If they have, then the facility and its associated logistics are probably already in place, operational, and still undiscovered. I would not give very good odds that they would now be inclined to dismantle an operational covert enrichment facility just to forestall the risk of discovery.

      Nor am I particularly optimistic about “intrusive inspections” being particularly useful against a parallel, covert enrichment program. That would pretty much require the inspectors being able to point at a generic industrial facility labeled e.g. “Air-defense missile production plant #12”, say that they think it is really a centrifuge production plant and they want access, and make it stick.

    • Mohammad (History)

      John Schilling,

      “I believe the existence of Fordow I to be very strong evidence that Iran’s thinking is that nuclear weapons are to be produced via covert facilities and that overt nuclear facilities are for negotiation.”

      What we know is that Iran’s declaration of Fordow plant came before any *public* indication by other countries that it had been “discovered”. (just check the news on September 21, 2009) Of course U.S. officials have claimed that they knew about the site before, but I’ve always wondered why didn’t they reveal the site before Iran itself declared it, putting more pressure on Iran and lending credibility to the “covertness” claim.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      John, This hypothesis of a secret centrifuge site already constructed is intriguing. To analyze, I will apply Bayes’ theorem to public evidence.

      Iran constructed two secret centrifuge facilities. The first was a surface facility at Natanz, that was exposed by Alireza Jafarzadeh in August 2002. The second was an underground facility called Fordow, 30 miles from Qom, disclosed by Iran in September 2009, after discovery by Western intelligence. Given this history (0 of 2 secret sites remaining secret), starting with a uniform distribution on probability of discovery and applying Bayes’ theorem, the chance of a third secret site remaining secret (assuming sites built one at a time) would be (0+1)/(2+2)=1/4.

      Now what prior probability should we assign to the hypothesis that Iran would build a third secret site after the first two were discovered? One could argue that Iran is determined to build secret centrifuges. Alternatively, Iran might choose to make do with its two non-secret facilities. Suppose the prior odds of Iran building a third secret facility are 50%. Applying Bayes’ theorem, the posterior odds of an undiscovered third facility are (50%)(1/4)/[(50%)(1)+(50%)(1/4)] = 20%. Hence, given the evidence of no discovery, the odds are about 80% that no secret centrifuge facility exists.

      Supposing (20% chance) that Iran really does have a third facility, what should Iran do? To lift similar sanctions, Saddam Hussein disbanded his nuclear weapons program while IAEA inspectors were roaming about Iraq. Hussein was a known risk taker who invaded both Iran and Kuwait, yet he was unwilling to risk discovery by the IAEA. Unless Iran chooses to be crazier than Hussein, Iran should disclose all secret centrifuge facilities, if any exist.

      Mohammad, If we substitute your assumption that Fordow was voluntarily disclosed by Iran, not discovered by Western intelligence, then only 1 of 2 secret facilities get discovered (50% chance). The prior odds of Iran building an undisclosed third secret facility are lower, perhaps 1/3. The posterior odds of an undiscovered third facility are (1/3)(50%)/[(2/3)(1)+(1/3)(50%)] = 20%.

    • John Schilling (History)

      You are neglecting Kalaye Electric, which AFIK was not discovered during its operational life. That puts the Bayesian probability of a hypothetical third, er, fourth enrichment site remaining undiscovered at 40%, rather than your 25%.

      And, as Iran has built three secret enrichment facilities so far, the odds that they would wish to build a fourth I think would be somewhat higher than your 50% estimate. If we assume that the principal disincentive to building such a facility is the risk of discovery, and that the Iranians are applying strict Bayesian analysis, then we know they built facilities when the a priori probability of discovery was 50%, 33%, and 50%. The probability that the new 60% probability of discovery would dissuade a repeat performance, would seem to be only 20%. Or, if some other factor dominates their decision, they are 3/3 for answering the question “should we build a secret enrichment facility?” with a “yes”, leaving again a 20% probability of the next answer being “no”.

      So, a priori, 20% they dodn’t try to build Fordow II when Fordow I was revealed, 32% they build it and keep it secret, 48% they build it and get caught. A posteriori, since they didn’t get caught, there’s a 61.5% chance that they did build the thing and have kept it secret so far.
      Bayesian statistics are obviously a gross oversimplification of what is really going on, but the numbers are probably not too far out of line. Call it 50/50 with a large margin of error.

      As for what Iran should do: Hussein, as you note, disclosed everything. This ended with his regime and his statues being toppled, his sons shot, and himself dragged out of a spider hole and hung by the neck until dead. Gaddafi dismantled and revealed his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, and wishes he had been hung by the neck until dead.

      Meanwhile, the Kims have been actually setting off illicit nuclear weapons for years, for which they get sanctions, negotiations, and a stable monarchy. Assad nerve-gasses his own people, and gets negotiations. The Iranians themselves get caught with their hand in the covert-enrichment cookie jar twice, and negotiate for sanctions relief without a hint of regime change.

      From this you conclude that the cautious, rational policy is dismantlement and disclosure?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      John, As often happens in analysis, one has to decide how to classify observations and decide on their relevance. For example, was a 19-machine test cascade at Kalaye Electric militarily significant? If it went unnoticed until 2003 after being shut down in 2002, is that relevant to current odds of much bigger facilities getting caught?

      Unlike North Korea which is opaque, Iran’s nuclear program appears translucent, if not transparent, to outside intelligence agencies. From public data, 3/4 chance of being caught seems like a reasonable estimate, but with large margin of error. Another factor to consider is the Stuxnet virus, that wandered into the wild in June 2010, and would likely have revealed the existence of additional Iranian centrifuge facilities, if any.

      Hussein was conflicted on whether he wanted to deter Iran by appearing to have a bomb, or deterring a U.S. attack by not appearing to have a bomb. He dismantled his nuclear program in the hope of forestalling U.S. attack (because that was the only way to deprive IAEA of the “evidence” needed to justify a U.S. attack), but he carefully made it appear that he was constantly hiding something so as to deter Iran. He gambled and lost.

      Iran is not similarly conflicted. Iran no longer needs to fear attack from Iraq. Deterring attack from the U.S., and lifting trade sanctions, requires not having a bomb and providing full transparency about its nuclear program.

    • Magpie (History)

      They don’t need to use a secret facility to sprint to a bomb. They just need to be able to.

      And they’re able to.

      Job done.

      It doesn’t need to be operating. It probably shouldn’t be – a mothballed set of cascades somewhere will do nicely. As long as people suspect they have one – and people will – it doesn’t matter if it even exists. So in that, I’m not really taking a side in this argument. Fact is, it doesn’t really matter.

      Iran has carefully, and apparently deliberately, made it to the point that their opponents must now treat them like they could build a weapon if they wanted to. Which is very similar to how their opponents would have to treat them if they *did* have a weapon, without all the mess.

      Job. Done.

      They don’t want a bomb. That would let KSA get one, and give Israel an open cheque to go at ‘em hammer and tong. But they can’t afford to NOT have a bomb, because then there’s nothing to stop folk supporting the student uprising coming up in 2019, or the coup next decade, or that invasion coming up in 2032. These guys think loooong term. As long as everyone knows they can – and will – go for a weapon if things start looking dicey, then it is strongly in everyone’s interest to keep things polite.

      They don’t want to end up like Saddam, or Gaddafi. They don’t want to be in Assad’s position, or the Afghan Taliban’s. And if any of those guys had, or could have rushed, a nuclear weapon, does anyone seriously think that the outside-world would have intervened in those countries the way they did? No. So Iran needs their virtual insurance-bomb, because they’re not thinking about the next election. They’re trying to keep their children and their associates’ children alive and in power.


  12. Fred Miller (History)

    When one nation gets (or seems likely to get) the bomb, it’s military competitors feel absolutely compelled to follow suit. That’s how we got the bomb in the first place, and how proliferation has proceeded ever since.

    As long as nuclear powers threaten their neighbors with nuclear attack, those neighbors will keep on trying to develop their own deterrent. Agreements, interim agreements, and treaties are good things, but at best they can only slow proliferation down. As long as the US and Israel possess nuclear weapons and threaten other regimes with them, we’ll have to keep playing Whack-a-mole. Time and technology aren’t on our side.

    We restate our threat, “all options are on the table” to stop Iran from developing a nuclear deterrent, “We’ll do whatever we have to”. Until we demonstrate a similar commitment to reducing the strategic threat which motivates nations to develop a deterrent capability, we’re playing against our own stacked deck.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Fred Miller said:

      “We restate our threat, “all options are on the table” to stop Iran from developing a nuclear deterrent, “We’ll do whatever we have to”. Until we demonstrate a similar commitment to reducing the strategic threat which motivates nations to develop a deterrent capability, we’re playing against our own stacked deck.”

      We keep saying that, but we don’t really mean it and we never have. We didn’t go to war to stop India or Pakistan from developing the bomb, not South Africa nor even North Korea. The only places where active interdiction of a nascent nuclear program has worked is Taiwan and possibly South Korea. We can’t stop our “enemies” from getting the bomb, only our friends.

      If you look at the conflicts the US has become involved in, either overtly or covertly, in the post-war period the reasons for intervention are manifold. Some were noble (Korea), Some arguably well intentioned but misguided (Vietnam, Nicuaragua), some horribly political (Chile, Iraq), and some almost purely commercial (Guetemala), but none of them, not one, were motivated by proliferation concerns. Even now, neither the actual development and possession of nuclear weapons nor the use of chemical weapons on civilians meets the threshold for action. Lets quit saying we care about this issue when our actions clearly demonstrate that we don’t.

  13. krepon (History)

    Kissinger & Shultz in the Wall Street Journal, 12/3/13:

    “The danger of the present dynamic is that it threatens the outcome of Iran as a threshold nuclear weapons state. If the six-month “freeze” period secured in Geneva is to be something other than a tactical pause on Iran’s march toward a military nuclear capability, Iran’s technical ability to construct a nuclear weapon must be meaningfully curtailed in the next stipulated negotiation through a strategically significant reduction in the number of centrifuges, restrictions on its installation of advanced centrifuges, and a foreclosure of its route toward a plutonium-production capability. Activity must be limited to a plausible civilian program subject to comprehensive monitoring as required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    “Any final deal must ensure the world’s ability to detect a move toward a nuclear breakout, lengthen the world’s time to react, and underscore its determination to do so. The preservation of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and the avoidance of a Middle East nuclear-arms race hang in the balance.

    “American diplomacy now has three major tasks: to define a level of Iranian nuclear capacity limited to plausible civilian uses and to achieve safeguards to ensure that this level is not exceeded; to leave open the possibility of a genuinely constructive relationship with Iran; and to design a Middle East policy adjusted to new circumstances.”