Is this news? The precise number may be newsy but surely not the fact that Iran will have lots and lots of enrichment equipment still up and running once Smart Diplomacy is done with them.
The decision to reduce the exchange of sensitive information about the Iran talks was prompted by concerns that Netanyahu’s office had given Israeli journalists sensitive details of the U.S. position, including a U.S. offer to allow Iran to enrich uranium with 6,500 or more centrifuges as part of a final deal.
Obama administration officials believed these reports were misleading because the centrifuge numbers are part of a package that includes the size of the Iranian nuclear stockpile and the type of centrifuges that are allowed to operate. A deal that allowed 500 advanced centrifuges and a large stockpile of enriched uranium might put Iran closer to making a bomb than one that permitted 10,000 older machines and a small stockpile, the administration argues…
This latest breach in the U.S.-Israeli relationship began around Jan. 12 with a phone call from Netanyahu. Obama asked the Israeli leader to hold fire diplomatically for several more months while U.S. negotiators explored whether Iran might agree to a deal that, through its technical limits on centrifuges and stockpiles, extended the breakout period that Iran would need to build a bomb to more than a year. But Netanyahu is said to have responded that a year wasn’t enough and to have reverted to Israel’s hard-line insistence that Iran shouldn’t be allowed any centrifuges or enrichment.
Wait — the big nuclear deal that’s going to secure Peace In Our Time would actually leave Iran with thousands of functioning centrifuges? Well … yes. It’s been that way since the beginning, when the two sides reached their interim agreement in Geneva in late 2013. That agreement didn’t explicitly say that Iran would retain the right to enrich uranium but it did acknowledge Iran’s right to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and allowed it to continue enriching uranium at low (i.e. not weapons-grade) levels to fuel nuclear reactors until, at a minimum, a permanent agreement was reached. Realistically there’s no way Khamenei will agree to cancel his enrichment program; the regime’s invested too much of its prestige in it over the last 13 years. To scrap enrichment entirely would be a total capitulation to the west. If you want to eliminate their centrifuges, you’ll have to bomb, and we all understand — Khamenei included — that Obama’s not going to do that. Netanyahu is a different story, but who knows how much damage Israel’s smaller air force could inflict on Iran’s heavily fortified facilities.
What Khamenei might do is agree to scale back enrichment and give UN nuclear inspectors access to their nuclear infrastructure. Before the initial Geneva agreement, Iran had something like 18-19,000 centrifuges running. If all of those centrifuges were operating at full tilt, they could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to arm a bomb within a month or so. If Khamenei agrees to give up two-thirds of those centrifuges then the “breakout period” (the time needed to convert crude uranium to highly enriched uranium suitable for a weapon) would stretch much longer, to six months or more. What a longer Iranian breakout period would achieve for the west at this point, I don’t quite know; surely, as a smart piece in Slate warned last year, we have a bombing plan that could be implemented within days if not hours if we received intel that Iran had “broken out” and was now enriching at weapons-grade levels. Netanyahu hates the idea of making the breakout period rather than full denuclearization the touchstone of negotiations with Iran, as he suspects (quite rightly) that Iran will cheat and use its remaining equipment to pump out bomb material. The White House has made no bones about its priorities, though: Just a few weeks ago, at a hearing before a Senate committee, Obama deputy Tony Blinken flatly admitted that their goal in all this is to merely extend the time it would take Iran to build a bomb, not to convince Iran to dismantle its facilities. Watch the clip below, from last April, and you’ll find Kerry sounding pretty excited about maybe getting Iran to extend its breakout period to six or 12 months. Once you’re talking about breakout periods instead of disarmament, by definition you’re talking about letting Iran keep its program. That “6,500” number today just happens to be the White House’s target. For the moment.
Whether you’ve reached a weak agreement that turns on Iran’s breakout period or a strong one that requires full denuclearization, the key is verification. Everyone expects Iran to try to cheat by building and operating secret enrichment sites. (Weapons experts call this a “sneakout” capacity, contra “breakout.”) If Khamenei tells the IAEA they can access any site they want any time they want, that might give the U.S. and EU enough confidence to do a deal that would leave Iran with a basic enrichment program for its reactors intact. If Iran tries to limit access by inspectors, there’s no deal. And all of this depends, of course, on the ability of western intelligence to identify suspicious sites in Iran: If the CIA, Mossad, and European agencies can’t find a site, obviously the UN can’t inspect it. That’s the future of this clusterfark, I think — Israeli intel announcing that they suspect secret enrichment work is being done at a particular Iranian site and U.S./EU intel insisting that there’s nothing there, knowing that it would mean war with Iran if they agreed with the Israeli assessment and UN inspectors were denied access. But even a bad scenario like that is good enough for Obama, who wants nothing more than to lock in some sort of weak Iranian rapprochment for his “legacy” and then hand this hot potato off to the next president. That goal should be easy enough to meet.