The Importance Of This Tuesday (In Iran)
Meanwhile, in Iran
LONDON: As eyes remain glued to the Greek debt crisis -- with talks between the cash-strapped country and its creditors collapsing -- in another part of the world, another set of negotiations seem to be faltering. The Obama administration’s efforts to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme is expected to slip past its deadline. Tuesday, 30 June 2015, is the all important day for both set of negotiations; Tuesday is the deadline for the talks on Iran’s nuclear framework and the deadline for Greece to make its $1.8bn payment to the International Monetary Fund. In both cases, the elusive Tuesday deadline is not being met.
Whilst Greece having not met its deadline has led to a complete financial breakdown, with Greek banks closing and imposing financial controls -- the scenario concerning the US-Iran talks is a tad more optimistic. Despite the deadline having been passed, US officials maintain that a deal is still very much in sight.
In fact, AFP quoted a senior US official saying that a system has been reached in talks between Iran and major powers towards a nuclear deal that will give the UN atomic watchdog access to all suspect sites. “The entry point isn't we must be able to get into every military site, because the United States of America wouldn't allow anybody to get into every military site, so that's not appropriate," the official said. "But if in the context of agreement... the IAEA believes it needs access and has a reason for that access then we have a process that access is given," the official said on condition of anonymity. "We have worked out a process that we believe will ensure that the IAEA has the access it needs."
This may seem like a major concession on Iran’s part at first glance, but read the quote again and a single sentence introduces the caveat. At the sake of repetition, the sentence reads: “"The entry point isn't we must be able to get into every military site, because the United States of America wouldn't allow anybody to get into every military site, so that's not appropriate.”
The Weekly Standard elucidates this further: “Think about that. The American official argues that Iran—a rogue regime that sponsors terror and that has lied about its nuclear program, and that is under sanctions precisely because it has proved time and again it can't be trusted—should be held to the same standards as the U.S. Amazing. It turns out the left's old doctrine of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the U.S. has been replaced by a doctrine of moral equivalence between Iran and the U.S.”
Further, unlike Greece whose creditors refused to extend the Tuesday deadline, the talks in Vienna on the Iran nuclear programme seem to be poised for an extension. At this point, I would anticipate the negotiations will extend past the deadline,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “Our negotiators will remain in Vienna past the deadline in pursuit of a final agreement.”
Additionally, although Earnest declined to handicap the chances of reaching a deal, said a final agreement "is within our sights." “I would hesitate to put numbers on it at this point,” he said. “Obviously our negotiators understand the stakes in the negotiations.”
In other good news, the US and Iran have already reached a major breakthrough (unlike Greece and its creditors who have been squabbling for months). In April this year, Iran and the P5+1 namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany agreed on a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Again, in contrast with Greece where no one knows what an agreement -- if it is even reached -- between Greece and its creditors will look like, the Iran nuclear framework agreement provides an insight into what the final deal will look like.
Here is what we know thus far:
Simply put, the trouble is over Iran’s capacity to build a nuclear bomb. Iran insists that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, whereas the UN, European Union, the US, and others have all imposed sanctions on the country because well, they don’t believe Tehran’s claim. The negotiations are centred around lifting these sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to curbs and limitations to its nuclear programme.
The process has not been easy because the US and others want Iran to prove that it can stuck to the curbs and restrictions before they lift sanctions gradually over time, whereas Iran’s position was that sanctions needed to be lifted immediately as the country needs economic relief and that it should not be levelled with more sanctions when it is in fact complying.
To understand what sort of curbs and restrictions the US and others have been demanding, a brief physics class is necessary.
There are two types of radioactive materials of consequence here: uranium and plutonium. For each, the process begins with enriching uranium ore. Uranium mined from the earth contains less than 1 percent of U-235 -- the isotope that is used to both fuel reactors and manufacture atom bombs. Centrifuges are needed to separate the isotope from the uranium -- a process defined as enrichment of uranium. For plutonium, the process involved irridating uranium in a nuclear reactor, thereby transforming some of the uranium into plutonium.
(Source: The New York Times)
Now that the physics has been established, here is the problem specific to Iran.
Problem Number 1: When uranium is enriched, the centrifuges are used to raise U-235 concentrations. In the west, most power reactors use uranium enriched up to 5 percent. Bomb grade is above 90 percent. Iran has thus far been enriching uranium up to 20 percent.
Problem Number 2: Iran has a stockpile of this low-enriched uranium (for peaceful purposes, they maintain). The problem is that the low-enriched uranium could be fed back into centrifuges and gradually made into highly enriched uranium -- and obviously, the US and others want to make sure that cannot happen.
Problem Number 3: Iran’s “Breakout Time”: “Breakout Time” refers to the amount of time it would take Iran to build a nuclear bomb if it decides to do so. Currently, if Iran’s leaders wake up tomorrow and decide they want a nuke in their hands, it would -- according to a US fact sheet -- take the country two-three months to be able to do so. The US and others want to extend this “breakout time.”
What has been agreed to?
A number of things have been agreed to that relate to the problems above.
Firstly, Iran has agreed to limit enrichment levels ot 3-7 percent and cut its stockpile of that kind of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms for 15 years. Iran has also agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges installed by two-thirds.
Further, as per the framework, Iran’s giant enrichment site at Fordo will be converted into a centre for nuclear physics and technology research. At Natanz -- the country’s main nuclear site -- the number of centrifuges remaining will be cut by half to 5000. At Arak, where the country is building a nuclear reactor that will use natural uranium to produce Pu-239, the deal involves rebuilding the reactor based on a design that will not produce weapon-grade plutonium.
To ensure that Iran doesn’t cheat, greater monitoring and transparency has been agreed to. The International Atomic Energy Agency will have greater access and can investigate sites anywhere in the country. Investigators will also have access to supply chains that support Iran’s nuclear programme, including mines and mills. There will also be continuous surveillance of centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities.
As per the framework, Iran has agreed to limit its enrichment capacity and research and development for 10 years. Iran will also not build any heavy water reactors for 15 years. The country will limit its stockpile of enriched uranium for 15 years.
The “breakout time” will be extended from two-three months to at least one year.
Although the deal will not be reached in accordance with its deadline, i.e. this all important Tuesday 30th June 2015, at least it is not impossible to imagine.