Rob's Blog Archive

April 19, 2015

An Evaluation of the Tentative Agreement with Iran










First, of course, there’s a long way between the cup and the lip:  Nothing has been signed regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Second, as a nuclear physicist who’s worked on related projects, both detection of nuclear material and weapons as well as nuclear material management (Read: where is your Special Nuclear Material this evening?), I have specific expertise regarding the agreement with Iran.  Third, I tend to be hawkish.  I’m not averse to preemptive strikes as long as they’re effective and necessary. 

That said, what we know about the agreement impresses the hell out of me. 

Let me start with a stark reality:  Iran knows how to make Zippe centrifuges, the kind used for uranium enrichment.  There’s nothing anybody can do to put that cat back in a bag.   Moreover, if it wants to, Iran will continue to do research to improve these.  There really is no way to stop military research, particularly on a device that’s less than a cubic meter in size.  There’s a very good reason the agreement is vague on R&D for these; it’s that there’s no way to verify anything.  Given this, the focus of any agreement has to be on inspections of uranium and its refinement track rather than absolute numbers or quantities of centrifuges. 

Everything is contingent on inspections actually taking place, but no sanctions are lifted until after this (how much is a TBD).  Beyond that, the total amount of U235 that the Iranians will be allowed to “stockpile” at a 3.67% enrichment level is about half of what is needed for a single nuclear weapon. 

While the press has focused on absolute quantities, the enrichment level is more important.  Currently, we know that Iran has produced uranium with enrichment up to 20%, the upper limit of what the world, us included, calls low-enriched uranium.   Nuclear weapons require a substantial amount of uranium with about 90% enrichment, and that percentage is an absolute requirement.  The level of enrichment is trivial to detect, even on extremely small bits of material.  I haven’t done the calculations, but I suspect fractions of a gram could be measured quite precisely with a relatively simple field system.  In a lab, much smaller quantities can be measured, and there is no degradation of a sample if it is moved.  Along with this, there is no way to “accidentally” get even a piece of dust with a greater than standard enrichment.  Any material with greater than 3.67% enrichment proves Iran is breaking the agreement.  The combination of an absolute requirement for much higher refinement and ease of detection of isotopic ratios for uranium provides a very effective lever to detect at a very early time any “break-out.”

Beyond that, both my understanding as well as all of the comments I’ve read say this is a very robust inspection protocol, the most stringent that the IAEA does with additional features.  It looks to me like all of possible issues with inspections have been covered.  It’s a lot more than most people imagined was possible.  Check out the U.S. State Department release (see below).  We gave up leaving them with some small ability to refine uranium and got a very robust inspection program in return.  Given that they have the technology to refine uranium, and that’s not going to change, the primary strength of any agreement was always going to be inspections. 

The good news regarding inspections and proliferation is it’s practically impossible to build a nuke secretly.  There are real physical reasons for this.  It took North Korea three and a half years between the time it withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty to having its first nuclear weapon, and that may actually have been a dud.  It took another three years before there was a test of what clearly was a nuclear explosion.   BTW, the bad news is smuggling a nuke, particularly a uranium based nuke, into this country would be easy.  The other bad news is that once an entity has the ability to make a fission weapon, the add-ons for a fusion weapon are pretty straight forward.  Physics works against building a fission weapon.  It works toward adding on a fusion weapon.  I digress. 

I have to add that, while our media has presented this as our negotiation, Europe has been very involved.  Israel may be the top of the Iran kill list, but European countries don’t think they’re too far behind.  They were never going to let a bad agreement through.

The one issue the agreement does have is it’s not permanent.  That said, the minimum time for any part is ten years---the restriction of 3.67% enrichment lasts fifteen years.  At that point Iran will have significantly fewer centrifuges, significantly less LEU, all the LEU at a lower level of enrichment than it now has, and we’ll have all the information from all the inspections that took place during the intervening period.  It strikes me that, if they follow the agreement but decide to “break out” afterwards, all of our options improve.  I’d add that any break out constitutes a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that agreement has no time limit.   

In looking at all that has gone on, I am much less concerned about how quickly the sanctions get back into place if the Iranians fail to abide by the agreement than I am that the inspections are thorough.  My reasoning is that if the Iranians fail to abide by the agreement, sanctions have failed.  Putting them on again with the hope of the Iranians changing would be nonsense.  Of course, they should be reinstated, and that should be done quickly, but only perhaps with the exception of Iran, there is no good case for sanctions affecting countries’ nuclear programs.   The hawks get their proof that diplomacy won’t work with the Iranians and that the only way to stop them from developing nuclear weapons is militarily.

Finally, I think it’s telling that Israel’s reaction was that, rather than pushing for technical changes to the agreement, they want Tehran to agree to accept Israel’s right to exist.  Nobody thinks that’s about to happen.  My suspicion is that, not unlike Saudi Arabia after Israel bombed Saddam’s reactor, the Israelis are comfortable with this agreement, but won’t say so out loud.  Conversely, I’d guess that one sure way to kill it would be to say that they think it’s a good agreement.  It’s easy to see Iran balking at that point.  I am not sure, but suspect there’s a lot of showmanship in Israel’s stance.


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