Assessing a Deal or Non-deal with Iran

The Critical Issue of Iran’s Progress in Weapons Research, Development, and Production Capability

It now seems unlikely that the P5+1 countries of the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany can reach a comprehensive agreement with Iran by the end of November. A final agreement remains a possibility, but it seems far more likely that if an agreement is not reached, the negotiations will be extended rather than abandoned all together. The question then arises as to how to judge the outcome of this set of negotiations, be it an actual agreement, an extension, or the collapse of the negotiations.

So far, most analyses of the negotiations have focused on the key features of Iran’s various enrichment efforts and its ability to acquire fissile material. These include:
•    The number of centrifuges,
•    The development of more advanced centrifuges,
•    The level of Uranium enrichment and the size of Iran’s stockpiles,
•    The potential use of the new reactor at Arak to produce Plutonium,
•    How soon Iran could use any of these to get enough material to produce a nuclear device,
•    The extent to which any agreement dealing with all of these issues is enforceable,
•    How long an agreement will be in force, and
•    The incentives to Iran for reaching an agreement, especially the extent to which UN, US, and EU sanctions will be lifted, and the timing of such action.

These are all important issues, but they are only part of the efforts aimed at ensuring Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons and discouraging other regional states to seek nuclear weapons. They also focus relatively narrowly on Iran’s approach to the “break out” point in acquiring nuclear weapons, rather than its ability to actually produce and deploy nuclear weapons. Main studies focus on how soon Iran could get enough fissile material to produce one major fissile event, and not Iran’s ability to actually produce a meaningful amount of nuclear bombs and missile warheads.

Looking Beyond Enrichment and Plutonium
It is important to remember that the primary goal of the negotiations is not to roll back Iranian enrichment technology, but rather to prevent Iran from actually producing and deploying nuclear weapons. Any agreement that convincingly prevents Iran from actually building and deploying nuclear weapons would meet the security needs of both the US and our regional allies. An agreement – or drawn-out negotiation process – that delays Iranian enrichment activity but allows Iran to conduct centrifuge development and complete the design of a nuclear weapon would not meet US security needs.

The collapse of negotiations – or the conclusion that Iran is simply stalling and seeking to break out of sanctions – raises a different set of issues. It would immediately raise the issue of how close Iran really is to developing, producing, and deploying nuclear weapons and a nuclear force. It would have to look beyond the issue of fissile material and consider three critical factors: the reaction time the US and its allies would have to use preventive strikes; create new defenses; and/or create a suitable deterrent.

The Issue is the Bomb
In all three cases, questions arise as to how far Iran has moved towards a bomb, whether it would need to carry out a major fissile test or tests, how much covert research and development activity it still needs, and how well the US and its allies can detect such actions and future covert fissile material production efforts – critical considerations in judging IAEA inspection and verification capabilities, as well.

These are all issues addressed in a new analysis by the Burke Chair at the CSIS. This analysis is entitled Assessing a Deal or Non-deal with Iran: The Critical Issue of Iran’s Progress in Weapons Research, development, and Production Capability, and is available on the CSIS web site at

Among other conclusions, this study shows that Iran has failed to comply in any meaningful way with detailed IAEA requirements to address what seems to be compelling evidence that it has a nuclear weapons program, that it has made major progress in design a weapon, and that it intended to arm its missiles with nuclear warheads.

It also shows that the US has never publically addressed these issues in its unclassified intelligence reporting, or discussion of any agreement, in spite of their critical importance in assessing any agreement. In fact, the November 2014 deadline will likely pass without any meaningful public assessment of how far has Iran progressed in nuclear weapons design, how much necessary development work it could covertly do in spite of an agreement, or what the US estimate is of how long Iran would need to develop and deploy nuclear weapons versus simply produce fissile material.

Judging the Success or Failure of a Final Agreement
These issues are critical to judging a final agreement. At best, any meaningful arms control agreement must be based on the principle of “trust but verify.” For all the reasons set forth in this analysis, there is no basis for trust in any aspect of Iran’s weapons related activities. This will evidently be true whether an agreement is reached, the negotiations are extended, or the negotiations collapse.

At present, however, a successful negotiation would mean that key aspects of an agreement would take part in some kind of classified and non-public annex and focus on fissile material production or rely on some future level of inspection and verification with no agreed baseline as to how far Iran has moved towards designing and being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

Delay would mean going forward with no picture of how far Iran has already gotten, how dependent it is on visible actions like actual fissile or weapons tests for success, and how long Iran would need to develop a meaningful nuclear strike capability. It also would mean going forward without any serious public US assessment of how dependent Iran’s missile program are an deploying nuclear weapons or the extent to which a nuclear-armed force is critical to deterring preventive/preemptive strikes or US and Gulf escalation to major conventional strikes on Iran if Iran should conduct a major military action like using its asymmetric forces to try to bloc petroleum exports out of the Gulf.

At the same time, the lack of such data means that many judgments based solely on Iran’s theoretical ability to acquire fissile material may grossly exaggerate the speed with which Iran can acquire a meaningful nuclear capability, and the need for preventive strikes.

In summary, the November deadline will occur, one way or another, without a proper basis for judging the result, in part because of Iran and in part because of a failure by the US government to lay the proper ground work for any unclassified judgment of Iran’s activities and future requirements, and the ability to verify an agreement.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy