The P5+1 and Iranian Joint Plan of Action on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program: Assessing the Details and Risks

Until now, there has been no clear official statement regarding the technical understandings that the P5+1 and Iran reached on the Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program on January 12, 2014. A White House fact sheet was issued on January 16, however, that changes this situation and provides a far more detailed outline of exactly what the understanding agreements reached by the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China, coordinated by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton) and Iran were.

The Necessary Limits to Transparency

It is important to understand that such statements do have severe limits. The political issues involved in setting clear limits to Iran’s programs are so sensitive – particularly for Iran – that all of the details on inspection and verification are not going to be publically disclosed, and there are almost certainly a number of important mutual “understandings” that will not be put in writing. This is a necessary aspect of such sensitive negotiations, but it is important to note that the White House factsheet and outside reporting on the negotiations indicate these involved trade-offs which put additional limits on Iran’s capability to actually develop and build a nuclear weapon in returning for giving Iran a continuing right to enrich uranium to the levels needed for nuclear power reactors and carry out other forms of nuclear research.

What is far more important to understand, however, is that any agreement of this kind conceals a far more important dimension. Its validity depends heavily on an intelligence duel in which the United States and its allies – with limited exchanges with the EU, IEA, China, and Russia – attempt to fully assess every aspect of Iran’s actions, intentions, and capabilities to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. Iran, in turn, has every incentive to conceal any activity relating to nuclear weapons in any form, and any data that would lead to additional limits and inspections on its nuclear programs, as well as other activities that are not related to nuclear weapons as a matter of both security and sovereignty.

This intelligence duel is a key aspect of every major arms control agreement, but it is particularly important because Iran officially denies that it has a nuclear weapons program and has a track record of covert activity dating back to the Shah's era in the early 1970s, as well as a long history of trying to conceal major nuclear facilities under its present regime. Iran’s internal politics and past statements make it almost impossible for Iran to change this position, and it would almost certainly find it far harder to negotiate an acceptable agreement if it did so.

What this means, however, is that much rides on extremely sensitive intelligence data that the U.S. compartments even within its own intelligence community, as well as the national intelligence and policies of all the other members of the P5+1. It also means that the discussions between the P+1 and Iran have to take place on the basis that Iran does not admit a nuclear weapons program, and the members of the P5+1 do not disclose sensitive intelligence sources and method to Iran, focus on arms control details whose disclosure that might help it develop nuclear weapons or better conceal its activities, or compromise national intelligence capabilities to other members of the P5+1 – including the EU, IEA, and UN.

No one outside the process can know the actual limits to transparency, but some limits are almost certain to be in place. Every participant will avoid discussion of:

  • Weapons design data that would disclose technical information Iran might use, and particularly the level of risk that Iran can quickly move from weapons grade or fissile material to an actual meaningful nuclear test and then to production of nuclear weapons. This is a key issue because -- as groups like ISIS have shown -- Iran can now go from 20% enrichment to weapons grade material relatively quickly. The key questions are now how soon it can produce a test and weapon and what level of yield, confidence, and safety it plans for.
  • Intelligence on Iran’s progress in weapons design, and the level of data it may have obtained from other countries or outside sources.
  • Data on possible undisclosed Iranian activities, additional undeclared facilities, concealment and deception efforts, and contingency plans for dealing with inspections and preventive attacks.
  • Iranian activities relating to the design and modification of weapons delivery systems, deployment of a nuclear armed force, and strategy for using such a force – including missile and aircraft modifications and telemetry.
  • Data that would disclose the level of knowledge and specifics of Iranian activities that could lead Iran to new concealment activity and affect the capability to carry out preventive strikes if negotiations fail.
  • Sensitive data on Iranian efforts to conceal key import, purchasing, and domestic RDT&E and manufacturing activity.
  • Sensitive data on key Iranian nuclear and other facilities, and special weapons-related design aspects of R&D and nuclear power and enrichment facilities including centrifuges and the heavy water reactor at Arak.
  • Sensitive data on the Parchin facility and any other Iranian activity related to the simulated test of weapons designs or actual fissile events.
  • Records and indicators that will aid in inspection and prevent Iran for concealing any significant activity.

As the SALT and START negotiations between the United States and USSR/Russia have shown, these limits are inevitable aspects of practical real world efforts to reach some form of agreement. No one shows their entire hand in an arms control negotiation any more than they would in a poker game. At the same time, arms control is the easier game to play. It does not have to be zero sum. One player or side can gain an advantage without the other side really losing, and all sides can win if the end agreement benefits them regardless of how the game is played.

Nevertheless, each point is will be an area where the United States, the other members of the P5+1, and Iran will present major areas of uncertainty to both the other players in the negotiations and to outsiders. In each case, the negotiations will continue to involve necessary risks in terms of transparency -- risks that only a radically different level of mutual trust could change. The real game behind the negotiations has to be “spy, conceal, assess, and verify.” As in the case of SALT and START, the word “trust” in the phrase “trust but verify” will be little more than empty rhetoric.

The Broad Terms of the Joint Plan of Action

This does not mean, however, that the Joint Plan of Action will not work, or that it is not defined well enough to assess its broad value if one assumes that it will be verified and enforced, and the United States and other members of the P5+1 act decisively to restore sanctions and take punitive measures if Iran violates it.

The White House statement describes the Plan’s broad goals as follows:

The Joint Plan of Action marks the first time in nearly a decade that the Islamic Republic of Iran has agreed to specific actions that stop the advance of its nuclear program, roll back key aspects of the program, and include unprecedented access for international inspectors.  The technical understandings set forth how the provisions of the Joint Plan of Action will be implemented and verified, and the timing of implementation of its provisions.  Specifically, the technical understandings specify the actions that Iran will take to limit its enrichment capacity at Natanz and Fordow, as well as the limits on safeguarded research and development (R&D); the actions Iran will take to implement its commitments not to fuel the Arak reactor or install remaining components at the reactor; and the actions Iran will take to facilitate International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification and confirmation that Iran is fully implementing these commitments.  The understandings also clarify the reciprocal actions that the P5+1 and the EU will take.

 Between now and January 20th, Iran, the IAEA, the United States, and our international partners, will take the remaining required steps to begin implementing the Joint Plan of Action on that date.

These goals cover every key area of activity that affects Iran’s capability to build and deploy nuclear weapons, and set clear near term goals for IEA reporting that will describe the current situation in Iran in each key area.

What Iran Has Committed To Do and What It Means: Uranium Enrichment

 The statement notes that,

On January 20th, the IAEA will report on the current status of Iran’s nuclear program, and particularly on its uranium enrichment program and the Arak reactor.  The IAEA will also report on several specific steps that Iran has committed to take by or on the first day of implementation, including:
  • Halting production of near-20% enriched uranium and disabling the configuration of the centrifuge cascades Iran has been using to produce it.
  • Starting to dilute half of the near-20% enriched uranium stockpile that is in hexafluoride form, and continuing to convert the rest to oxide form not suitable for further enrichment.
  • In addition, over the course of the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA will verify that Iran is:       o   Not enriching uranium in roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, including all next generation centrifuges.
    o   Limiting its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran cannot use the six-month period to stockpile centrifuges.
    o   Not constructing additional enrichment facilities.
    o   Not going beyond its current enrichment R&D practices.
  • Iran has also committed to a schedule for taking certain actions during the six-month period.  This includes:
    o   Completion of dilution of half of its stockpile of near-20% uranium hexafluoride in three months, and completion of conversion of the rest of that material to oxide in six months.
    o   A cap on the permitted size of Iran’s up to 5% enriched uranium stockpile at the end of the six-month period.

 If Iran complies with these terms, if the IEA carries out inspection of all declared facilities, and if the United States and other members of the P5+1 provide the intelligence to ensure that Iran is “not constructing additional enrichment facilities,” Iran will not be able to develop and deploy functioning Uranium nuclear weapons.

The practical limits to the scope of the agreement are that Iran will preserve its enrichment activity at the 5% level, and will keep major facilities intact.  It will be able to develop and rest more advanced centrifuges, and it could create new facilities that could be used for future enrichment activity as long as it did not actually deploy nuclear related equipment.

The 5% enrichment activity seems to be an acceptable compromise as long as Iran does not have undeclared covert facilities and the IEA verifies its activities at declared facilities. No agreement to avoid some form of centrifuge is verifiable any more than research and development into many other weapons components.

What Iran Has Committed To Do and What It Means: Plutonium Production

In addition, the statement notes that Iran’s actions include,

  • Not commissioning or fueling the Arak reactor.
  • Halting the production and additional testing of fuel for the Arak reactor.
  • Not installing any additional reactor components at Arak.
  • Not transferring fuel and heavy water to the Arak reactor site.
  • Not constructing a facility capable of reprocessing.  Without reprocessing, Iran cannot separate plutonium from spent fuel.

These steps preclude Iran from moving forward in creating a reactor at Arak that will allow it to produce fissile Plutonium unless it cannibalizes the fuel in its power reactor at Bushehr – steps it has already agreed it will not take and allow IEA inspection to verify as part of the NNPT. The only possible exception is to create another plutonium production capable reactor – a measure that will have to be addressed later in reaching a Comprehensive Agreement.

Verification Mechanisms and Transparency and Monitoring

The White House fact sheet also states that the Joint Plan of Action will lead to a radical improvement in verification and the role of the IEA. It includes the following steps:

  • To ensure Iran is fulfilling its commitments, the IAEA will be solely responsible for verifying and confirming all nuclear-related measures, consistent with its ongoing inspection role in Iran.  In addition, the EU, P5+1 and Iran will establish a Joint Commission to work with the IAEA to monitor implementation of the Joint Plan of Action.  The Joint Commission will also work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.
  • The Joint Commission will be composed of experts of the EU, P5+1 and Iran, and it will convene at least monthly to consider the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action and any issues that may arise.  Any decisions that are required on the basis of these discussions will be referred to the Political Directors of the EU, the P5+1, and Iran.
  • Iran committed in the Joint Plan of Action to provide increased and unprecedented transparency into its nuclear program, including through more frequent and intrusive inspections as well as expanded provision of information to the IAEA.
  • The Iranian enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow will now be subject to daily IAEA inspector access as set out in the Joint Plan of Action (as opposed to every few weeks).  The IAEA and Iran are working to update procedures, which will permit IAEA inspectors to review surveillance information on a daily basis to shorten detection time for any Iranian non-compliance.  In addition, these facilities will continue to be subjected to a variety of other physical inspections, including scheduled and unannounced inspections.
  • The Arak reactor and associated facilities will be subject to at least monthly IAEA inspections – an increase from the current inspection schedule permitting IAEA access approximately once every three months or longer.
  • Iran has also agreed to provide for the first time:
    o    Long-sought design information on the Arak reactor;
    o    Figures to verify that centrifuge production will be dedicated to the replacement of damaged machines; and
    o    Information to enable managed access at centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities, and uranium mines and mills.
  • These enhanced monitoring measures will enable the IAEA to provide monthly updates to the Joint Commission on the status of Iran’s implementation of its commitments and enable the international community to more quickly detect breakout or the diversion of materials to a secret program.

These steps cover every weapons related activity in IEA reporting and that the United States and other members of the P5+1 have cited as suspect.  They do not explicitly commit Iran to accepting challenge inspections, but they do commit Iran to, “provide increased and unprecedented transparency into its nuclear program, including through more frequent and intrusive inspections as well as expanded provision of information to the IAEA.”

Here, the role of the Joint Commission, and strong P5+1 demands for Iran’s compliance in the case of suspect facilities and activities will be critical. The only way to determine how well this will work, however, is to try it.

If Iran does show it will work with the IAEA and with the strengthened team of IEA inspectors mentioned in IAEA discussion – but not in the White House statement – this would effectively give the IEA inspectors the equivalent of challenge inspection authority. It would also allow the IAEA to extend coverage of Iran on a nation-wide level. Given the Joint Commission’s ability to draw on U.S. and other P5+1 intelligence, this might well be far more effective than preventive strikes in limiting Iranian activities.

What is Not Addressed in Limiting Iran’s Actions

It is unclear how comprehensive the fact sheet is in describing all of the limits on Iran. For example, it does not mention the fact Iran has evidently agreed to inspection and disclosure regarding its facility at Parchin. This is critical because some sources indicate it was designed to test the conventional explosives used in nuclear weapons, and might have been a specialized facility for testing actual nuclear weapons design that did not use fissile material—critical tests in confirming the behavior of the complex shaping and triggering of the conventional explosive used in implosion weapons, the behavior of neutron initiators, probable yield, and the safety of nuclear designs.

As yet, no source has indicated that Iran has made a new commitment to not develop designs for nuclear weapons and carry out the necessary practical research to test such designs and their components short of a fissile event beyond the commitment Iran had already made when it ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). The commitment Iran made in ratifying the  NNPT is so broad, however, that the Joint Commission could call for clarification and inspection of virtually any related Iranian activity and test Iranian reactions and compliance with the spirit of the Joint Plan of Action.

Once again, no agreement can be meaningful if the P5+1 is unwilling to act. Moreover, no form of preventive strikes could credibly stop Iran from this kind of covert weapons-related activity – particularly if most activities are compartmented, widely dispersed, and carried out as legitimate civil programs. There are some aspects of the technology base for nuclear weapons that cannot be controlled or targeted with any confidence.

What the P5+1 and EU Have Committed To Do

It is also important to note that the Joint Plan of Action calls for early action on the part of Iran, but carefully times the incentives the P5+1 will provide for Iranian compliance. The White House statement notes that:

As part of this initial step, the P5+1 and EU will provide limited, temporary, and targeted relief to Iran.  The total value of the relief is between $6 and $7 billion – a small fraction of the $100 billion in Iranian foreign exchange holdings that will continue to be blocked or restricted.  Some relief will be provided from the first day; most will be provided in installments over the span of the entire six-month period.  The relief is structured so that the overwhelming majority of the sanctions regime, including the key oil, banking, and financial sanctions architecture, remains in place – and sanctions will continue to be vigorously implemented throughout the six-month period.

Once the IAEA has confirmed Iran is implementing its commitments, in return the P5+1 and EU have committed to do the following on the first day of implementation:

  • Suspend the implementation of sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports and Iran’s imports of goods and services for its automotive manufacturing sector.
  • Suspend sanctions on Iran’s import and export of gold and other precious metals, with significant limitations that prevent Iran from using its restricted assets overseas to pay for these purchases.
  • License expeditiously the supply of spare parts and services, including inspection services, for the safety of flight of Iran’s civil aviation sector.
  • Pause efforts to further reduce purchases of crude oil from Iran by the six economies still purchasing oil from Iran.
  • Facilitate the establishment of a financial channel intended to support humanitarian trade that is already permitted with Iran and facilitate payments for UN obligations and tuition payments for students studying abroad.
  • Modify the thresholds for EU internal procedures for the authorization of financial transactions.

The P5+1 and EU have also committed to take certain actions to facilitate Iran’s access to $4.2 billion in restricted Iranian funds on a set schedule at regular intervals throughout the six months. 
Access to a small portion of these funds will be linked to Iran’s progress in completing the dilution process for near-20% enriched uranium.  Iran will not have access to the final installment of the $4.2 billion until the last day of the six-month period.

The installments will be released on the schedule below, contingent on the IAEA confirming that Iran is fulfilling its commitments.

  • February 1st - $550 million (installment #1)
  • March 1st - $450 million (contingent on the IAEA confirming that Iran has completed dilution of half of the stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium it is required to dilute)
  • March 7th - $550 million (installment #2)
  • April 10th - $550 million (installment #3)
  • April 15th - $450 million (contingent on the IAEA confirming that Iran has completed dilution of its entire stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium it is required to dilute)
  • May 14th - $550 million (installment #4)
  • June 17th - $550 million (installment #5)
  • July 20th - $550 million (installment #6 is on day 180) (contingent on the IAEA confirming that Iran has fulfilled all of its commitments)

These steps must be kept in the perspective that the CIA estimates that Iran has a GDP close to a trillion U.S. dollars, and that its exports were some $144.9 billion in 2011 before the new sanctions kicked in, and were $67 billion in 2012. They will have a limited and phased impact and also do not prevent the P5+1 – and particularly the United States and EU -- from being ready to immediately re-impose and strengthen sanctions if Iran does not fully comply with the Joint Plan of Action through June 20, 2014, or reach and implement a comprehensive agreement.

At the same time, they demonstrate to Iran that it has real incentive for complying and might well be a “winner” in terms of its economy, development, and ability to pursue any real interest in peaceful nuclear power.

The installment deadlines can also be combined with the monthly meetings of the Joint Commission to create key benchmarks for judging Iran’s actions and reacting accordingly.  Once again, if the P5+1 acts in meeting its responsibilities under the Joint Plan of Action - and provides suitable reporting - this creates a structure that the Congress, other legislatures in the P5+1, and media and analysts can use to judge progress on a monthly basis, rather than wait for June 20th.

Movement Towards a “Comprehensive Solution”

 The White House Fact Sheet does not say anything about the further steps to be taken in reach a final agreement or comprehensive solution by June 20, 2014. It limits its comments to the following:

With this implementation plan, we have made concrete progress.  We will now focus on the critical work of pursuing a comprehensive resolution that addresses our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.  Shortly after the Joint Plan of Action takes effect on January 20th, the United States will determine with our P5+1 partners our approach to the comprehensive solution.  Discussions with Iran will follow that coordination process.

With respect to the comprehensive solution, nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.  We have no illusions about how hard it will be to achieve this objective, but for the sake of our national security and the peace and security of the world, now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.

This seems to be the only realistic approach to take towards moving forward to a Comprehensive Solution. Setting more detailed criteria now would mean trying to prejudge what the P5+1, IEA, and Iran learn over the next six months. It might lead to the wrong demands and criteria for a Comprehensive Solution, and confront Iran at a domestic political level before it is clear to Iran – and its people – that the negotiations can offer major benefits that more than offset the problems caused by compliance. It would almost certainly help Iran’s “hardliners” and undercut the ability of its “moderates” to successfully negotiate.

Note: This assessment quotes from, and is based upon, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Summary of Technical Understandings Related to the Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program, January 16, 2014,

For detailed CSIS studies of the issues involved see:

  • The Gulf Military Balance, Volume II: The Missile and Nuclear  Dimensions and Options for Deterrence, Defense, Containment, and Preventive Strikes
  • U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition Sanctions, Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change

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

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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