The recent unveiling of a framework for future talks about Iran’s nuclear program has some hailing it as a great step towards an Iran without nuclear weapons, while others believe giving Iran any nuclear capability is a step in the wrong direction. While this framework represents significant progress, it does not go far enough in denying Iran the infrastructure necessary for a bomb if they were to withdraw from the agreement after it is implemented. In order to eliminate this possibility, any final deal must include provisions permanently closing Iranian uranium mines and converting the Arak heavy water reactor to a light water reactor.
While the current framework reduces the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran, it allows the Iranians to continue mining uranium from its Gachin, Yazd and Saghand mines, essentially granting them unlimited access. Although uranium is a necessary component of peaceful nuclear enrichment and research, the Iranians should not be allowed to access domestic sources of uranium on their own terms and in unlimited supply. Keeping these mines open, even with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversight, allows for the possibility of extracting unlimited quantities of uranium. If the deal does not hold, Iranians will continue to have access to this uranium, which can be used to supply future weapons programs.
In order to limit Iran’s accessibility to domestic uranium and ensure proper international oversight, the final deal must include a provision calling for the complete extraction of the uranium deposits in Iran with financial assistance from the international community. This uranium can then be sold on the international market, which will financially benefit Iran. The depth of Iran’s mines increases the operating costs of extraction, making Iranian uranium more expensive than the cost of uranium on the international market. Therefore, international assistance with extraction will lower operating costs while providing Iran with added financial benefit. This is a win-win situation for Iran because they will be able to sell uranium for a profit and have access to cheaper sources of uranium from the international market. While this may slightly limit Iranian access to uranium, it will allow them to access it at a cheaper cost.
But it also grants the international community increased oversight over Iran’s nuclear program, even if Iran chooses not to follow the agreement. At any given time, the world will know just how much uranium is in Iran. If Iran fails to follow the agreement, the international community can simply stop selling them uranium, halting its nuclear program altogether. Closing Iranian uranium mines benefits all parties involved as long as the agreement is followed.
In addition to keeping Iranian uranium mines operational, the framework allows for the continued construction of the Arak heavy water reactor, which can create weapons grade plutonium. While the framework removes the core of the reactor and significantly alters its structure, the Iranians must agree to change Arak from a heavy water reactor to a light water reactor.
The main difference between heavy and light water reactors is the coolant they use. Heavy water uses a gaseous liquid while light uses plain water. This is significant because it is much easier to create weapons grade plutonium with a heavy water reactor while it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create this plutonium with light water. While a variety of resources exist to make these alterations, the Iranians have repeatedly refused to agree to them despite offers of assistance from the international community. This raises larger questions about Iran’s commitment to non-proliferation. Exchanging a heavy water reactor for a light water reactor will severely limit, if not eliminate, Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon even if the deal fails.
While the agreed framework demonstrates significant progress towards a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program, it does contain flaws. These negotiations, if successful, will let Iran produce nuclear power, but they must deny them any infrastructure that could lead to a weapon even after the agreement expires. We can reach this goal by permanently destroying Iranian uranium supplies and converting the Arak reactor to a light water facility.
While allowing Iran any nuclear capability is still in contention, any diplomatic resolution without these conditions is just not worth the risk. We must understand that the framework is not an actual agreement and that a lot of factors can change between now and June 30. While Iran seems to have persuaded the negotiators that it wants a peaceful nuclear program, it still must convince the rest of the world. After more than thirty years of mistrust on both sides, that may not be so easy.