By Michael Adler
The feel-good mood engendered by promising overtures from Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama has raised hopes for a settlement in the Iranian nuclear crisis. But the devil — especially in this case — is in the details.
The nuts-and-bolts of Iran's nuclear program, and whether Tehran can give guarantees that it is not designed to make nuclear weapons will determine whether a deal with the United States is possible.
Here is a look at what Iran has achieved in a decade of intense nuclear work; what the main areas of concern are, and how the Iranian program can be reined in to give adequate guarantees that Iran does not seek the bomb.
In 2002, when Iran was discovered building two secret plants, one at Natanz to enrich uranium and the other that could make plutonium, the Islamic Republic had basically zero capability to make either of these strategic materials. Uranium and plutonium can be part of the fuel cycle that powers atomic reactors — but they are also the two main avenues toward building the explosive core of atom bombs.
Iran has pressed ahead over the past decade, building up its nuclear capabilities. It has continued even as the major powers carried out a diplomatic offensive to get Tehran to suspend both uranium enrichment and the construction of the Arak heavy-water plant, where plutonium could be produced.
The latest report from the United Nations watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency in August revealed that Iran, at its main enrichment site, Natanz, now has advanced models of centrifuge machines, which could triple the enrichment rate.
It is a testament to Iran's ability to create facts on the ground, even as it negotiates with the world's major powers, that there are now 15,416 basic centrifuges, the so-called IR-1's, installed in Natanz's huge underground bunker and 1,008 advanced centrifuges, or IR-2m's, at a pilot plant above ground, according to the IAEA. Almost 10,000 of the basic centrifuges are already enriching.
Iran has amassed a stockpile of 6,774 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (up to 5 percent), enough for several bombs. It also has 185 kilograms of medium-enriched (up to 20 percent) uranium — which is closer to weapon-grade (over 90 percent). This is still short, however, of the some 250 kilograms of 20 percent uranium needed for one bomb and which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said is Israel's red line for retaliation
Meanwhile, Iran has fully equipped a second enrichment site, at Fordow, filling the site to capacity with a complement of almost 3,000 centrifuges. Only about 700 of them are actually enriching — in this case to the medium level of 20 percent.
Iran has also been making progress on the Arak reactor, positioning the reactor vessel there. However, a planned start-up of Arak for the first quarter of 2014 has been pushed back.
The main concern of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - the six nations negotiating with Iran — is that Iran will attain a "break-out capability." This means it would have enough enriched uranium and enough centrifuge capability to make the amount of highly enriched uranium needed for a bomb. The real fear is that Tehran would do this before IAEA inspectors could alert the world, or before the world could react.
This would clear the way to Iran making a bomb and becoming a nuclear power. It is why a deal the United States and Iran worked out in October 2009 was designed to have Iran ship out enough of the enriched uranium it had then to no longer have the amount required for a first atom bomb. That deal fell apart — apparently due to disagreements in Iranian domestic politics.
Now comes Rouhani — who says he has the green light from Iran's ultimate decision-maker, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to pursue a deal with Washington. What would such a deal look like? The Iranian goal is to have its right to enrich formally recognized and to have the crippling oil, banking and other sanctions lifted.
The U.S. goal has changed over the past decade. Washington had originally wanted Iran to dismantle all its nuclear facilities. Then it accepted Iran's right to a civilian nuclear program — but said there should not be "one centrifuge turning." The big U.S. concession at this point is that it apparently would accept Iran continuing with enrichment but in a limited and closely monitored way.
Robert Einhorn, a former top State Department official on this issue, told a panel discussion in Washington earlier this month that the "U.S. goal for any agreement will be to avoid, to prevent" an Iranian break-out capability.
This would require greater transparency by Iran — allowing wider and more intrusive inspections under an IAEA procedure set out in an Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement. Besides that, Washington is talking about restrictions on Iran's nuclear work. This would be, said Einhorn, "restrictions on enrichment capacity, the number of centrifuges, the types of centrifuges … (and) stockpiles of enriched uranium."
Einhorn's list is only a rough summary of what would have to be an intensive international surveillance effort to insure that Iran would not be able to use its civilian program to make a bomb.
The danger, however, is that Iran, as it enriched, would still be perfecting its technique. With this, it would be moving closer to being able to ultimately kick out inspectors and break out to make the bomb.
Both sides must agree on how Iran's nuclear program should be monitored. Though current diplomacy may make a deal possible, it will not be easy — and success in preventing Iran from having the bomb is far from guaranteed.
(Michael Adler is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own.)