This past week marked the first anniversary of the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark nuclear agreement reached between a U.S.-led group of six world powers and Iran. The agreement has survived its first year, with Iran scrupulously adhering to the deal’s limits on fissile material fabrication and stockpiling. But the controversy over the deal hasn’t dimmed, partly because of developments like the July 18 Associated Press report outlining an important aspect of the agreement’s uranium enrichment controls that was apparently kept hidden from the general public: In a little over a decade, the deal will grant Iran the ability to install and operate advanced centrifuges that could dramatically cut the amount of time the country would need to produce a nuclear weapon.
According to a previously secret document obtained by the AP, Iran will get a significant boost in its enrichment capacity 11 years into the agreement. “Iran can install centrifuges up to five times as efficient as the 5,060 machines it is now restricted to using,” the AP reported. “Those new models will number less than those being used now, ranging between 2,500 and 3,500, depending on their efficiency, according to the document. But because they are more effective, they will allow Iran to enrich at more than twice the rate it is doing now.”
The AP notes that “The document is the only text linked to last year’s deal between Iran and six foreign powers that hasn’t been made public, although U.S. officials say members of Congress have been able to see it.”
The document the AP describes does not conflict with the text of the JCPOA. There is no contradiction between Annex I of the JCPOA, which limits Iran to operating 5060 IR-1-model centrifuges for the first 10 years of the deal, and Iran being allowed to install advanced-model centrifuges shortly afterwards. And even with thousands of next-generation centrifuges installed, under the terms of the deal Iran cannot enrich uranium to more than 3.67% (which requires roughly half of the centrifuge revolutions needed to get uranium to 90% or bomb-grade-level enrichment), or possess more than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium during the agreement’s first 15 years. The ability to quickly accumulate enriched uranium is arguably irrelevant for a country that’s agreed to such strict stockpile and enrichment limits.
On the other hand, the AP document brings the true contours of the deal into sharper focus: In a little over a decade, the JCPOA will permit Iran to operate centrifuges capable of slicing the time needed to accumulate a single bomb’s worth of enriched uranium in half or more. As the AP reports, “The U.S. says the Iran nuclear agreement is tailored to ensure that Iran would need at least 12 months to ‘break out’ and make enough weapons grade uranium for at least one weapon. But based on a comparison of outputs between the old and newer machines, if the enrichment rate doubles, that breakout time would be reduced to six months, or even less if the efficiency is more than double, a possibility the document allows for.”
Assuming Iran had a six-month breakout capability on the eve of the JCPOA, the U.S. and its partners could potentially lose the entirety of the additional six-month breakout cushion they negotiated with Iran a mere 11 years into the deal. The AP document cuts to the core of exactly what the U.S. and its allies were getting out of Iran in exchange for removing all nuclear-related sanctions, repealing a conventional arms and ballistic missile embargo, and allowing Tehran to continue to operate its once-secret subterranean Fordow nuclear facility as a research site—among other concessions.
The AP’s document, and thus the actual content of the US’s understanding with Iran, are being publicly reported more than a year after the July 2015 announcement of the nuclear deal. But there is strong evidence that members of Congress were aware of the agreement’s actual limitations on advanced centrifuge installation. A bill on Iran deal oversight passed in May of 2015 required the Obama administration to provide Congress with all relevant documents relating to the agreement. The White House complied with this legal obligation, submitting 18 documents related to the agreement to Congress shortly after the deal was reached. One of those documents “describes how Iran’s research and development on its nuclear program, including on its centrifuges, could progress over time,” according to a July 2015 report by Tim Mak of The Daily Beast.
It’s possible that the centrifuge limitations the AP describes appeared within that document, which as Mak reports was only viewable by security clearance holders within a Secure Compartmentalized Information Facility. The fact that the White House likely upheld its statutory obligations only raises a slew of potentially thorny questions: Why couldn’t the centrifuge provisions simply have been included in the rest of the JCPOA text, which was released over a year ago? Why is it that such a materially important aspect of the agreement was concealed from public scrutiny? And did Iran, the U.S., and its partners reach any additional understandings last year that the American public still doesn’t know about?
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.