The Iran Accord: Profoundly, and Primarily, Symbolic

The principal benefit of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 nations on November 23 is that Iran and the United States were able to down to talk and reach an agreement on something. Given 33 years of estrangement and non-communication, this is an extraordinarily important development — nearly equivalent to the U.S. breakthrough to China — perhaps the signal achievement of the Nixon administration.

The profound symbolism of the moment more than outweighs the lighter substantive elements of the temporary agreement. The United States and its partners appeared tough and got very little. Iran appeared tough and gave up very little. Both sides saved face. This is the essence of a successful agreement. No one “won” and no one “lost.”

Iranians have been both sincere and clever in the negotiations. They played up to the insubstantial straw-man accusations promulgated by the U.S. and its partners, making them seem weightier than they were in reality. By yielding to the P5+1 demands, in essence Iran has allowed itself to be persuaded to stop temporarily doing what it never intended to do — make a nuclear weapon. The bottom line is that Iran did not give up very much in the negotiations, (but it didn’t gain very much either).

Reviewing the terms of the agreement in conjunction with the reality on the ground in Iran, one can see how easy it was for Iran’s negotiators to agree to these terms.

Low Enriched Uranium

Iran’s enrichment of uranium was the crux of the matter. The United States and its allies had fetishized Iran’s uranium enrichment program. They had made the improbable leap that having enriched uranium would immediately lead to a nuclear weapon. This is an immense mistake — so large that one must suspect that it is essentially hyped for public consumption. The public has certainly been convinced of this.

However, Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile cannot be used for any military purpose, short of the rather improbable construction of a “dirty bomb” — a conventional warhead containing radioactive material, not to explode, but to pollute. Such a primitive weapon has no practical use. Under the agreement, Iran would cease adding to this stockpile.

Under the agreement, Iran will be allowed to continue to enrich uranium at less than 5 percent purity — a concession that preserves Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to peaceful nuclear development — its fundamental demand going into the talks.

High Enriched Uranium

Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would be eliminated through conversion to fuel plates for use in a research reactor or oxidized. It could then not be further enriched or weaponized in any way. This seems like a major concession, but when one understands why Iran was enriching to the 20 percent level to begin with, it is less so.

Iran has a research reactor, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) that produced medical isotopes for the treatment of cancer. The reactor had been supplied by the United States in 1967. The United States at that time provided weapons grade fuel for running the reactor. Iran was running out of 20 percent fuel, and was expected to deplete the supply entirely by 2011. Iran tried to broker a deal for more 20 percent fuel with the United States. A preliminary agreement was reached on October 1, 2010. The United States reneged on the agreement. Iran then began enriching its own uranium to the 19.75% level — technically below the high-enriched uranium threshold of 20%. After converting part of this this indigenously produced fuel into non-weaponizeable reactor plates, it was introduced into the TRR in February, 2012. The November 23 agreement will allow Iran to do what it was going to do anyway, and finish converting the rest of its 19.75 percent fuel into non-weaponizable reactor plates.

Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor

The agreement requires Iran not to activate its new small heavy water research reactor in Arak. This small reactor was known to nuclear inspectors for some time, but because it contained no fissile material, it was not required to be monitored. The reactor was suddenly seized upon by Israel and later by French Prime Minister François Hollande as a “path to plutonium” — a massive over-reaction. This was quickly echoed and exaggerated in the press. The Christian Science Monitor suggested that this facility was in truth a “red herring” in the negotiations.

The reactor has faced considerable delays in construction and is not scheduled to open until 2016. It will produce a small amount of electricity, but it is designed to eventually supplement then replace the TRR, producing medical isotopes. Plutonium can be extracted from spent fuel rods, but only if there is a completely new facility constructed to so this. Iran has no such facility. If Iran were to decide to make a weapon from this extracted plutonium, it would then need a third facility. Additionally, as former IAEA nuclear inspector Robert Kelley points out: “the reactor doesn’t do anything without fuel, and so if you don’t have fuel, the reactor doesn’t run. If the reactor doesn’t run, it doesn’t make plutonium.”

All of this time, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be monitoring the use of the fissile material. Parallels with India, Pakistan and Israel , who did use heavy-water reactors to extract plutonium and build bombs are inaccurate, because as non-signatories to the NPT, the actions of these nations were not monitored.

Building a Bomb?

There is a strange irony in President Obama’s announcement of the temporary agreement. He mentioned the term “nuclear weapon” multiple times in his announcement, implying that Iran was on a path to develop such a weapon. One wonders if he actually believes this or if his repeated implied accusation was a rhetorical device designed to placate his hard-line critics.

The president must know by this time that there is no evidence that Iran has or ever had a nuclear weapons program. Every relevant intelligence agency in the world has verified this fact for more than a decade. Two U.S. National Intelligence Estimates that were made public in 2007 and 2011 underscored this. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also consistently asserted that Iran has not diverted any nuclear material for any military purpose.

Even Israeli intelligence analysts agree that Iran is “not a danger” to Israel. Typical is ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy who said on March 16 this year that Iran “will not make it to the bomb,” and that Israel’s existence “is not in danger and shouldn’t be questioned.”

What Iran Gets in Return

Though Iran is not giving up very much in the November 23 agreement, it is also not receiving a great deal in return. It will receive 6 to 7 billion dollars’ worth of sanctions relief, more than 4 billion of which is money already owed to Iran in oil revenues, but frozen. In addition, Iran has saved face; it did not give up on its inalienable right to enrich uranium as guaranteed in the NPT. This may be enough to placate hardliners in the Islamic Republic who have objected to dealings with the United States and its allies in the past.

There will be some good feelings both in Washington and Tehran that this astonishingly long impasse has finally been broken. Could either side have gotten more from these talks? Probably not. In fact the limited gains for both sides may well be a sign of the success of the negotiations.

The vitriolic nay-sayers trying to torpedo these talks in both capitals and elsewhere have been thwarted for the moment, but they will certainly begin condemning this process immediately. However, leaders in both nations should flatly ignore them. The world can only hope that this small accord will lead to more substantive rapprochement in the near future.

UPDATE (25 Nov)

1. I probably should not have even raised the idea of a “dirty bomb” made from low-enriched uranium. It is a really crazy idea–but one that has been widely used as a rhetorical device in the press attacking Iran’s program. The idea that a nation would go to the trouble of building centrifuges and enriching uranium only to pack it into a warhead to spew radioactive material, and not very lethal material at that, defies logic.

2. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007 asserted that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program after 2003. Numerous people have questioned whether the NIE had evidence of Iran having such a weapons program before 2003, and the NIE was silent on this issue. I am informed that Iran was in fact contemplating nuclear weapons in the late 1980′s. Iran and Iraq fought a debilitating war from 1980-88 and Iraq was suspected of having or being in the process of developing nuclear weapons.

3. There is a typo in the original article. Iran HAS (not had) the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) at present. It is aging but still active.

4. The Arak Heavy Water reactor is not accurately described as “small” It will be a large reactor by international standards. It was designed in the 1980′s, so it has been in development. Its stated purpose to the IAEA is to serve as a research reactor for generation of medical and scientific radioisotopes. The Iranian government states that it will also generate a small amount of electricity.

William O. Beeman is a Professor, Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. During 2013-2014 he will be a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Anthropology, Stanford University. Read other articles by William, or visit William's website.