15 July 2015, NYT: Deal Reached on Iran Nuclear Program; Limits on Fuel Would Lessen With Time
OCT. 17, 2015
Now the Hardest Part: Making the Iran Deal Work
By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
WASHINGTON -- Iranian engineers on Sunday are expected to begin executing one of the largest and most complex projects of nuclear dismantlement in history. They have to mothball 12,000 nuclear centrifuges, ship more than 12 tons of low-enriched fuel -- 98 percent of Iran's stockpile -- out of the country and destroy the core of a giant plutonium reactor.
The engineers insist they will finish the job in record time in order to get the more than $100 billion in sanctions relief promised in the nuclear agreement  Iran signed last summer  with the United States and five other nations. But others in their country are not likely to hear or read much about what they are doing.
To win passage of the deal, Iran's leaders talked almost exclusively about how the West had backed down on sanctions; they made little mention of the steps Iran would have to take to have the sanctions removed, including details of the dismantlement that they have deliberately left vague.
The shipping of fuel out of the country, for example, has been described as a "fuel swap" for face-saving purposes. And most members of Iran's Parliament were left largely in the dark on the details of what must be dismantled before Iranian ships can resume presanctions levels of oil shipments and Iranian firms can once again process financial transactions around the globe.
So the arrival on Sunday of "adoption day" -- the day the much-disputed accord finally takes effect -- hardly ends the bitter politics that have surrounded the Iran deal. Whether it is a historic success and a major part of President Obama's legacy or a failure could be determined by whether the work of carrying out the deal is marked by strife over what constitutes compliance and what constitutes cheating.
Each side fears that the next few weeks and months will be fraught with possibilities for disagreement and cheating around the edges.
"We exhausted all the bad options except for war," Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said two weeks ago in New York, during a stay that included meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and a handshake  with Mr. Obama that set off an outcry against Mr. Zarif in the Iranian news media. But when asked about threats in Congress to find new ways to place sanctions, Mr. Zarif said, "We are worried."
His concern is that if the United States finds any excuse to impose sanctions under another guise -- mostly for Iran's support of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria or of Hezbollah -- Iran will react by suspending work to dismantle its nuclear program. The Iranian legislation approving the bill calls for continuous monitoring of the American sanctions relief and for appropriate responses.
Nonetheless, Mr. Zarif also promised that the work of dismantlement would be done by the end of November.
To pacify hard-liners who oppose the whole idea of the dismantlement, Tehran over the past week has test-launched a medium-range ballistic missile that the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said Friday was "a clear violation" of a Security Council resolution. At a Friday news conference,  Mr. Obama said that while "Iran has often violated some of the prohibitions surrounding missile testing," the recent agreement solved a separate problem of "making sure that they don't possess a nuclear weapon."
Playing to its domestic audience, Iranian television recently took viewers on a tour of a previously secret underground missile site, and an Iranian court convicted a Washington Post reporter  on dubious espionage charges, with not-so-subtle hints that he could be traded for Iranians imprisoned in the United States.
What Iranian officials have not done is talk up the details of what dismantlement might look like, even to their own legislature. One hard-liner in Parliament who seemed to have a grasp of those details threatened to kill the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, who had negotiated the specifics with the United States energy secretary, Ernest J. Moniz,  and to bury Mr. Salehi's body "in the cement of the Arak heavy-water reactor."
Iran expects sanctions to be lifted as soon as it has completed the major tasks. Mr. Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani know that if Iranians are to see the benefits of sanctions relief by the time of elections next March -- seen as a referendum on the Rouhani government -- the slow process of freeing up the money must begin almost immediately.
History suggests it may take much longer. South Africa took nine years to dismantle most of its nuclear program, which had even produced atom bombs before its end was ordered in 1990. The main effort was completed with the decommissioning of an enrichment plant in 1999.
Iran, which denies that it ever sought to make nuclear weapons, is stopping short of that: Natanz, Iran's main enrichment site, will remain open, with 5,000 centrifuges. But the country will not have enough fuel on hand to make a single weapon, at least for the first 15 years of the accord.
That significance, however, may well be judged in the coming months by the answers to two major questions: how transparent the Iranians are with the International Atomic Energy Agency about past work on suspected weapons programs, and how open they are to inspections the agency may demand.
Thursday was the deadline for the Iranians to turn over detailed answers on twelve activities that the international agency found suspect going back to 2003, when American intelligence estimates say the country had a full-scale weapons program underway.
For years, Iranian officials have ducked the questions, arguing that they are based on documents fabricated by Israel and the United States and that Iran's experiments have been for peaceful purposes. Mr. Kerry seemed to suggest early last summer that he was less interested in forcing Iran to admit to what it had done in the past than he was in assuring what it does not do in the future.
Then there is the issue of inspections. The agency was sharply criticized  in Congress for agreeing to an arrangement at one long-suspect military site that involved Iranian officials' taking their own samples from soil and equipment and turning them over for testing. Also under the accord, no military site is excluded, but the Iranian parliamentary approval of the deal gives a small council, populated by hard-liners, the responsibility to review every agency request for access.
Meanwhile, the agency's overstretched inspection staff is supposed to monitor the Natanz and Fordo enrichment plants, both buried deep underground to thwart attackers. At Natanz alone, over 10,000 centrifuges will be put into monitored storage, reducing the number installed there by more than two-thirds.
Piping and electrical gear from the production lines will also be dismantled, to lengthen the amount of time that would be required to reconstitute the facility. That is how the United States reached its goal of assuring there would be at least a year of warning time before Iran could produce a single weapon.
At Fordo, a group of centrifuges will be converted into a production line for stable isotopes, materials that have no use in nuclear arms. That allows the Iranians to say that the facility will stay open, and the West to say that it will produce no bomb material.
The hardest job is likely to be repurposing the reactor at Arak. Engineers are to transform it from a plant for making weapons-grade plutonium, another bomb fuel, into an industrial producer of radioactive isotopes used for such purposes as diagnosing ills and treating cancer.
A senior Obama administration official, briefing reporters last month, repeatedly declined to make a firm estimate of when Iran would finish the job. "It's going to be at least months," the official said, speaking on diplomatic ground rules of anonymity. "They clearly have motivation to try to accomplish those steps as soon as possible. But look, this is a very complicated deal."