In new work we are doing on sanctions and inducements, we have been struck by the pervasive bargaining problems that arise around the issue of the reversibility or irreversibility of commitments. The Agreed Framework failed, according to its critics, because it put off the dismantlement of Yongbyon to later stages in the process; the Netanyahu critique of an Iranian freeze is similar in pointing out that it puts little crimp in Iran’s ability to break out by “racing for the bomb.”
Yet critics of a tougher posture note that the Iranians and North Koreans are not stupid: they are not going to take completely irreversible steps in advance of securing their interests either. How comfortable are we with a ticking clock and no agreement? And how much are we willing to pay for a freeze?
We can review what happened in Geneva by focusing on the two paths to fissile material—the HEU and plutonium tracks—and the quid pro quo of sanctions; we also note similarities, differences and possible precedent with respect to North Korea:
- Iran has been enriching uranium at two sites, Natanz and Fordow, and has repeatedly insisted that its right to enrich is a red line. According to the IAEA Director General’s May 2013 report, Iran has accumulated an estimated 8,960 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU, defined as up to 5%)—which can be weakly justified in terms of the long-run fueling needs of the Bushehr reactor–but also a more troubling 325 kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% that has few credible uses. Proposals for a strong freeze, such as those outlined by the Institute for Science and International Security, outline a number of steps that would need to be frontloaded to make sure the 20% enrichment activity is capped: disabling the relevant cascades; getting rid of existing stocks; capping total enrichment; halting the installation of new centrifuges; and insuring inspectors’ access to the sites, including possibly non-reported ones. Current reporting suggests that part of France’s negative reaction to the deal in Geneva centered on the disposition of existing stocks of 20% enriched uranium.
- The North Korean angle. The US and South Korea have similarly stated that any resumption of the Six Party Talks would have to see a prior commitment to a freeze of enrichment at Yongbyon, complicated by the fact that there is probably a second unknown site involved in the HEU program. This potential problem plagues an Iranian deal as well.
- The plutonium track poses greater challenges of irreversibility. Delays have plagued the start-up of the IR-40 heavy water “research” reactor at Arak, completion could be a year away and it would take still more time for the reactor to run before spent fuel rods could be extracted to produce plutonium. This has led some to argue that the issue is not as pressing as enrichment and could be dealt with in Phase II. But the reactor vessel has now been moved to the site, the reactor appears to have no other reasonable uses and is perfectly designed to generate fissile material. It would also be much more costly to take out once fuel is loaded; the Israeli strikes on the Iraqi (1981) and Syrian (2007) reactors took place before they were fueled. Israel has been particularly adamant about making sure the Iranians do not develop the plutonium track.
- The North Korean angle. The North Korean case is complicated by the fact that not only does the existing reactor need to be frozen and ultimately dismantled, but there is a new LWR under construction and the stock of existing plutonium that needs to be addressed. A 6PT freeze would need to encompass these activities as well, but leaving much more daunting tasks to the second phase.
- The New York Times has a particularly useful explanation of how reversibility and irreversibility issues affected the discussion of lifting sanctions. “The most sweeping American sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking industries were passed by Congress, giving President Obama little flexibility to lift them. That has led the Obama administration to focus on a narrower set of proposals involving Iranian cash that is frozen in overseas banks. Freeing that cash in installments, in return for specific steps by Iran, would not require the repeal of any congressional sanctions. France and other European Union countries, however, face fewer political restrictions on ending their core sanctions, which means any decision to lift them could be more far-reaching. In addition, officials said, the measures would be harder to reinstate should the talks unravel or Iran renege on its pledges.” Again, France took the hardline that the deal had to be frontloaded before sanctions were withdrawn.
- The North Korean angle. The US has been adamant it is not going to pay for the same horse twice. But the proposal for a return to the Leap Year Deal could imply aid or lifting of sanctions in return for a North Korean commitment to entertain a freeze. The willingness to show a sign of goodwill in the Iranian case is clearly driven by the recent elections and the appearance of a political turn toward accommodation. To date, the signs of such a change in North Korea are—at least to us (see here and here)—much more meager.