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Hamid Forutan/EPA

Obama administration confidant lays out possible Iran nuclear deal

In what some Iran watchers see as a trial balloon, Robert Einhorn shares ideas on the terms of a final deal with Tehran

Robert Einhorn, a former senior U.S. official who is well regarded by Barack Obama’s administration and retains close ties to its top nuclear negotiator, has proposed parameters for a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran that would allow it to continue enriching uranium at low levels and would ask Congress to preauthorize military action if Iran violates the accord.

Einhorn’s proposal — unveiled Monday at the Brookings Institution, where he is a senior fellow — seeks to marry Iran’s limited need for nuclear fuel to the scope of its nuclear infrastructure and provide confidence that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.

In publishing his ideas, Einhorn — who left the Obama administration less than a year ago and retains close ties to chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman and other administration officials — illustrates that the fate of a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran rests not just on the negotiators meeting in Vienna but also on how political elites in the United States and Iran approach the compromises required to reach an accord. U.S. officials have compared the process of broadening the current six-month interim agreement to solving a Rubik’s Cube, in which changing one part affects all others.

Although State Department officials have declined to comment, it is widely assumed that Einhorn showed his paper to the Obama administration before publishing it. He is among a small number of expert validators based outside the U.S. government who will shape perceptions of an agreement, particularly on Capitol Hill, as well as influence the strategy of the U.S. negotiating team. Already, members of Congress are trying to put their stamps on a potential deal, in some cases echoing Israeli demands — such as a complete end to Iranian uranium enrichment  — that Einhorn and many other U.S. experts regard as unrealistic.

“We can expect that, in a comprehensive agreement, the Iranians will insist on retaining sufficient nuclear capability to give them an option to acquire nuclear weapons at some future time,” Einhorn writes. “The challenge for the United States and its partners is to construct an agreement that makes clear to the Iranians that any effort to break out of the agreement and acquire nuclear weapons would be a detectable, lengthy and risky process that would not only fail but would inevitably result in Iran paying a very high price in terms of its national interests.”

The breakout timescale

In his technical proposals, Einhorn relies heavily on the analysis of a small Washington nonprofit, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and its president, David Albright. It has carved out a niche by estimating and publishing Iran’s breakout capability: what combination of time, centrifuges and stockpiled enriched uranium the country needs to build a nuclear bomb. Under the interim accord, Iran is estimated to have a breakout time of only two to three months.

According to ISIS, increasing the breakout timescale would require that Iran, which currently has 19,000 first-generation centrifuges installed and more than 9,000 of them operating, reduce the operational number to 2,000 to 6,000, cap stockpiled near-20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride gas at 100 kilograms and restrict its stock of lower enriched (3.5 percent) uranium hexafluoride to 500 to 1,500 kilograms. The figures vary if Iran is allowed to use more advanced centrifuges.

Other elements of an acceptable deal, according to Einhorn, would:

Convert the underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordow into an research and development facility for testing more advanced centrifuges and conducting other nuclear research. Centrifuges there now would be removed to monitored storage.

Modify a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak to greatly reduce its production of plutonium — another potential bomb fuel — by converting it into a light water reactor, fueling it with enriched uranium or reducing its power level. “Fueling the reactor with enriched uranium would make it more capable of producing medical isotopes than the original” planned facility, Einhorn writes. 

Require even more stringent monitoring of the Iranian program than dictated by the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including “more frequent and wider access by International Atomic Energy Agency personnel, more extensive installation of surveillance and containment equipment and greater use of remote, real-time monitoring.” 

Set up procedures to ensure that any questions about Iranian compliance are “investigated and resolved expeditiously.”  

Einhorn suggests that the international community could sweeten the deal by providing technical assistance for Iran’s civilian nuclear activities. He also says there could be some flexibility about Iran’s answering questions about suspected past military activity related to the nuclear program, with sanctions phased out as Iran satisfies the concerns of the IAEA. 

Different durations

Noting that Iran wants any agreement to last for at most five years while the U.S. prefers 20 years, Einhorn suggests that different elements of the agreement could have different durations.

“Some could be permanent,” such as a ban on reprocessing spent fuel from the Arak reactor or enriching uranium above 5 percent, Einhorn writes, while other provisions, such as restrictions on the number of centrifuges and on centrifuge R&D, “could be subject to review and adjustment” after just a few years.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the report is Einhorn’s prescription for how the U.S. and the international community should react if Iran breaks the agreement. 

He suggests that the U.N. Security Council adopt a resolution stating that if Iran violates the accord, the council “would meet urgently to adopt measures necessary to head off the threat.”

The U.S. Congress, he says, should not only adopt legislation that would restore any previous sanctions that have been lifted and impose new ones but also “give the president prior authorization to use military force in the event of clear evidence that Iran has taken steps to abandon the agreement and move toward producing nuclear weapons.”

Iran is likely to protest such legislation strenuously and may have trouble swallowing other provisions that Einhorn details. But Iran, Einhorn argues, does not have a strong case to complain because of its history of violating obligations to the IAEA, the six U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed against it since 2006 and the “deep and widespread suspicions” created by its “longstanding cat-and-mouse game with the international community … The burden must be on Iran to earn the international community’s trust, not the other way around.”

So far, Iranian and U.S. officials are keeping quiet about the details of the negotiations. The Americans say talks are moving forward smoothly with near constant consultation between experts. The next round of formal meetings, in Vienna involving Sherman and political directors from the other permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and Iran, are scheduled for April 7 through 9.

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