With little fanfare, Iran has taken faster steps than required to comply with an interim nuclear deal that substantially limits its capacity to make a nuclear weapon.
Today, the United Nations nuclear watchdog reported that Iran has significantly reduced its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium – the material that is a few technical steps from bomb-grade – and is ahead of schedule to completely dispose of remaining stocks by mid-July.
Iran has two incentives to move quickly on the terms of the deal, which took force on Jan. 20. It is eager to show it can abide by all its nuclear commitments, as Iran and world powers begin drafting a comprehensive nuclear deal after three rounds of talks, with a fourth due to begin on May 13. It also wants the release of $4.2 billion in frozen oil sale funds, part of a package of eased sanctions worth a total of $7 billion incorporated in the six-month initial agreement.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has completely diluted half its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to lower levels. It has also converted more than half the remaining stockpile for use as nuclear fuel – rendering it almost useless for any weapon application.
That means Iran has cut by some 75 percent a stockpile that stood just above 200 kilograms in January. That was already below the 250 kilograms necessary to make a single nuclear device if enriched further to above 90 percent purity. The details of the monthly IAEA update were reported by the Associated Press and Reuters from Vienna, though the report has not yet been made public.
On the negative side of the ledger, the IAEA notes a delay in opening a facility to turn Iran’s far larger stockpile of low-enriched uranium into oxide for fuel, according to Reuters. That delay is not expected to prevent Iran from meeting conversion targets by July.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has said it is in Iran’s interest to prove to the world that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons, and has promised his countrymen that if Iran does so, crippling sanctions will be lifted in a final deal.
Yet Mr. Rouhani has come under fire from hardliners who fear that any negotiated deal with the P5+1 group – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – is an unacceptable compromise of Iran’s “rights.”
The two sides remain far apart on several key issues. “A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage,” Iran and the P5+1 stated jointly after the third Vienna round last week.
American analysts have suggested that Iran’s current levels of 19,000 installed centrifuges should be pared down in any final deal to perhaps 2,000 to 3,000, and be more strictly monitored.
Iranian officials have suggested in recent days that Iran’s future needs for peaceful nuclear energy production might instead require an expansion to perhaps 50,000 centrifuges.
Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given unprecedented support to Iran’s current negotiating team. But he has also questioned whether a final deal can be reached, and over the past week issued a list of his own “red lines” in the talks.
Without specifying numbers or capabilities, Mr. Khamenei’s points included “no halt to scientific research” and “no bargains over Iran’s nuclear achievements.”