November 13th, 2013
09:06 AM ET

Arak reactor should be key to Iran deal

By Mark Hibbs, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mark Hibbs is a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can follow him @MarkHibbsCEIP. The views expressed are his own.

France appeared at the weekend to drive a stake into the heart of a deal that it and five other powers have been quietly negotiating with Iran to end the Iran nuclear crisis. The move didn’t prove fatal – both sides are committed to resume negotiations in Geneva on November 20. But France objected that the outline of a deal favored by the United States didn’t commit Iran to suspend work to finish a reactor at Arak, which could make bomb-grade fuel, but only not to start up the reactor during the next six months. When the powers return to Geneva to resume negotiations, they should tell Iran that an initial confidence-building agreement should freeze work on the reactor project.

Suspension would give negotiators space to forge a long-term commitment to address proliferation concerns that are shared by all the powers, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states. Under such an arrangement, Iran could receive assistance to complete the reactor with modern instrumentation, equipment, and fuel, making it safe to operate. The unfinished reactor could be replaced with a less-threatening unit, or its design could be modified to enhance nonproliferation and maximize its potential for peaceful nuclear research and medical isotope production. In return, Iran would agree not to access the reactor’s plutonium and to allow IAEA inspections in perpetuity. One of the six powers – France, perhaps – could take back the plutonium-laden spent fuel.

Without a comprehensive settlement of the crisis, the Arak project poses a proliferation threat, yet the logic of the nuclear negotiations implies that it doesn’t have to. That’s because the endgame would be an Iran whose entire nuclear program would be subject to routine but rigorous oversight to make sure everything is accounted for. Only on that basis will Iran agree to negotiate. Iran at the same time must understand that, in light of its past deceptions, it must provide greater assurances than most countries. If these conditions are met, Iran will cogently argue that it should have its reactor.

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, met with Iranian officials in Tehran on Monday, spelling out how, if Iran fully cooperates, IAEA inspectors can announce they’re satisfied that Iran’s entire nuclear program is well understood, transparent, and peaceful. The IAEA has given such a “broader conclusion” for over 50 countries. It could get to that point in Iran in a couple of years.

Iran could, for its part, take a critical step in that direction by providing the IAEA all of the reactor engineering data it needs to design an inspection regime for the Arak unit. So far, Iran has balked at doing that. Without the data, IAEA oversight will be less effective, translating into less confidence that the reactor won’t be used to secretly siphon off nuclear material to make bombs.

However, if the Arak project is not frozen by the pending confidence-building deal, Iran can complete work needed that would inhibit the IAEA from getting optimal access. In reactor projects like this elsewhere today, reactor designers instead facilitate ease of IAEA access in advance of construction.

The fact is that an agreement by Iran to simply not start up the reactor for six months wouldn’t generate additional confidence because the reactor can’t be finished that soon. Eventually, however – perhaps a year from now – Iran might finish and then operate it, using fuel Iran is now producing by hand and will continue to make during the next six to nine months unless work is halted.

In 2010, the IAEA concluded that Iran, sanctioned from access to foreign expertise, doesn’t have the wherewithal to systematically test that fuel. There may also be other safety concerns, since Iran is building the reactor without help from international safety authorities and experts.

Iran and the powers should therefore agree on November 20 that, as part of their initial agreement to build confidence, the Arak project should be suspended. That would depressurize talks to consider the long-term future of this project – without lingering concern that next year Iran will complete the reactor and operate it, obviating further negotiations on this critical issue.

If the powers negotiating with Iran mean what they say, a successful outcome will mean an Iran with a nuclear program under effective IAEA surveillance. But to get there Iran must satisfy the IAEA’s need for information to confirm that its program is peaceful. In return, the powers will have to accommodate Iran’s legitimate peaceful nuclear aspirations – including for a safe and versatile research reactor.

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Topics: Iran • Nuclear

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. JAL

    My theory about these negotiations is quite different than others. I believe that Iran and Israel will ultimately tell the world if there is an agreement or not. Their negotiations are happening and, I believe, there is a framework to become the closest of allies.

    November 13, 2013 at 9:18 am | Reply
    • George patton

      Let's all hope and pray that these negotiations get back on track, JAL. I get awfully sick and tired of reading all these blogs here posted by weak minded people who keep on screaming for another useless and unnecessary war!!! This goes to show just how many uneducated people there are around!

      November 13, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
      • saywhat

        Agree absolutely@George Patton.

        November 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Israel had been involved in the arming of Iran when the Shah was still in power. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Israel sold arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.
        The relationship between the two countries soured, when Iran supported the Hamas and the Hezbollah. and the anti-Israel rhetoric under Ahmadinejad and others in Tehran went viral. Since then, Israel has vowed to prevent Iran from building nukes.

        November 14, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • saywhat

      Pepe Escobar writing in Asia Times chronicles what transpired when France played 'stupid' on Iran.
      friday evening Pr.Obama called netanyahu to request him not to derail the negotiations. Netanyahu promptly calls Britain,germany and france to urge them to do exactly the opposite. Hollande agrees.
      Saturday morn Wendy Sherman, chief US negotiator and known Israel firster flies directly from geneva to Israel to reassure her real boss Bibi that negotiations would go no where.
      S.arabia had already bribed France with fat arms purchase deal to bomb these negotiations.

      November 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  2. Rick McDaniel

    It is my view, there will be no deal possible. Iran has not intention of giving up their quest for nuclear weapons, nor does it have any intention of using those for defensive purposes.

    November 13, 2013 at 10:18 am | Reply
    • tari

      Is your view coming from knowing too much about the nature of these negotiations or coming from ignorance?

      November 13, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply
      • Greg Keener

        It's from pure ignorance, tari. These idiots are too narrow minded to learn what really goes on now and has with the Iranians since 1953. This is why we can't have peace!

        November 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Thinker23

      I do not think that Iranian leaders are stupid. I'm pretty sure that they knew what to expect when they've initiated their nuclear weapons program despite the sanctions, the disintegration of their economy and all other consequences of their actions. It would be pretty stupid to expect Iranian leaders to abandon all these efforts in exchange for partial ease of the sanctions.

      November 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        No, the leaders aren't stupid at all. In fact the Iranians have one of the sophisticated cultures in the region.
        It's just a pity that the regime has nuclear ambition that many – Israel and the Sunni Arabs – fear. It's all about hegemony.

        November 14, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  3. allenfmackenzie

    IF this theocratic government (not the people) of Iran truly seeks energy for peaceful purposes then full transparency should not be a problem. But it is for them as we witness by their continued desire for secrecy. So, it is my conclusion is that, in the long term and according to their theological, political and psychopathic desire to eliminate Jews and create the new Caliphate, they will lie (takiyya) and subsequently continue to pursue the ability to become a nuclear power.

    November 13, 2013 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • saywhat

      ill informed remarks.

      November 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  4. saywhat

    Also read Justin Raimondo 's article "Will Israel drag us into another war?" appearing on antiwar.com.

    November 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  5. saywhat

    Just two days back Israeli intelligence sources had contradicted Bibi and congress on Iran.
    Western spy agencies and Israel intel chief has time and again stated that Iran has not even considered starting building a bomb.

    November 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  6. saywhat

    What hadn't been achieved in years was possible in these negotiations in the interest of world peace.
    And where were these nuclear arms protesters when Israel,India and Pakistan were developing them.Israel alone is sitting on a cache of 300 bombs (bigger pile than that of Britain) and with a militarily aggressive past & present.

    November 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
    • miss toronto

      how about not making announcements that 'they're going to wipe Israel off the face of the planet'.?? We tend to believe those statements these days!!

      November 18, 2013 at 12:52 am | Reply
  7. saywhat

    Time that the Intl community asserts itself against Israel & S.Arabia.

    November 13, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  8. saywhat

    American Jewish orgs like JStreet and JVP are working tirelessly to make thinking Americans voices who stand for peace and sanity heard up on the Hill. Asking the lawmakers to go for US-Iran negotiations not war.
    But the likes of McCain,Graham & co who have always been a part of the problem for this nation are thirsting for more disasters for US.

    November 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  9. saywhat

    With Ahmedinijad's departure it is imperative that netanyahu and his ultra right cohorts are booted off the political scene in Israel or peace would remain elusive.

    November 13, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • Alex279

      Events on the ground are quite te opposite: did not we just save Bibi wellcoming back of Avi Liberman after the corruption charges against the latter were dismissed with the judge expressing oppinion that what Avi did "is immoral, but not illegal"

      November 13, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  10. Alex279

    Arak reactor, also known as IR-40 is a 40MW thermal power research reactor build by Iran. It uses heavy water moderation - a kind of route to nuclear energy practiced by Canada, but nowhere else. 40MW thermal means about 15MW electrical power at most. Which in its turn is only about 1.5% of the 900MW electrical power of currently operating Bushehr power plant. Clearly, Arak has very little commercial value, and it is primarily to fulfill the goal of gaining experience with the technology, nothing else.

    As far as its potential to breed plutonium, lets compare with to US own first reactor, known as Reactor B at the Hanford Site. This is the reactor which was put into operation in late 1944, and ts power was 250MW thermal. That is 6 times the power of Arak. It took almost a year to bread Plutonium for two Fat-Man bombs. The first one was used in Trinity test, the second in Nagasaki. So if Iranians indeed want to use Arak to breed plutonium for bomb, they can get at most 1 bomb in 3 years.

    November 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  11. saywhat

    Indeed@Alex and regrettably so.
    Thanks for the info on Arak. Needless to say that propaganda by has mislead us Americans many a times.sit up and take notice. Hope this time around we

    November 13, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • Alex279

      The main problem with the news coverage is very little substance. Only rhetorics. Partly, this is due to the procedural nature of diplomatic negotiations which are naturally kept secretive before a settlement is achieved. And partly it is because journalists with little understanding of the subject jump in and attempt to interpret whatever the information they got access too.

      So far Iran claims that its nuclear program is peaceful, and I do not see any bit of evidence pointing otherwise.

      Western powers say to Iran "you are evil, and therefore everything you do is has evil intent" followed by "Prove that your nuclear program is peaceful" and then "Come clean or else we are going to bomb you"... whatever. But all their arguments are essentially handed. Bringing this Arak reactor today is just bringing another gimmik and making an issue out of it.

      Whether you like or dislike Ayatollas, they have a good reason to dislike and mistrust the West: US/Gread Britain have a long history of meddling with internal affairs of Iran to the extent that any western attempt to assert their moral authority is essentially void. It is not even worth discissing. Iran did not start a single war during the last 300 years.

      November 13, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  12. saywhat

    Pl read "propaganda by those beating the war drums now"

    November 13, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  13. saywhat

    Right again@Alex.
    CIA at long last admitted what was known anyway, their role in overthrowing the elected govt of premier Mossadaq and installing the Shah.

    November 14, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  14. Daniel Daronda

    What I don't understand is, how can a country (USA) that has 5000 nukes, and a country (Israel) that has 500 nukes, dare to harass a country (Iran) that has not even created ONE nuke yet??? Are all of these guys in La La Land??? The old days of so-called powerful countries threatening so-called weaker countries is so last century. In the last decade, Europe and North America have given over 100 million jobs to Asia, on a sliver platter, without even a fight, which has resulted in the wiping out of their entire middle-class, and a huge reduction in tax revenues, which has caused them to slide inexorably towards third world status, and desperately start implementing austerity measures in most western countries...... soooooooooooooooo, why don't we Westerners get off our high horses are start to face our own swan song..... instead of acting like swaggering cowboys??????????

    November 16, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Reply

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