Agreeing on Limits for Iran’s Centrifuge Program: A Two-Stage Strategy

An early version of this article appeared online June 9 because of the high interest in the ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. The version below, which also appears in the print edition of the July/August issue of Arms Control Today, was updated to reflect minor editorial changes to the previously posted version. 

Iran is negotiating with a group of six states over the future of its nuclear program. In November 2013, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) agreed to a Joint Plan of Action that seeks to reach a “comprehensive solution” by July 20, 2014. The goal is to agree on a set of measures that can provide reasonable assurance that Iran’s nuclear program will be used only for peaceful purposes and thus enable the lifting of international sanctions imposed on Iran over the past decade because of proliferation concerns.

A key challenge is to agree how to limit Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which is based on gas centrifuges, in a way that would enable Iran to meet what it sees as its future needs for low-enriched uranium fuel for nuclear research and power reactors while forestalling the possibility that this program could be adapted to quickly produce highly enriched uranium at levels and in amounts suitable for nuclear weapons.

This article proposes a compromise based on a two-stage approach that involves Iran maintaining a capacity for enriching a small amount of uranium annually for research reactor fuel in the short term and developing a potential enrichment capacity in the longer term that would be appropriate to fuel power reactors. Iranian supply needs for its power reactors will develop in 2021 if Tehran decides to fuel the existing Bushehr power reactor domestically, in whole or in part, rather than renewing its fuel supply contract with Russia or buying fuel from another foreign supplier.

The proposed compromise also reflects Tehran’s plan to shift from its current low-power, first-generation centrifuges to high-capacity machines that are still under development.

This article therefore suggests that, during the next five years, Iran should modernize its enrichment facilities and in doing so, keep its operating capacity at about the current level rather than begin to operate the many thousands of first-generation machines that it already has installed and continue setting up more. During this period, Iran could phase out its first-generation machines in favor of the second-generation centrifuges it already has installed but has not yet operated. At the same time, it could develop, produce, and store components for a future generation of centrifuges that would be suitable for commercial-scale deployment. These later-generation centrifuges would not need to be assembled, except for test machines, until at least 2019.

To maintain the confidence of the international community that there will be no diversion of centrifuge components to a secret enrichment plant, the current transparency measures that Iran has undertaken for its centrifuge program would continue. These transparency measures should become the standard for transparency for centrifuge production worldwide.

Finally, the article suggests that the five-year period created by this proposal be used as an opportunity by Iran, the P5+1, and other interested states to explore in a second stage of the negotiations a multinational uranium-enrichment arrangement that would see Iran deploy its advanced centrifuges in a new regional, multinational facility rather than a national enrichment plant. By committing to working on such multinational arrangements for the Middle East and, ultimately, around the world, Iran and the P5+1 could chart a path to greatly reduce the proliferation risks that stem from national control of enrichment plants, regardless of location.

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Latest Version:

“Agreeing on Limits for Iran’s Centrifuge Program: A Two-Stage Strategy,” Arms Control Today, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Frank von Hippel. Published by Arms Control Today, July/August, 2014.

Older Version:

“Agreeing on Limits for Iran’s Centrifuge Program: A Two-Stage Strategy,” Arms Control Today, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Frank von Hippel. Published by Arms Control Today, June 9, 2014.