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Iran Nuclear Negotiations Are Kind of Hard

Old vendettas, new impasses, conspiracy theories, and a whole bunch of mistrust — welcome to negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

by Ryan Faith
Jun 12 2014, 9:20pm

Photo via AEOI

"We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point…"

When I read that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this about the current round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, I cringed. The current round of talks are supposed to wrap up by July 20, which means the clock is winding down and there’s no more time to dance around the tough issues.

If there’s one thing the world has learned since 9/11, it's that normally sane and reasonable people are driven completely nuts when Weapons of Mass Destruction are mentioned in the context of any country in the Middle East whose name begins with “I-R-A." And that's before the insane and unreasonable people even wade into the fray.

France is currently the country being the hard case — cue snide remarks about cheese-eating surrender monkeys — and that no doubt has something to do with the fact that France has had a go-round with Iranian nuclear talks before. Back in 2003, when current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was his country's chief nuclear negotiator, France led nuclear talks with Iran. This was done, at least in some measure, as a symbolic counterpoint to the somewhat less diplomatic approach the US was undertaking in Iraq at the time.

Amid all of Iran's pledges and guarantees, the French came away feeling that the Iranians had been sneaky and gotten the better of them. And so this time around, the French have been harsher and stricter than the US.

Iran agreed to slow down its nuclear program for six months while negotiating a more permanent settlement in exchange for temporarily relaxed sanctions, but the current sticking point is about the number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to keep. Centrifuges are a critical part of the process of separating isotopes of uranium from one another. The various varieties of uranium are all chemically identical but have different nuclear properties and very slightly different atomic weights. The difference in nuclear properties is critical, but the identical chemical properties makes separating the different types from one another an unholy pain in the ass.

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During the enrichment process, uranium is used to make a highly toxic gas called uranium hexaflouride. This gas is then put into centrifuges that spin at supersonic speeds — more than 1,000 times per second. The gas that includes the heavier types of uranium spins to the outside of the centrifuge and can be separated out. Do this for months on end with different arrays and centrifuge cascades and Voilà! You have separated the different isotopes from one another… and racked up an enormous electric bill.

The lighter variety of uranium, uranium-235, is the the “weapons-grade” or “highly enriched” flavor of uranium; you need this high-octane stuff, very concentrated, to make a decent bomb. But blend it more moderately with run-of-the-mill uranium, and you've got ideal fuel for nuclear reactors.

Internet commentary on WMD proliferation in the Middle East goes off the rails about conspiracies, hypocrisy, big oil, Obama, Israel, Bush, and everything else under the sun.

France thinks that it is critical for Iran to have no more than a few hundred centrifuges for reasonable experimental and scientific uses. Iranian negotiators think they should be able to keep as many as they damned well please.

Hence the dispute.

To oversimplify a lot, the “proper number” of centrifuges that the West thinks Iran should be able to keep depends on “breakout time" — how long it will take Iran to spin up the centrifuges, make some weapons-grade uranium, and get their bomb-making folks to make bombs.

Should Tehran announce, “Screw you guys! We’re making bombs!”, the West would probably need at least six months to get its collective diplomatic act together, become collectively cranky, and impose harsh sanctions. (That said, individual countries might react somewhat faster and more passionately.) If Iran had a zillion centrifuges, then it would be able to make bombs before the diplomatic community could find a mutually agreeable manner in which to be outraged. Without that time to develop a consensus and decide on a course of action, there would be little the West could collectively do. Therefore, the West is trying to keep Iran’s uranium enrichment small enough to buy them some response time should the need arise. Or at least, this is the theory.

Meanwhile, Iran says it wants to have nuclear power for peaceful purposes. (This is nothing new — Iran began pursuing nuclear power way before Ayatollah Khomeni and his merry men took over in the name of the Islamic Revolution.) To have a reasonably functional nuclear program, it really helps to have fuel for the reactors. Iran wants to make its own fuel so it doesn’t have to depend on Amazon and Wal-Mart for it. Hence, the need for centrifuges to make sufficiently enriched uranium to fuel their reactors.

The international consensus these days on nukes is pretty straightforward. It’s okay for a country to have a nuclear power program (nuclear power is the good kind of nuclear). But it’s considered very bad manners for a country to start a nuclear weapons program (the bad kind of nuclear). The problem is that there’s a lot that both kinds of nuclear program have in common, and very few things that a nuclear weapons program absolutely requires that can’t be concealed or explained away one way or another.

So the underlying issue for arms control boils down to trust. Or rather, suspicion.

It’s a bit like trying to determine if your significant other is cheating. How much questionable behavior he exhibits isn’t just a product of how he acts, but of how suspicious you are. If you’re suspicious enough, everything is a sign of cheating. But if you don't suspect anything, then that two-timing so-and-so could get away with just about anything. So what’s suspicious enough without being too suspicious?

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This is the point at which internet commentary on WMD proliferation in the Middle East starts to go off the rails about conspiracies, hypocrisy, big oil, Obama, Israel, Bush, and everything else under the sun.

Because the underlying negotiations are cloaked in secrecy, and because WMD involve lots of complex and arcane technical details, and especially because the entire process is saturated with suspicion, proliferation debates are incredibly fertile ground for mistrust, accusations of bad faith, and all manner of tantalizing conspiracies.

Iran feels about its nuclear program much the same way the NRA feels about guns. And much like most gun owners, Iran asserts that it will use its powers only for good (like generating electricity), and not for evil (like nuking folks off the face of the Earth).

Speaking of guns, maybe debates over nuclear proliferation in the Middle East should come with a trigger warning, given that it’s likely to yield the same kind of clear, rational debate that we’ve come to expect from the US debate on guns. Or, if you prefer a different example, the sort of debate that lead up to the Iraq War.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Image via AEOI