Obama in 2013: Iran Doesn’t Need Underground Facility, Heavy-Water Reactor for Peaceful Program

By Patrick Goodenough | April 2, 2015 | 5:20 PM EDT

US Secretary of State John Kerry, center and US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, centre right, as they walk in a courtyard, at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel, during an extended round of talks on Iran's nuclear program, Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Lausanne, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

(CNSNews.com) – The international agreement reached Thursday on Iran’s nuclear program allows it to retain two key nuclear facilities – albeit with significant alterations to their functioning – which President Obama said 15 months ago the Iranians do not need “in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.”

Under the framework deal announced in the Swiss city of Lausanne after marathon negotiations, Iran gets to keep both a covertly-built underground nuclear facility at Fordow, a potential source of weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium; and a heavy-water research reactor at Arak, a potential source of weapons-grade plutonium.

As recently as December 2013, Obama said that if Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful as it claimed, it had no need for either.

“They don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program,” he said. “They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.”

The framework deal, known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), does heavily proscribe what can be done at the two sites.

In Fordow’s case, according to the State Department, Iran will be allowed to keep about 1,000 of the 3,000 centrifuges now installed there, but will undertake not to use them to enrich uranium for at least 15 years.

Iran will also pledge not to have any fissile material at Fordow for at least 15 years, and the site will be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring, with “regular access” visits and modern monitoring technologies in place.

In the case of Arak, the reactor’s original core will be “destroyed or removed from the country.”  The redesigned reactor will not produce weapons-grade plutonium but “support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production.”

Those changes, together with other elements of the JCPOA, such as a reduction of Iran’s total stock of centrifuges from 19,000 (10,000 of which are currently operating) to 6,104, are designed to ensure that, for a period of at least 10 years, Iran’s “breakout” time to a nuclear weapon would be “about one year.”

The current estimated breakout time – the period of time it would take for Iran to acquire the material needed for one nuclear weapon, once it takes the decision to do so and hits the start button – is about two to three months.

Still, allowing Iran to keep the facilities, with some of their infrastructure intact, does mark a shift from the stance taken by the P5+1 negotiating group – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – in 2012, when shutting Fordow was a stated demand. Even earlier, the U.N. Security Council demanded in resolutions from 2006 onward that Iran stop construction work on Arak.

During a 2013 question-and-answer session at a Saban Forum event in Washington, shortly after the P5+1 concluded an interim agreement with Iran known as the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA), Obama was asked what in his view a final agreement could look like.

“We can envision a comprehensive agreement that involves extraordinary constraints and verification mechanisms and intrusive inspections, but that permits Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program,” he replied.

“In terms of specifics, we know that they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.  They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.”

Obama said it remained to be seen whether Iran would be prepared to “roll back” some of the advancements that are not warranted in a peaceful nuclear program but which “frankly, hint at a desire to have breakout capacity, and go right to the edge of breakout capacity.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif led their government’s delegations at the nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland. (AP Photo, File)

No ‘right to enrich’

As part of that same reply, Obama stressed that the JPOA in no way granted Iran with “a right to enrich” uranium.

“We’ve been very clear that given its past behavior, and given existing U.N. resolutions and previous violations by Iran of its international obligations, that we don’t recognize such a right,” he said.

Iran argues that it has a right to enrich uranium at home under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The U.S. disagrees. At least 18 countries with peaceful nuclear programs do not enrich their own uranium, compared to six that do.

But despite that difference over a right to enrich under the NPT, the P5+1 acknowledged earlier on that demanding an end to all enrichment was unrealistic; that without allowing Iran some domestic enrichment, there would simply be no deal.

(That was a view held by Secretary of State John Kerry even before he took up his current post. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he called the Bush administration's demans that Iran stop enriching uranium altogether a “ridiculous” stance and an example of “bombastic diplomacy.”)

The P5+1 in 2011 gave way on the issue of domestic enrichment despite the fact that six U.N. Security Council resolutions passed between 2006 and 2010 – five under the Bush administration and one under President Obama – demanded that Iran suspend “all” enrichment.

Under the deal reached on Thursday, the JCPOA, all of those Security Council resolutions will be lifted when Iran completes actions to address specified concerns.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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