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Extended Interview with Robert Kelley on Iran framework Deal (2/2)

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Thursday afternoon, President Obama announced the framework of a deal with Iran about their nuclear program.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This framework would cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran will face strict limitations on its program, and Iran has also agreed to the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history. So this deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification. Many key details will be finalized over the next three months, and nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed.

JAY; Now joining us to discuss what we know so far about the details of the framework agreement is Robert Kelley. He joins us from Europe. Robert’s a former nuclear weapons analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a former director at the IAEA. He’s also now an associate research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Thanks very much for joining us, Bob.


JAY: So there’s a document that was released just prior to President Obama’s statement. It’s called the Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program. It’s fairly detailed what this framework agreement is, and before we work our way through the details, because we’re going to get pretty detailed here, just give me your overall impression.

KELLEY: Well, I’ve had a chance to read through it, and I’ve listened to the president’s speech. I was very pleasantly surprised how much detail there is there, how specific the plans are, and how effective it looks like the program there they’re putting together is. I really wasn’t expecting this, particularly given all the dithering that’s gone on this week.

JAY: Okay. So we’re going to work through the details, and I guess the question is, if you’re looking at it through the framework, at least, of the Americans and their allies look at it, the question is, is this, if these measures are lived up to, does it achieve what they say they want to achieve, which is Iran will not have the capacity for making a bomb, or the breakout capacity will be significantly delayed.

If you’re looking at this through the Iranian framing, I think they’re probably saying, we always said we didn’t have a nuclear program, and this–

KELLEY: Nuclear weapon.

JAY: Nuclear weapon I should say, yeah, excuse me. And this, the fact that we’re agreeing to this framework is kind of evidence that that wasn’t our intent anyway. At any rate, let’s work our way through what’s been agreed to.

So, starting. The first issue in this statement of facts is under the topic enrichment. Iran has agreed to reduce by approximately 2/3 installed centrifuges. Iran will go from having about 19,000 installed today to 6,104 installed under the deal, with only 5,060 of these enriching uranium for ten years. All 6,104 centrifuges will be IR-1s, Iran’s first generation centrifuge.

What does all that mean and how significant is it?

KELLEY: Well, I think it’s very significant. The fact that they’re going to be IR-1s, which is a completely obsolete technology says they’re going to remain back in the late 20th century in terms of their technology. They’ll reduce the numbers considerably, they’ll produce very little material, they’ve agreed to limit it to 3.6%. I believe they’ve also said they’ll dilute down much of their product, or they’ll ship it overseas for sale. I think they’ve made some very significant concessions there.

JAY: Another thing that’s mentioned, all excess centrifuges and enrichment infrastructures will be placed in IAEA monitored storage, and will be used only as replacements for operating centrifuges and equipment. Significant?

KELLEY: Yes, that’s very straightforward. You find a warehouse, you realize it has so many doors. You seal the doors, the IAEA knows what went in, they from time to time check the seals, and go inside and see that things are staying the way they were. That’s very straightforward, it’s what’s done with nuclear reactor fuel. Easy. Straightforward.

JAY: Okay, another point. The next point, really. Iran has agreed to not build any new facilities for the purposes of enriching uranium for 15 years.

KELLEY: Very significant. A couple of years ago they said they had plans to build ten or so new facilities. It was obviously an empty boast, but this puts a lie to the empty boast. Very significant. Great.

One old plant with 20th century technology. Great.

JAY: Okay, next. Iran’s breakout time on, the time that it would take for Iran to acquire enough fissile material for one weapon, is currently assessed to be 2-3 months. That timeline will be extended to at least one year for a duration of at least ten years under this framework.

I mean, first of all, do you think that two or three months thing is real? Then what’s the significance of this being in the agreement?

KELLEY: Paul, I don’t do those kind of calculations. I know who made the 2-3 month calculation. He’s very hard over on one side of the issue. That’s his business. But moving it back to one year, which we could probably all agree on is a good thing.

JAY: So that 2-3 months might be a somewhat dubious figure to begin with.

KELLEY: Well, there are people doing these calculations, and some of them take the very worst cases they can think of. I think that’s a very worst case. In any case, if it’s going to be a year, that’s what both sides — let’s remember it’s the P5+1 agreeing with Iran. If the P5+1 agrees it’s one year, it’s probably one year.

JAY: Okay. All right, next. This is under the category Iran will convert its facility at Fordow. It will no longer be used to enrich uranium, and then it goes on to say Iran will not have any fissile at Fordow for 15 years. How significant?

KELLEY: Extremely significant. They’ve taken one plant out of the equation. Other things in that paragraph say they’re going to remove I think 2/3 of the centrifuge equipment and convert the rest of this underground facility to some other R&D, and they’re going to let our IAEA come in to verify that. So it’s not as if they’re going to build something else in that underground facility and we won’t know what it is. IAEA will be going in there.

There was something in the press the last couple days about enriching other isotopes like xenon. I couldn’t find that in today’s agreement.

JAY: Okay. Next, under the category Iran will only enrich uranium at the Natanz facility. With only 5,060 IR-1 first generation centrifuges for 10 years. How significant?

KELLEY: Well, it’s the same thing we talked about before. Those centrifuges date from the what, late 1960s. They’re extremely poor technology. They fail quite frequently. This is … this is Iran saving face by saying we’re going to have thousands of centrifuges operating, but they actually don’t work very well, they’re kind of junk.

So it’s a face-saving gesture on their part, and I think that the P5+1 is smart to allow them that little [inaud.]

JAY: Okay, good. Next, inspections and transparency. The IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, including to Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz and its former enrichment facility at Fordow, and including the use of the most up-to-date modern monitoring technologies, Inspectors will have access to the supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program. The new transparency and inspections mechanisms will closely monitor materials and/or components to prevent diversion to a secret program.

How significant?

KELLEY: Well, again, I think that’s very significant and that was one of the very pleasant surprises for me in this. You always worry about a parallel secret program. Of course, the parallel secret program would have to have mining and conversion, production of hexafluoride enrichment, centrifuge building, and the weapons stuff at the end of it.

If they have access to the supply chain, and they can see that Iran is not importing these things or making it themselves, you have a very good possibility that you could detect a clandestine program, a secret program one the side, because it would only take a very small leak of information to turn the whole secret program topsy-turvy, send it on its ear. So I think that is one of the most significant things in the agreement, and one that really pleased me.

JAY: So this is a big point you’ve mentioned to me off-camera. You think the possibilities of a secret program, of course, nothing’s ever impossible. On the other hand, there’s never been any evidence, at least since 2003 and perhaps before, that there ever was intent for a secret program. But you’re saying under this regime, it would be almost impossible.

KELLEY: Well, I’ve been in the nuclear non-proliferation business now for years and years, and that’s what you always worry about when you have your arms around the declared activities, when you have your arms around what you know is going on, and you feel that you have it completely boxed and safe, you have to worry about something going on in secret.

But if you have your people, this regime they’re talking about, looking at the supply chains for all these other things, and all you’ve got to do is find certain valves, for example, that they might be buying from a foreign supplier, certain instrumentation, special materials that they might try to buy. Any one of those things could trip up the whole secret program.

I’m not saying there is a secret program, I’m saying that this is a very effective barrier to ensuring that there is not a secret program.

JAY: Okay. The next –

KELLEY: The beginning of the question you asked me a minute ago, you mentioned that they’re going to have all this access. It’s really nothing new. For the last 16 months, IAEA has been going to places like Fordow and Natanz on a daily basis. They’ve had excellent access to every declared nuclear facility in Iran, and I can’t see anything in this agreement that’s going to make that any better. It’s already excellent.

JAY: And the point you’re making is that the Iranians have allowed them that access, so there’s reason to believe they would continue to do so.

KELLEY: Well, 16 months ago they said they would do certain things. And I think we’ve heard from the president a few minutes ago they did everything they said they’d do, and they’re still doing it, so that’s pretty good.

JAY: All right. We’re going to keep working our way through the document here. Iran will be required to grant access to the IAEA to investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility, conversion facility, centrifuge production facility, or yellow cake production facility anywhere in the country.

KELLEY: That’s part of the earlier paragraph, it’s the same idea, that if you’re looking at all of the things that are required. It’s not just a centrifuge plant that makes a weapon, it’s all of that chemistry and supply and mining and things. If they’re looking at all of those things, they’re going to have a good chance of detecting, let’s say, half the material you’re looking at is disappearing somewhere else. So that’s a very effective safeguard.

JAY; Okay. Next one, and then I’m going to go back to the last one. Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the possible military dimensions, or PMD, of its program.

If you put this together with the last one, anything suspicious, I mean one of Iran’s concerns for a long time in this inspections regime has been that the use of suspicious activity is used to actually go and look at what’s going on on the conventional weapons side. And I’m kind of surprised they’ve agreed to such language, because it now opens them up. Because now, if they think it’s not really nuclear suspicious, but IAEA wants to say it is, but it’s really conventional, it’s going to become a reason for sanctions to quote-unquote be snapped back. We’re going to get into the details of snap back, but … are you a little surprised how open they are on this language?

KELLEY: I think that’s the land mine in the agreement. I think that’s the major problem I the agreement, because it’s the only mention of PMD that I could find, possible military dimensions, in what’s going to be looked into and taken care of.

Now, the IAEA has completely blown their investigation on PMD. They’ve made a mess of it, and they’ve had years to look into many of the issues in PMD since let’s say 2004, some of the first inspections. And certainly for the last three years they’ve been claiming they have a lot of detailed information. They’ve made no progress.

When they had the problem of dealing with Iraq, where they had 10 years or more of unfettered inspections going anywhere, anytime, much more severe than this agreement could possibly imagine, they still couldn’t reach a conclusion on Iraq after 10 years. They still held out that, well, there are some things we don’t completely understand, so we’re going to keep dragging our feet.

Well, if IAEA drags their feet on this particular one, I believe the paragraph that you’re quoting also says that the Security Council will remove those sanctions when IAEA’s satisfied. That’s a big red flag.

JAY: Because if the IAEA takes 10 years and no significant sanctions are lifted because of that, then the deal blows up.

KELLEY: Exactly. Everybody’s saying, well, the sanctions are going to be removed right away. Right? And so that looks pretty good until you see this little buried sentence in there that says well, when the IAEA’s satisfied, then the Security Council can remove the sanctions.

I think that’s the warning bell, and somebody just needs to get in there and fix that little problem.

JAY: In some ways, this all ends up being somewhat of a political question, doesn’t it? Like, if somebody really wants the IAEA to drag its feet, it will drag its feet. That someone can more or less be the United States. If the United States really wants a deal, and at least this administration really wants a deal, but if the next one doesn’t really want a deal then they might be asking the IAEA to drag its feet. But I guess at this point, both sides need to take a next step.

Let’s keep-

KELLEY: Well, remember [inaud.] that I listened to says that the U.S. government is trying to get IAEA quietly to remove itself from this PMD business, and just kind of let it fold. And if that’s the case, you’re right. This administration could maybe get the IAEA to quietly agree that they’re satisfied. That they’ve [heard] things. And you’re right, the next administration, if it’s more hard-line, could definitely use the IAEA as the spoiler.

It was used as the spoiler in Iraq, okay? The U.S. government would never allow the IAEA to say they were satisfied.

JAY: And this is the danger for the Iranians, if they start taking some irreversible actions where, we’re about to get into this, where they actually deconstruct the core of one of their main reactors, and then the next administration uses the language of the agreement to actually not lift sanctions, then Iran’s given up a lot of leverage, perhaps for nothing.

KELLEY: Well, absolutely. And as I say, I read through the agreement, and that’s the sentence that jumped out at me that maybe wasn’t carefully crafted. And we have three more months before this whole thing gets cast in concrete anyway. I would think that it would be especially to Iran’s interest to make sure that that sentence is modified, that sanctions don’t depend on the IAEA being careful.

JAY: Okay. Another big piece to the agreement follows: Iran has agreed to redesign and rebuild a heavy water research reactor and arak, its ARAK, based on a design that is agreed to by the P5+1, which will not produce weapons-grade plutonium, and which will support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production. The original core of the reactor, which would have enabled the production of significant quantities of weapons-grade plutonium, will be destroyed or removed from the country. Iran will ship all of the spent fuel from the reactor out of the country for the reactor’s lifetime.

That seems like a significant piece.

KELLEY: That whole section when I read through it is extremely good. I mean, they’re saying they’re going to take the calandria, this vessel that would contain the heavy water and the natural fuel, and destroy it and replace it with a totally different kind of vessel that will have a different spacing, and different neutronics. And you’ll just get a lot less plutonium in the fuel. Then if you don’t reprocess the fuel, and you ship it out of the country, there’s no problem whatsoever. That’s beautiful. Carefully crafted, excellent, open and shut case as far as I can see.

JAY: And in addition to that there’s the line, Iran will not build any additional heavy water reactors for 15 years.

The next section’s sanctions. And it’s a little vague. The other stuff’s rather specific, but what sanctions will be lifted, when sanctions will be lifted, the only thing that’s really strong here is the following. Iran will receive sanctions relief if it verifiably abides by its commitments. U.S. and EU nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. At the same time, if Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, sanctions will snap back into place. The architecture of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be maintained for much of the duration of the deal, and allow for snapback of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.

So I guess that’s pretty straightforward in a sense, except we don’t know what’s being lifted and when. But Iran must have been given some kind of assurances, or they wouldn’t agree to all this.

KELLEY: Well, some of what we talked about in the military dimension is IAEA’s done an excellent job on the nuclear materials business for many, many years now, especially for the last 16 months, under these daily inspections that they’re conducting. So I think that you can believe that the IAEA will continue to say what it is saying about the nuclear materials business and about the joint agreement, the JPOA, that they’re completely satisfied that Iran has done everything they said they would do. State Department put out a flyer saying the same thing.

So I think all of those things related to nuclear materials, to centrifuges, to building centrifuges, to mining, all of that stuff is pretty well covered right now. Pretty well covered and I think IAEA counted upon to be very professional and complete in that area. It’s the weapons area that worries me, because that’s so amorphous and outside their basic skills.

JAY: It goes on to say, U.S. sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal. Previous section says, important restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles, as well as provisions that allow for related cargo inspections and asset freezes, will also be incorporated by this new resolution.

I guess Iran’s agreed to this, but these don’t seem all directly related to the nuclear issue at all.

KELLEY: Paul, I’m not an expert on sanctions, what’s in all the sanctions passed by the security council. From what I can read in this it sounds like they’re just consolidating a number of previous resolutions. Removing some things from Iran and consolidating the others. But that’s not my area of expertise.

JAY: All right. In his comments in his statement, President Obama says if all these conditions are lived up to, in this agreement, he says, Iran can fully rejoin the community of nations. I guess that means these other sanctions, too, one would think. At any rate, just finalize, I think those are the big beats of this. Of course it’s all, this agreement’s already being denounced by the Israeli government. The two big objections, one of which you’ve dealt with, doesn’t preclude a secret program. You’ve said that to a large extent it does.

The second objection that’s being raised I saw today is that to enforce this, it really requires the Security Council, and the Russians may not want to enforce this. What do you make of that, that the Russians could in theory veto some kind of, if the Americans or someone else or IAEA makes the argument that Iran’s not living up to things, it may be hard to get a Security Council resolution to take, either snap back sanctions, or such.

KELLEY: That’s a political science question. I think it’s a very reasonable one. I think once sanctions are removed they’re very hard to put back, snapback or otherwise. And with a veto on the Security Council, yeah, that could happen. Again, that’s not really my area of expertise. I’ve honed in on these paragraphs about the reactor and enrichment and PMD, and in those areas, I would say that this is a surprisingly strong agreement. One that suggests to me that Iran has decided they really don’t have anything to hide, and come on in and look about.

JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, Robert.

KELLEY: Nice to talk to you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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