In less than 10 days, the deadline for a final nuclear agreement will be reached. As nuclear negotiations continue on in Vienna, approximately 10,000 of Iran’s centrifuges continue to spin. The Islamic Republic currently possesses around 18,000 centrifuges, according to Iran’s outgoing nuclear chief. The current number may be closer to 19,000 centrifuges.
Based on the negotiations’ slow progress between the Islamic Republic and the United States, France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, plus Germany (P5+1), as well as considering the recent reports and remarks from leaders of both parties, it is very unlikely we will witness the historic transition to a final nuclear deal by July 20.
It is likely that the interim nuclear deal will be renewed and extended for a period of three or six months with mutual consentDr. Majid Rafizadeh
The gap between the two sides appears to be too deep to bridge. Western countries would desire to come out with a final deal succeeding in slowing down Iran’s nuclear program. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic is attempting to keep its capacity to produce nuclear weapons, warheads, and project that Iran has reached a final nuclear deal without giving up any of Iran’s nuclear rights.
This is the timeline for the negotiations between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic on Iran’s nuclear program:
- November, 24 2013 - This day was the announcement of the landmark interim nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers
- January 12– P5+1 and the Islamic Republic concluded the final points for sanctions relief and temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment
- January 20 - The beginning of implementation of the interim nuclear deal, sanction relief, and the IAEA’s (International Atomic Agency Energy) verification of Iran’s compliance with the deal
- February 18 – The resumption of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal.
- July 20 – The expiration of the six-month interim deal. In case a final and comprehensive nuclear deal is not reached, the interim nuclear deal can be extended and renewed for another six months based on mutual consent between Iran and the P5+1. The six world powers might also ratchet up the sanctions if a comprehensive and final nuclear resolution is not reached.
- November 2014 – The implementation of the potential comprehensive and final nuclear deal. Accordingly, the six world powers and the Islamic Republic would “conclude negotiating and commence implementing” the final nuclear deal.
John Kerry and Javad Zarif, standoff and political posturing
The recent political posturing between Washington and Tehran is also another indicator of the notion that a comprehensive nuclear deal will not be reached by July 20.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that Iranian leaders have not yet made serious decisions although they are participating in the nuclear negotiations. Kerry wrote: “Their public optimism about the potential outcome of these negotiations has not been matched, to date, by the positions they have articulated behind closed doors.”
Javad Zarif one-upped Kerry immediately in a YouTube video. He changed his position and blamed the Americans for the failure. He pointed out “To those who continue to believe that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, I can only say that pressure has been tried for the past eight years, in fact for the past 35 years… It didn’t bring the Iranian people to kneel in submission. And it will not now, nor in the future.”
Although some of the controversial debates are on the kind of nuclear research Iranian leaders have been conducting to manufacture an explosive nuclear device, Iran’s nuclear enrichment level, and Iran’s pursuing a ballistic missile program, the most critical hurdle is the number of centrifuges the Islamic Republic can retain and spin in the long-term.
The serious hurdle, who will decide on the number of centrifuges?
In other words, currently, the number of centrifuges is the most sensitive issue regarding the nuclear negotiation between the six world powers and the Islamic Republic.
The number of centrifuges is critical due to the fact that with approximately 9,000 first-generation centrifuges spinning at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and with the current enrichment level, the Islamic Republic can produce adequate weapons-grade uranium in order to create and fuel a nuclear warhead in a couple of months, according to nuclear experts.
When it comes to the Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps will have the final say. President Hassan Rowhani, foreign minister Javad Zarif and his technocrat nuclear team are only setting the tone on the international arena.
Theoretically speaking, Ayatollah Khamanei might agree to a final nuclear deal where Iran would have a lower number of centrifuges, if and only if not reaching a final nuclear would have more severe repercussions (economically, strategically and geopolitically) on his hold on power.
Currently, Khamenei clearly prefers no deal rather than a deal that lowers Iran’s number of centrifuges and prevents Iran from being a nuclear-threshold state, or producing nuclear weapons.
The supreme leader recently pointed out that Iran would want 19,000 centrifuges in a few years for the uranium enrichment machines. He stated “Their aim is that we accept a capacity of 10,000 separative work units, which is equivalent to 10,000 centrifuges of the older type that we already have. Our officials say we need 190,000. Perhaps not today, but in two to five years that is the country's absolute need.” A seperative work units or SWU is a measurement which shows how much work is needed in order to separate isotopes of uranium.
On the other hand, this number of centrifuges is almost nine times more than what the United States has asked. The U.S. has accepted that Iran has between 2000 to 4000 centrifuges.
What next? After the expiration
Currently, the Islamic Republic, particularly the supreme leader, senior cadre of IRGC and ruling figures, desire to take Iran to a nuclear threshold (such as Japan) and reserve Tehran’s future capability to produce nuclear weapons and warheads.
On the other hand, although one of the articles in the interim nuclear deal indicates that if a final and comprehensive nuclear deal is not reached by the deadline of July 20, international sanctions may increase, this development is very unlikely. Because heightened international sanctions might totally scuttle a comprehensive nuclear deal.
It is more likely that the interim nuclear deal will be renewed and extended for a period of three or six months with mutual consent. And, if Khamenei’s calculations remain the same, a final nuclear deal will be impossible even at the end of second interim nuclear deal as well.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.