Iranian President Hasan Rowhani has been on a charm offensive in recent weeks, penning an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for an end to “the age of blood feuds,” telling NBC News that he hoped to meet President Obama, and even wishing Jews around the world a happy new year. Something that was unimaginable even a few months ago suddenly seems possible: a far-reaching nuclear deal that could end decades of hostility between the United States and Iran.
We know what Iran would want out of any agreement: freedom from the Western sanctions that have decimated its economy and international recognition that it is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program. More specifically, Iran would want the United States and its allies to lift the measures that have led foreign countries to significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil, reducing Iran’s monthly oil revenues by nearly 60 percent over the past two years, and that have forced overseas financial institutions to freeze their ties with Iran’s central bank, driving the value of its currency down to historic lows and effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system.
We also know the broad terms of what the United States would want: clear evidence that Iran had dropped its pursuit of nuclear weapons and would no longer have the equipment or radioactive material necessary to start it up again. That would require Tehran to agree to a long list of specific American demands. The likeliest ones are below.
Stop enriching uranium. The most important single ingredient for a nuclear weapon is a large quantity of enriched uranium, and Iran has been steadily amassing more and more of it. The country is estimated to possess 185 kilograms of uranium that has been enriched to a purity level of 20 percent, enough to make about 18.5 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. If Iran amasses 250 kilograms of the lower-level uranium, that would be a red line for the Israelis, because the amount could be used to produce 25 kilograms of the more potent uranium — just enough to build a single nuclear weapon.
David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has closely tracked Iran’s nuclear program, says that a deal would almost certainly require Iran to stop enriching new uranium and then to either sell some of its current stockpile or put it under international supervision.
Close down a nuclear plant. U.S. officials would also demand that Iran shutter one of its two known enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordo. Natanz is an older facility that has long been used to produce uranium enriched to low levels of purity. Fordo, a more sophisticated facility, is of enormous concern to American and Israeli policymakers because it’s buried deep underground and would be difficult to destroy by air. The German newspaper Der Spiegel has reported that Rouhani is ready to decommission Fordo, a potentially major concession, but the Iranian government has denied any willingness to shutter the facility.
Cut back on centrifuges. Last month, the outgoing chief of Iran’s nuclear program said his country had 18,000 of the centrifuges needed to enrich more uranium, with about 9,000 of them already fully operational. Any agreement between Washington and Tehran would put in place new limitations on the number and quality of those pieces of machinery. Albright says that one potential compromise would be for Iran to keep using the centrifuges that are already up and running while dismantling the roughly 9,000 that aren’t yet in use. That would be a face-saving measure for Iran that could also reduce Western fears of Iran being able to increase more and more of the uranium it would need for a nuclear bomb. Colin Kahl, who formerly served as the Pentagon’s top Mideast policy official, said a deal that put new restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities without also reducing the number of its centrifuges would be largely toothless. “If you cap their enrichment but don’t do anything else they’d still have a breakout capability,” he said.