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Much More Is Needed From Iran Hawks to Oppose a Nuclear Deal

05/19/2015 02:09 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Senate hawks like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) do not like diplomacy with Iran. Graham has repeatedly threatened war with Iran, whereas Kirk prefers to starve the Iranian people. Yet, given that most Americans do not want another military adventure in the Middle East, and largely support a negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, the hawks are pivoting. Instead of doubling down on untenable positions, hardliners like Graham and Kirk are now offering their own versions of an unobtainable perfect deal to provide cover to kill the good deal in front of us. The problem is, based on their recent comments on the scope of a final agreement, their versions of a "better deal" are, in many regards, much less stringent than what President Obama and the P5+1 have actually lined up.

For his part, Graham apparently wants Iran to have more centrifuges than they would be entitled under the first ten years of the existing framework. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, he laid out eight principles for a good Iran nuclear deal. His first principle states "Iran must not be allowed an enrichment capability greater than the practical needs to supply one commercial reactor."

Here is the issue: Iran has about 19,000 installed centrifuges, of which roughly 10,200 are enriching uranium. Under the final nuclear deal outlined by President Obama, Iran would be limited to 5,060 first generation centrifuges enriching uranium for a period of 10 years before restrictions gradually ease. To fuel a commercial reactor under Graham's fantasy deal -- unlike the Arak research reactor, for example -- Iran could expand its program to more than 100,000 centrifuges.

This is because Iran would need an enrichment capacity of at least 96,000 separative work units (SWU) and as high as 130,000 SWU to produce sufficient domestic fuel for the commercial nuclear reactor at Bushehr (Russia currently provides fuel for the reactor, though the agreement is set to expire in 2021-2022). In terms of centrifuges, these estimates range between 100,000 and 170,000 first generation centrifuges, or potentially 50,000 centrifuges if advanced centrifuges that operate with greater efficiency are included. Ali Akbar Salehi, the director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, floated the latter number by suggesting that 50,000 centrifuges would be needed to fuel the Bushehr reactor alone. Either way, allowing Iran to enrich sufficient fuel for a single commercial reactor would not force Iran to reduce its enrichment capabilities, it would enable Iran to significantly expand them.

There are two possibilities here. Either Graham is closer to the Iranian negotiating position than the American one, or he doesn't quite know what he's talking about. Given remarks he made in March, one has to assume it is the latter. Then, Graham said "I'm by no means an expert on nuclear enrichment, but the people that I do rely upon to advise me about such matters tell me that hundreds of centrifuges, rudimentary in nature, probably gets you to where you want to go if your goal was to produce commercial-grade fuel for one power plant." Unfortunately, Sen. Graham has been misled on this score.

Graham may be strident, but he is no dummy, and his likely error underscores the highly difficult and technical nature of these negotiations. The point here is that the negotiations are better left in the hands of diplomats and our nation's top scientific minds, like Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, not politicians. Those who are attempting to second-guess the framework have been unable to demonstrate how they would accomplish a better deal. It should also raise doubt as to the rest of Sen. Graham's recommendations, many of which are neither necessary nor attainable.

Sen. Graham is not the only one whose deeply-flawed, transparently cynical attempts to poke holes in the deal deserve scrutiny. Senator Kirk, who has been warning of nothing short of nuclear Armageddon if a nuclear deal goes through, made fairly dubious recommendations during remarks at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last week. According to Sen. Kirk, a good deal would look like "the agreement that Nelson Mandela signed with the international community to get rid of his four nuclear weapons that he had." If it's good enough for Mandela, it should be good enough for Iran, according to Kirk. That's a catchy phrase, but one that is completely and utterly inaccurate.

As Stephen Schwartz at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies quickly pointed out, South Africa did not decide to dismantle its nuclear arsenal under Mandela, who wasn't inaugurated until 1994, but instead under the last President of apartheid South Africa, President F.W. de Klerk, in 1990. That decision was not made with the international community, but instead in secret. As Schwartz indicated, "There was no international agreement to end South Africa's nuclear weapons program -- nor any transparency, inspection, or verification provisions associated with such an agreement -- for the simple reason that South Africa's nuclear stockpile was kept secret from the rest of the world." South Africa's six nuclear weapons (not four, as Kirk claimed) were built and dismantled in secret.

Even more important -- South Africa actually had nuclear weapons, whereas Iran does not, and South Africa maintains more than 485 pounds of highly enriched uranium from their disassembled weapons. Although it is not in a form that could be used immediately for weaponization, highly enriched uranium is the key component of any uranium-based nuclear weapon. Under a final nuclear deal, Iran would be prohibited from producing highly enriched uranium or obtaining weapons-grade plutonium, an alternative pathway to a nuclear weapon. Not only is the South Africa deal non-existent, it would also probably be unacceptable to Sen. Kirk if it did exist.

The real issue here is that there are some who are dedicated to defeating an Iran deal and will cherry pick and misconstrue as many facts as it takes to reinforce a pre-conceived notion that any deal is a bad deal. Rather than back seat drive on the negotiations, if Sens. Kirk, Graham and their fellow Iran hawks really wanted to resolve the nuclear standoff, they would be more deferential to the experts and hardworking diplomats who have been at this process for 18 months.