Column: France Is Right About Iran’s Arak Reactor

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has become an unlikely hero of Iran hawks in Washington and Israel by so vocally attacking the proposed interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program as “a sucker’s deal.” There’s a lot to say about this and I’ll just pick two related points.

First, we don’t yet know exactly what went on in the room in Geneva, or the precise language of the rejected proposal. So everyone involved is spinning events like prima ballerinas.

According to The New York Times, for example, a senior U.S. official who had been in Geneva briefed Israeli reporters in Jerusalem a day later. The official said French opposition wasn’t the problem at all, the P5+1 — the five members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany — were united; the real problem was that their proposal was “too tough” for the Iranians, who insisted on including language saying they retained the right to enrich uranium; the U.S. and its allies wouldn’t give on that. This reeks of damage control and revisionist diplomacy. In the real-time off-the-record comments reported from Geneva, diplomats carped at the French for blocking the deal.

The second point is that Fabius was right about Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak: a halt to construction must be part of the interim deal. His concerns are outlined here.

It’s important to remember that the agreement under negotiation in Geneva is an interim arrangement to create space — initially six months, but no doubt longer in reality — for talks to hammer out a comprehensive agreement. The idea is to stop the clock on Iran’s march toward nuclear breakout capability, the point at which it would have all ingredients it needs to make a dash to the assembly of a bomb.

Most of the focus, correctly, has until now been on Iran’s production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, supposedly for use in a medical reactor. Enriching from 20 percent to the 90 percent required for weapons-grade fuel is a relatively quick process. That stockpile of fuel needs to stop growing, and it needs to be secured.

Arak, an IR-40 research reactor, has received less attention because it isn’t yet working. Construction is due to finish in about a year, and then Iran has to produce and test the fuel to insert, and run the plant for a period before it creates the first spent fuel that could be reprocessed for use in a weapon. So the threat of Iran having in place a second route to producing fissile material for a bomb is several years away at the least.

For this reason a number of experts have said Arak can be ignored until the later comprehensive talks, and no doubt it’s why some of the P5+1 thought it was acceptable to skip it in the interim deal. This is surely wrong, because it isn’t possible to predict how long the interim deal will in fact be operative — a similar suspension-for-talks arrangement in 2003 was strung out for two years, before collapsing.

If Iran were to complete Arak before a final settlement is reached, which is very possible, this would be significant. Once the reactor is complete it can be fueled, at which point destroying it through airstrikes would be unthinkable, due to the radioactive fallout this would create.

You don’t have to favor airstrikes to think allowing continued construction at Arak is a bad idea. I think airstrikes are the worst option available to resolve this dispute. Still, with the military threat off the table, the U.S. would have to rely on economic sanctions alone to persuade the Iranian regime not to complete what it transparently has spent two decades and huge sums of money and diplomatic capital trying to achieve: the capacity to build nuclear weapons. The history of sanctions suggests that wouldn’t work, and a counterproductive Israeli military action would become more likely.

Arak is ultimately a manageable problem, as a recent paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains. This is a big, above-ground facility that would be easy to monitor. A final agreement would ensure that spent fuel from Arak was exported for reprocessing. If Arak’s construction stops now, these terms for its operation can be worked out in the final settlement.

As with enrichment of the 3.5 percent low-grade fuel needed to run Iraq Bushehr power plant, it is hard to imagine any final settlement that includes the mothballing or dismantling of Arak. This would represent a highly public defeat for Iran’s regime, and it would rather take its chances with airstrikes. Still, if President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are serious about ending the international stand-off over their thinly disguised nuclear weapons program, there is no reason to balk at putting construction on hold for six months.

This would fit completely within the scope of an interim agreement. Were Iran’s leaders to make continued construction a red line, it would seem evident that remaining on schedule to reach breakout capability is their true red line, and the talks a tool for reaching that goal without triggering airstrikes. A freeze on construction at Arak should be part of the deal when negotiators return to the table on Nov. 20, and if Iran needs additional, temporary sanctions relief to agree, the U.S. and its European allies should be willing to provide it. This is, after all, a negotiation.

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member.