After striking an interim agreement in November 2013, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 have been engaged in technical discussions about implementation. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, has indicated that the two sides are close to reaching an agreement and will likely hammer out all of the details some time in January. Once these talks are concluded – and the interim agreement is implemented – the two sides have expressed a desire to begin negotiations on a broader arrangement that places significant limits on Iran’s “break out capability” in exchange for the further easing of American, UN, and European sanctions.

The next round of negotiations promises to be even more difficult. The United States and other P5+1 members will seek to roll back elements of Tehran’s program, while Iran will seek to maintain its “nuclear rights.” Striking a balance will not be easy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently wrote, “We will never forgo our right to benefit from nuclear energy; but we are ready to work toward removing any ambiguity and answer any reasonable question about our program.”

To overcome the decades of tension, both parties will have to come up with creative solutions that bridge the gap of mistrust. While the inspection regime for Natanz and, perhaps, Fordow are relatively straight forward, the West will certainly continue to be concerned about the possible resumption of weapons applicable experiments. To help ease these concerns, the two sides should look to the past to address the non-fissile material issues related to Iran’s nuclear program. The final agreement should seek to consolidate the locations where Iran conducts nuclear experiments – perhaps even with cooperation from Western nuclear firms. Such a move could help Iran increase transparency and ease some of the suspicions in the West, while also creating the atmospherics for both sides to declare victory.

The Shah’s Plutonium Plans: A Muddled Mess or a Serious Scientific Endeavor?

In 1974, the Shah of Iran announced an incredibly ambitious plan to procure 23 reactors to produce 23,000 MW of electricity by 1992. To help expedite the nuclear project, the Shah created the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and tapped Akbar Etemad – a physicist trained in reactor physics in Lausanne, Switzerland – to oversee the development of Iran’s nuclear program, including the development of reprocessing technologies.

The United States sought to impose restrictions on the potential reprocessing of U.S. origin fissile material, even though it delayed the conclusion of a nuclear cooperation agreement, which would have allowed for U.S. firms to ink an agreement for the sale of up to eight nuclear reactors to Iran. Etemad, however, was able to reach an agreement with West Germany and France for the sale of nuclear reactors. (The two European countries signed the initial agreements before Iran had concluded a safeguards agreement with the IAEA.)

Etemad described the agreement with France as “[covering] almost all aspects of the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy.” The nuclear cooperation agreement included a provision for French assistance in setting up a nuclear research center in Iran. According to a former AEOI scientist I interviewed, the United States’ Burns and Roe worked with Dr. Reza Khazaneh, the scientist tasked to oversee the development of the Isfahan Nuclear Research Center, for site selection. The two sides eventually chose a large site situated between two mountains near the city of Isfahan that reminded an American team of scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) of Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque.

Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center: The Centerpiece of the Shah’s Program

The facility has since been dubbed the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTEC). The original program for ENTEC called for the establishment of five divisions, with the two most important being reactor physics and metallurgy. The other three divisions were to study fuel fabrication, uranium chemistry, and desalinization. Iran set aside $300 million for construction and envisioned employing 1,200 researchers at the site.

The AEOI planned to use the facility “as a base for the implementation of [Iran’s] nuclear projects.” The plan for the Isfahan nuclear research center, according to Etemad, was to use the facilities to train power plant engineers, for research on power reactors, “particularly breeder reactors,” and for experiments to “familiarize [Iran] with the fuel cycles.” Iran was particularly interested in being “able to manufacture the fuel elements of the light water power stations and to learn how to handle uranium and plutonium.”

In 1977, an American team from ORNL visited the site. According to their report, the facility included 15 different buildings and was scheduled to begin operating in 1981. The main building, according to the ORNL team, would be 33,000 square feet and three stories tall. The plan included “a large hot lab facility,” which would have allowed Iran to experiment with spent fuel. The team concluded that, depending on the type of equipment installed, “the unusually large facility makes it theoretically possible to produce [plutonium].” The team, however, pointed out that the facility could also be used to produce “mixed oxide appropriate for reactor cores,” i.e. those needed for breeder reactors, or to develop fuel elements known as mixed-oxide fuel (MOX), which contains plutonium blended with uranium.

The American team reported that the facility was intended to act as a pilot plant for all aspects of the fuel cycle except enrichment. In the original plans, for example, the metallurgy division was tapped to study “materials to be used in reactors and other facilities, in which radioactive substances are manipulated.” At that time, Iran was seeking fuel supply contracts, but was also eager to fabricate fuel rods inside Iran using foreign-supplied fissile material. According to the ORNL team, the AEOI was interested in conducting “fabrication, disposal, and reprocessing” experiments at the facility. The team’s report is consistent with Etemad’s assertion in December 1975 that the facility would be used to study the fuel cycle, including the breeder reactor.

Did Iran have a Breeder Program, or was it Gearing up for MOX Production?

Etemad, according to an AEOI scientist I have interviewed, thought that “Nuclear [technology] had no limit,” meaning that Iran should engage in all aspects of nuclear research to develop expertise. Moreover, given the Shah’s support for the program, it is likely that a small number of scientists at ENTEC could have had access to funding for breeder research. Yet the AEOI scientist I interviewed questioned Iran’s breeder research, saying that such an advanced reactor design was “out of the question for Iran” at that time. However, he did point out that if Iran had chosen to reprocess – certainly not a foregone conclusion – than it would have been to produce mixed-oxide fuel, along the lines of the current programs in Japan and France.

A Shift in Emphasis to the Front End of the Fuel Cycle

In any case, Iran was seriously interested in understanding the back end of the fuel cycle to help support the country’s incredibly ambitious nuclear program. France cancelled its contracts with Iran in 1979. Iran would later finish construction at ENTEC and pursue conversion experiments and fuel fabrication at the facility in the 2000s. The activities at the site, however, have focused primarily on the front end of the fuel cycle.

ENTEC is a microcosm for the shift in emphasis from reprocessing to enrichment. Yet, even in 1976, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is known to have been interested in the development of the gas centrifuge. In turn, the emphasis on Iranian nuclear “independence” and the “all of the above” approach to the development of nuclear energy suggests continuity in nuclear decision-making. However, the scope and type of experiments conducted outside of ENTEC raises questions about the ultimate end goal of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

For me, the number and type of experiments that were conducted outside of ENTEC raises a number of questions about intent. In turn, I believe that the construction of large sites, like Lavizan-Shian (which seems to duplicate the declared intent of ENTEC and was reportedly linked to the Ministry of Defense), is strong circumstantial evidence of an illicit weapons program. However, I also believe that the program was halted in 2003 and that the Islamic Republic has an incentive to resolve the “outstanding issues” and reach some kind of nuclear détente with the United States and the rest of the P5+1.

Back to the Future: Consolidating Research at ENTEC

As part of any final agreement, it would behoove the United States to look to history and to encourage Iran to consolidate all of its nuclear-related research at ENTEC (with some carve-outs for legitimate university research). This proposal would have to move in parallel to the current agreement that – if implemented – would lengthen Iranian “break out” times. Such a policy could ease the burden of verifying the non-diversion of nuclear materials in Iran and could help ease the implementation of future Additional Protocol style inspections. Moreover, it could help the Islamic Republic brand any future agreement with the P5+1 as a “win” vis-à-vis its preference for maintaining its “rights under the NPT.”