A unique opportunity to reach a deal with Iran

By Anton Khlopkov | November 19, 2009

There are two key reasons why the Iranian nuclear problem has been deadlocked for so long: a crisis of confidence and the absence of any feasible proposal that would address the concerns of both sides.

On October 1, however, it appeared as though a confidence-building measure had finally presented itself. Talks in Geneva between the political directors of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1), the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council produced a long-awaited agreement. In it, Iran agreed, “in principle,” to send abroad most of its declared low-enriched uranium (LEU), where it would be turned into fuel to be used at the Tehran Research Reactor.

Three weeks later, after consultations with Iran, France, Russia, and the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proposed practical steps to implementing the deal. These steps included shipping about 1,200 kilograms of LEU produced at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (about 70 percent of Iran’s declared stockpile) to Russia by the end of the year. There, the Iranian uranium hexafluoride would be purified and enriched to 19.75 percent–most likely at the Siberian Chemical Combine. (Russia’s enrichment plants have the spare capacity necessary to guarantee a fast turnaround of the Iranian order.)

Next, the uranium would be shipped to France, which, along with Argentina, possesses the technology to produce nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. By the end of 2010, the fuel made in France would be sent to Iran via Russia. (Paris will participate in the project through an agreement with Moscow.) The plan is for the entire project to be implemented on a commercial basis.

In addition, the United States indicated that it could help Iran upgrade the safety system of the research reactor, which appears to have experienced problems ever since it began using LEU in 1993. In recent years, the reactor has been operating at about 3 megawatts on average–only about 60 percent of its capacity.

So a deal that would refuel the Iranian research reactor is win-win. For Iran, the benefits are obvious. First and foremost, without the fresh fuel, Tehran’s research reactor would have to operate either in fuel-saving mode or shut down altogether in the next few months. Plus, the upgrades to the reactor would likely increase its efficiency in the production of medical isotopes for therapeutic and diagnostic procedures. Better still, it would represent an indirect recognition by the P5+1 that Iran has the right to enrich uranium–a right Russia and China have never denied. And finally, the proposal would be a step toward restoring confidence in the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program. This confidence was shaken once again following Iran’s September letter to the IAEA, which revealed a new, and undeclared, uranium enrichment facility near Qom.

For the P5+1, the benefits are equally obvious: It would bolster domestic proponents of a political and diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear case. (And they need bolstering–especially after the existence of the Qom enrichment facility came to light.) It also would alleviate Western concerns that Iran could divert its LEU stocks to manufacture a nuclear device.

Thus, smooth sailing, right? Not so fast. Nearly a month after Russia, the United States, and France accepted the IAEA draft of the agreement, Iran still hasn’t given a clear response. So far, Tehran only has indicated to the IAEA that it finds the proposal interesting but that the agreement needs to be substantially reworked. Yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also indicated that Tehran would not send abroad any of its uranium stockpile prior to nuclear fuel delivery to Iran.

As a result, the cautious optimism of a few weeks ago is beginning to wane while disappointment and pessimism is gaining steam. It’s very likely that unless progress is made in the next few weeks on the practical implementation of the agreement, the exceptional opportunity to reach a breakthrough in resolving Iranian nuclear crisis will be missed. And nobody knows when, or if, we will have another one.

Therefore, it is now time for the P5+1 and IAEA to use every tool at their disposal to make the Iranian leadership, parliament, and opposition leaders understand that the current proposal is a unique opportunity. Russia, for its part, is trying everything it can think of to persuade Iran to take the deal. (The item was high on the agenda of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov during his visit to Iran in early November.) The P5+1 also should consider strengthening the proposal, inasmuch as it can without jeopardizing its position. Here are three things the P5+1 might consider to this end:

  • Speed up the production time of the nuclear fuel. To do so, other countries than France could be used. It seems as though there is not a strong technical reason why the time frame currently on the table (12 months) couldn’t be expedited.
  • Adjust the sequence of steps. The best way forward probably would be simultaneous action, whereby LEU is removed from Iran at the very moment that the nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor arrives. The actual fuel can be manufactured from Russian uranium stocks, the cost of which will be partially offset by the shipments from Iran. Obviously, this would meet the Iranian demands that Mottaki articulated yesterday.
  • Use the LEU removed from Iran to produce nuclear fuel for a research reactor in a third country. This would provide an international dimension to Iran’s achievements in developing the nuclear fuel cycle and strengthen the position of Iranian proponents of the agreement. In practical terms, the Iranian LEU could be used as part of a joint Russian, U.S., and IAEA program that converts research reactors built by the Soviet Union to use LEU instead of highly enriched uranium, dubbed the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return Program.

Whether the deal is adjusted along these lines or not, the proposed agreement could potentially calm international concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program. And it’s unlikely another chance to do so will present itself any time soon.

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