Analysis: The nuclear fuel deal with Iran

Analysis The nuclear fu

October 26, 2009 01:29

From the The Institute for National Security Studies: The emerging nuclear fuel deal between the US, Russia, France and Iran - whether it is actually implemented or not - is shaping up as another point Iran has scored to fend off international efforts that would end its uranium enrichment activities. Although this agreement would deplete the Iranian's stocks of low enriched uranium (LEU), it would also provide them with fresh nuclear fuel for its nuclear research reactor. Moreover, Iran has made it absolutely clear that it has no intention of giving up either its present capabilities or its nuclear activities in Natanz, Arak and any other facility it may have in return for this deal. The facts are these: the Teheran Nuclear Research Center contains a small, aging nuclear research reactor, fueled by 20 percent enriched uranium. This reactor is used for nuclear research, particularly the production of isotopes for medical and industrial uses. Yet despite being under IAEA safeguards, the reactor has also been used in the past for weapons-related research - the production of minute quantities of plutonium. The fuel for this reactor is running low, and Iran has been at a loss how to procure a fresh supply, doubting whether anyone would agree to resupply it in light of the ongoing nuclear crisis. Several months ago Iran turned to the IAEA for help. Advised of this situation, the US drafted and then discussed the contours of a deal with Russia, France and Iran prior to the P5+1 meeting that convened on October 1 in Geneva. From the perspective of the P5+1, the express purpose of the meeting was to bring about the suspension of all uranium enrichment activities in Iran, to be followed by a solution to the broader issue of nuclear weapons development. During the meeting, however, the idea of Iran devoting a portion of its LEU to produce fuel for its reactor was discussed: namely, enriching Iran's existing LEU to 20% in Russia, and then producing the specialized fuel rods for the reactor in France. By doing so, Iran's stocks of LEU would be depleted by an estimated 75%. This would reduce the available stocks to much less than is needed for the production of one nuclear explosive device. The plan was greeted with great enthusiasm by the parties at the discussions, and in the follow-up meetings in Vienna all efforts were devoted to drawing up a draft agreement that was then submitted to the concerned governments for approval. Although not all details of the proposal are public, if Iran continues its uranium enrichment activities (as it avows it will), it would be able to replenish its LEU stocks in less than a year. Iran would be able to achieve the quantity needed for the further enrichment to make one nuclear warhead within far less than that time, since it will have accumulated more than that quantity before the amount needed for the reactor fuel is actually shipped out (this would reportedly occur in mid-January 2010). What then is the US trying to achieve with this deal? The deal will obviously not in itself stop Iran's nuclear program, and it even implicitly legitimizes Iran's uranium enrichment activities, because the subject of the deal is uranium that was enriched by Iran in direct violation of five UN Security Council resolutions. Moreover, the deal was not conceived as part of a grand US strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, but was rather the outgrowth of the specific Iranian request to the IAEA for more fuel for the Teheran reactor. Thus the question remains - what is President Obama's purpose? When Obama learned of Iran's request for more reactor fuel, he saw an opportunity to test Iranian intentions while significantly reducing Iran's stockpile of LEU. The idea of reducing the stockpile is in itself a positive move, but the measure was not devised with an eye to the larger goal of blocking Iran's attainment of a nuclear military capability. Herein lie the problems with the deal. How can the proposed offer be a test of Iran's intentions? The logic is most likely that if Iran is willing to submit a good portion of its LEU stockpile for peaceful purposes, this indicates that its intentions are probably peaceful, or at least not immediately military. Conversely, if Iran does not agree to the deal, this provides a strong indication that its intentions are not entirely peaceful: namely, that it is saving the enriched uranium for something else. This test, however, is flawed in two important respects. The first dimension goes to the terms of the test itself. Even if Iran ultimately agrees to the deal, this by no means "proves" that its intentions are peaceful, because it may calculate that it can replenish the stocks in Natanz relatively quickly and perhaps use other, secret, facilities for this purpose as well. Moreover, it is working on the plutonium route in Arak. Similarly, if Iran does not agree to the draft, this in itself would not be "proof" that its intentions are necessarily military. The second flaw is the very need to test Iran's intentions. In fact, there are enough indications already that its intentions are not peaceful. One needs to look no further than the IAEA itself - not at the positions of its director-general, ElBaradei, rather those of his deputy, Olli Heinonen. Heinonen indicated already in February 2008 that the IAEA possesses evidence that is not consistent with any explanation other than that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. The existence of the second enrichment plant at Qom also points in this direction. As such, these tests of Iran's intentions add nothing, but more problematic, they can be dangerous. The so-called test of Iran's intentions has been framed in a manner that if this week Iran agrees to the deal - especially after saying that it needs more time once the US, Russia, and France have all agreed - the determination of the international community to confront it firmly will very likely decrease considerably. It will seem that Iran has "finally" chosen the route of cooperation, whereas in reality the specific deal that will have been secured does nothing more than (at best) delay its plans. The international community cannot afford to allow this deal to distract it from the broader goal that it has set for itself, which is to stop Iran from advancing toward nuclear weapons. If Iran accepts the deal, the challenge for the international community will be to continue negotiations while maintaining the same degree of determination as before the deal was secured. At the very least, it should consider postponing provision of reactor fuel to Iran until a more comprehensive deal - one that addresses the real issues of concern - is carved out. And if Iran rejects the deal, the international community will be left in an awkward position, but at least its determination to stop Iran will likely remain strong.

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