Iran Announces Breakthrough Nuclear Exchange Deal

Veteran Iran observer Borzou Daragahi reports on the agreement just announced by Iran and Turkey on the disposition of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

Under the deal, according to the Iranian spokesman, “After a final agreement is signed between Iran and the Vienna group, our fuel will be shipped to Turkey under the supervision of Iran and the IAEA . . .” “Then we will dispatch 1,200 kilograms [2,640 pounds] of 3.5% enriched uranium to Turkey to be exchanged for 120 kilograms [264 pounds] of 20% enriched uranium from the Vienna group.” The Vienna group is the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Daragahi toward the end of his piece signals some doubts. This deal is virtually the same as the one agreed to by Iran at Geneva last October, on which it promptly reneged. The only difference is that Turkey has been added as a sort of escrow-holder for the Iranian stock of low enriched uranium. Why that change suddenly would make the deal palatable to the hardliners who torpedoed the last such agreement is mysterious.

Probably for this reason, Interfax is reporting (no Web link yet) that sources in the Russian foreign ministry are saying it would be premature for them to comment on the proposed deal. I take that statement to mean that they are suspicious that the Iranians are just playing head games and attempting to blunt the move to new UN sanctions. On May 14, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that an agreement with Iran was not out of the question and depended on a few basic principles agreed to by those international capitals talking to Iran on the issue. Medvedev said, “The general approaches are invariable, and virtually all countries adhere to them . . . Firstly, Iran’s nuclear program must be peaceful. Secondly, it should be controlled by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. Thirdly, Iran must cooperate with the international community and the IAEA, and in the fourth place, Iran must observe the rules concerning the non-proliferation of nuclear technologies.” Medvedev had also signaled last week that Russia would oppose any military resolution of the crisis with Iran, pushing back against hawks in Israel and the US.

It is possible that the Iranian leadership, especially top cleric Ali Khamenei, were persuaded by interlocutors such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, who warned that in the absence of such an agreement, Iran would increasingly face crippling international sanctions of the sort that virtually destroyed Iraq. These four countries, called BRIC, have emerged as a second tier of world power after the G7 advanced capitalist parliamentary powers of the West plus Japan, led by the US. Brazil and Turkey engaged in intensive last-minute negotiations with Iran.

It would be wise to see this announcement as a preliminary gambit of some sort rather than as a done deal. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is correct that if it goes through, it puts the ball in the court of the West, especially of Barack Obama and the United States.

Iran has a small nuclear reactor given to it by the United States in 1969 for producing medical isotopes of the sort used for instance, to treat cancer. It runs on specially manufactured plates enriched to 19.75%, which is still considered low-enriched uranium.

Iran so far cannot produce its own low-enriched uranium to run the reactor, and is running out of the LEU it imported years ago from Argentina for that purpose. The international community’s sanctions on Iran will make it difficult to import more such material at the moment. The Obama administration and the rest of the permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany offered Iran a deal last October at Geneva. They would sponsor a swap, whereby Iran sent much of its current stock of low-enriched uranium to a third country, which would transform it into 19.75% enriched uranium for the medical isotope reactor.

Iran has a couple of tons of low-enriched uranium, 3.5%, produced over the past decade. Those who fear (without any actual evidence for it) that Iran has decided to go for broke and attempt to enrich to 95% for a bomb see these two tons as ‘seed stock’ for future bombs. Iran has no detectable nuclear weapons program, however, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly certified (again this spring) that no nuclear material at the Natanz plant has been diverted for non-civilian purposes.

Uranium naturally occurs in mixed form, with U-238 among small amounts of U-235; enrichment is designed to increase the proportion of the more volatile U-235 in the mix. Enrich to 3.5% an you have fuel to run a nuclear reactor for electricity. Enrich to 19.75% and you have medical isotopes sending out enough radiation to kill cancer cells. Enrich enough material to to 95%, and you’ve got a nuclear bomb. Knowing how to enrich to 3.5 % or 19.75% is not exactly the same skill set as required to enrich to 95%, and enriching enough material to that level to have a plausible bomb is also difficult.

15 Responses

  1. The reall threat is the fear of “nuclear umbrella”, which will basically weaken the IRI power in the region not increase it; hence, the decision not to go forward with even the “japan Option”.

  2. Thank you very much for your sober analysis of this unfolding diplomacy.. I very much appreciate your behind the scenes observations. The entire episode with Iran and it’s worrisome parallel to the “WMD” scare [& sanctions] employed prior to the Iraq attack raises issues of factuality and veracity. Why is it O.K. for Israel to make hundreds perhaps thousands of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons with NO inspections, but Iran is under the microscope, and threatened with nuclear attack almost weekly??
    Aren’t all these UN centered groups and players just the strong and their friends keeping the weak, weak…. and the strong strong regardless of the facts without any semblance of fairness or justice???

  3. Without coment on whether this deal will happen, islamic Turkey as a middle-man for an enriched uranium swap works for both countries. It keeps the Iranian side of the interaction within the islamic circle. The Turks also want their own nuclear future, and both countries want to be independent regional powers, as their educated middle classes, geography and history warrant.

    Russia isn’t trusted, nor are the European NATO countries.

    England, China, France, Israel, Pakistan and India have demonstrated that true national sovereignty is a function of nuclear power. Why would emerging independent powers like Turkey, Brazil, Arabia, Iran and Indonesia settle for anything less?

    Christian, socialist-athiest, Hindu and Jewish states are nuclear armed. Islam wants some kind of neighborhood nuclear parity for its states. Inshallah, sine qua non. Duh.

    Next up, the Bhuddists and Aussies? I guarantee that they’ve thought about it.

  4. I am seeing several sources reporting that some hours after the deal was announced Iran’s foreign ministry seemed to undercut it:

    The deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey won’t prevent Iran from continuing to enrich uranium, including to higher concentrations, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said. The activity of “enrichment to 20 percent inside our country will still continue,” Ramin Mehmanparast said after the signing of the deal, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

    Having the Turkey-brokered swap framework in place is surely an extremely positive step, but this doesn’t seem to actually resolve the disagreement that was leading players such as the U.S. to call for sanctions in the first place, does it? Indeed the U.S. administration does not yet seem to view this as changing things any.

  5. my guess is that the conservatives faction in Iran persuaded the Green movement not to use the nuclear deal against the conservatives. They were able to reach some sort of unity on this position, hence made is possible to put the ball back in Obama’s court. Very interesting development.

  6. Offtopic: I’m surprised that you chose not to comment on Noam Chomsky being barred from entering Israel. I would very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you feel this could happen to you? What should the Obama Administration’s response be to this?

    • People should never draw any conclusions from my not posting on something here. I have been traveling and barely able to do an entry a day and had to concentrate on what seemed most important. I could just put 10 news links up a day here, and maybe I should, with little or no comment. But if you want my analytical take, it is humanly impossible to comment on even everything important.

  7. For the sake of your other arguments’ credibility, please be careful with claims about requirements for enriching uranium. (I wouldn’t mind if you choose not to post this comment. I just want to armor your arguments against political adversaries.)
    Anyone who can enrich natural uranium (NU) to 3.5% can enrich to 90%, which is enough for most kinds of nuclear weapons. (Enrichment above 90% requires more investment for diminishing returns in military utility.)
    NU is like a mixture of 7 black marbles (U-235) and 993 white marbles (U-238). Enrichment to 3.5% requires raising the ratio U-235 : U-238 to 7 : 193 by removing 993 – 193 = 800 white marbles. Further enrichment to 90% requires raising the ratio to 7 : .78 by removing 193 – .78 = 192.22 white marbles.
    Thus, enriching NU to 3.5% requires more work than enrichment from 3.5% to 90%. The important inequality is 993 – 193 > 193 – .78 , not 3.5 – 0.7 < 90 – 3.5. In this illustration, the tails assay was zero, i.e., no black marble was removed.
    More realistically, if the separated waste (tails) contained 0.3% U-235, then the separative work required to enrich 1 t NU to 3.5% is 0.55 kSWU (thousand separative work units). Further enrichment of the product (125 kg) to 90%, with the same tails assay, requires only 0.32 kSWU of separative work. Again, enrichment from 3.5% to 90% requires less work than enriching NU to 3.5%.

    • I am not an expert in nuclear enrichment, and I did get slightly different values of SWU, (however the trend I got was similar). With that said, I’m not sure if that it’s exactly easier to enrich from 3.5% to 90% than it is from .711% to 3.5%. The values don’t reflect that, especially because as the ratio is raised it becomes drastically more difficult to separate the two isotopes. Using your example of white and black marbles, it isn’t like just being able to pick out white ones and removing them. It would be more like putting them in a chamber that somewhat separates the two, where you cannot see what you are grabbing, and then taking out white ones mostly making sure you are correct. As the number of white marbles dwindles it becomes more and more difficult to pick correctly.

  8. Prof. Cole: With regards to what you found “mysterious”:

    What is different about this agreement is that Turkey has guaranteed that if the West does not deliver the 20%-enriched fuel as promised, it will return Iran’s 4%-enriched uranium to Iran.

    Formerly, Iran worried that the West might take its 4% fuel without giving it the promised 20% fuel.

    But the main thing that has changed is that Ahmadinejad has succeeded in convincing the Iranian establishment to go with the deal. Ahmadinejad supported the swap from the beginning in an unconditional fashion and argued strongly in its favor. However, his decision was attacked vigorously both by moderates/reformists like Hasan Rouhani and by fellow conservatives, like Ali Larijani. He seems to have finally succeeded in convincing the Leader, Khamene’i.

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