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.