Is Iran Ready to do a Deal with Obama over its Nuclear Program?

The United States, France, Germany, the UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE form a bloc that are convinced that Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is intended ultimately to produce a bomb. Iran maintains that the program is solely intended to produce fuel for nuclear reactors, which will allow it to avoid using its petroleum for domestic energy and earn the kind of foreign exchange with it that will allow the country to remain independent.

Iran is demonstrating that it wants to reduce tensions with the West over its nuclear enrichment program, which it insists is meant for solely peaceful purposes. President Hassan Rouhani will address the UN today, and John Kerry will meet with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the highest-level contact the two countries have had since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

One sticking point was Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material, which it is reducing by turning it into fuel rods that can only be used to power its medical reactor.

Iran has a medical reactor that uses plates enriched to 19.75%, the highest grade of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). The medical reactor produces isotopes for treating cancer. Iran had purchased fuel for it from Argentina, which has since mothballed its enrichment program, and when Iran ran out, it began enriching to that level itself. It accumulated 240 kilograms (550 pounds) of high grade LEU, which made the West nervous. It is marginally easier to turn uranium enriched to 19.75% into bomb grade, or 90% enriched.

It isn’t an entirely rational nervousness. Iran does not have the capacity to enrich to bomb grade, and anyway couldn’t carry out such an operation while being actively inspected by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. The Western press often reported that Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to 19.75% could be made into a bomb in only a year. But they neglected to report that there is nada, zilch, zero evidence of Iran being anywhere near able to pull such a thing off technically. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear facilities are under international inspection, and no country being actively inspected has ever developed a nuclear weapon.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has confirmed that Iran has turned 40% of its stock of high-grade LEU into fuel rods for the medical reactor. Once made into fuel rods, the material cannot be weaponized. So Iran only has 140 kilograms left of the 19.75% enriched uranium left. That isn’t enough for a bomb even if Iran knew how to make one and had the facilities to do so, which it doesn’t. Salehi says that Tehran intends to turn the rest of the stock into fuel rods, as well. Iran has in fact been feeding these fuel rods into the medical reactor and not stockpiling the high grade LEU, which is how you would expect them to act if they were in fact only interested in fuel, not bombs. Long time readers know that I have held since the middle of the last decade that Iran does not want an actual bomb, but rather only wants a breakout capacity like that of Japan– the ability to construct a bomb in short order if they faced an imminent existential threat. Such a breakout capacity would be almost impossible to forestall, since it mainly depends on know-how, which is widespread. But if Iran and give solid evidence that it has no active weapons program, that might be enough for a deal.

President Hassan Rouhani, elected this summer, has wrested control of the civilian nuclear enrichment program from the clerical establishment, allowing him to order the fashioning of the fuel rods so as to reassure the West (and Israel) about Iran’s intentions.

One of the breakthroughs that could allow a deal with Iran over its enrichment program would be for Tehran to give up producing its own fuel for the medical reactor, and stick to producing only very low grade LEU suitable to fuel the Russian-built reactors at Bushehr, which have just been turned over to Iran by Russian technicians. And this proposal seems in fact to be on the table. The USG Open Source Center translated the following item from Persian:

“Iranian Atomic Chief Says Iran Willing To Discuss Enrichment Grade At Talks
Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA)
Monday, September 23, 2013
Document Type: OSC Summary

Tehran Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) in Persian at 1435 GMT on 23 September reported that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi has said the Islamic Republic would by no means relinquish its right to enrichment but the grade of enrichment could be negotiated.

Speaking to reporters on the sideline of a ceremony for Iran’s takeover of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, Salehi was asked about whether Iran would exercise flexibility regarding its enrichment program if the other party lifted international sanctions.

“The right to enrichment is a sovereign right which we will not relinquish. However, the grade and extent of enrichment can be discussed at the (upcoming) talks,” Salehi replied.

(Description of Source: Tehran Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) in Persian — Official state-run online news agency, headed as of January 2013 by Majid Omid Shahraki, former director general for political and security affairs of President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad’s office. URL: http://www.irna.ir)”

Another step Iran needs to take is to expand the scope of the IAEA inspections. The inspections can verify that no nuclear material has been diverted to military use. But the inspectors want more transparency. Iran should be willing to let them go anywhere, even military bases. It should share the blueprints for the centrifuges. I have a sense that Iran has sometimes been prickly out of nationalism and given itself an image of duplicity or uncooperativeness without intending to or needing to. Tehran should take the lesson of its old enemy Saddam Hussein, who actually was compliant with UN demands and had nothing to hide, but managed to appear as though he were hiding WMD and got his country invaded and himself overthrown and executed.

The UN Security Council has been convinced to place sanctions on Iran over the nuclear enrichment program. In addition, the US Congress and the Department of the Treasury have erected what amounts to a financial blockade on Iranian petroleum sales, twisting customers’ arms not to buy from Iran. This blockade has been only partially successful, and Iran has been finding ways around it. China refused to join in, and Iranian exports to that country were up nearly 10% in August over the previous month, and China’s thirst for oil is growing rapidly. Given US sanctions, Iran has had to develop its own fleet of tankers and has had to ensure them itself, and putting that transportation infrastructure in place is taking time. But the likelihood is that a world in ever increasing need of energy will be unwilling to cooperate with the US blockade, as Reuters points out.

While Iran likely cannot be brought to its knees by the US sanctions, its new leadership would certainly like to get back on the international bank exchanges and wants to do a deal. The Israeli insistence that Iran give up enrichment altogether is a non-starter (and the Israelis, with their nuclear arsenal, should talk). But if what is wanted is assurance that Iran’s program is peaceful, that probably can be arranged with good will on both sides.

The Obama administration for its part should take a reasonable deal from Iran if it is offered. The severe sanctions crafted by AIPAC and passed by Congress are so severe that they could easily provoke a violent incident and even a war if the Iranians become convinced that they are here to stay and there is no escaping them. That might make Washington’s small but powerful coterie of hawks happy but it would bankrupt and demoralize the United States.

33 Responses

  1. So you’re basically saying we Americans should this time accept “yes” from the Iranians, where before “yes” was declined immediately following the 2010 Tehran Declaration; in so doing betraying the Turks and Brazilians that took us for our word.

  2. ” Iran should be willing to let them go anywhere, even military bases. ”

    Do you think any other country would be that cooperative with military espionage? UN inspections lost their credibility when they were used for espionage in Iraq.

    Your analogy to Saddam Hussein is strange. There is no defense when your opponent is willing to lie through their teeth and have the media power to make their version stick, at least for a while. I doubt anything Saddam Hussein said or did could have changed the US war machine.

  3. “But if Iran and give solid evidence that it has no active weapons program, that might be enough for a deal.”

    Dear teacher, thank you so much again.

    However, I believe that in this sentence you have made the same typo I have made many times while writing quickly, to substitute one common short English word for another. (And we can’t catch it in proofreading our own work, because our brains know what the word should be and don’t catch the wrong word.)

    What you meant was, “But if Iran can give solid evidence that it has no active weapons program, that might be enough for a deal.”

    Your service to the muse of Clio is very much appreciated.

  4. Saddam “managed to appear as though he were hiding WMD and got his country invaded and himself overthrown and executed.”

    That’s why the US invaded Iraq? Come on…

  5. Dexter Filkins wrote a brilliant piece in the current New Yorker (www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/09/30/130930fa_fact_filkins?mbid=social_retweet%3Fmbid%3Dsocial_retweet) on how Qassam Suleimani – who Carlie Pierce at Esquire described as “the Zelig of Middle East spookdom” – was quietly working with the Americans before and during the Afghan invasion until David Frum put the useless, meaningless and inflammatory “Axis of Evil” phrase in George Bush’s mouth.

    Basically, the Filkins article describes how Iran, through Mr. Suleimani, was helping the US with intelligence and other information about al Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11, holding regular meetings with Ryan Crocker at the US Embassy in Kabul until The White House lumped iran, Iraq and North Korea together. Although Mr. Suleimani was no do-gooder, he was Tehran’s vehicle to attempt to begin a normalization process until the neo-con’s cut him off at the knees.

    Hopefully, this time around the US will be a bit more subtle – and accurate – in its assessment of the intentions of the Iranians. It’s about time that AIPAC and Jerusalem stop dictating American policy in the region, which I say as both an American and a Jew.

  6. Congratulations on a very clear explanation. Now, the reaction from the U.S. and Israel (no one else matters much in the West) will show that the real Iranian issue is about curtailing their ascendancy in economic and political terms. The nuclear dossier is just a smokescreen. If the sanctions remain Iran will not bomb anything or start a war. But it will be forced into the arms of Russia and China, which is a very negative development for Europe and even the U.S. Iran’s gas could flow to Turkey and beyond and diminish the pricing power of Gazprom. And Iran’s demographic, social and economic strength make it an attractive partner, much better than the medieval Arab sheikhdoms the U.S. loves.

    • “The nuclear dossier is just a smokescreen.”

      Precisely. Only in nations where Orwellian speak is the norm would anyone consider a bomb or two in Iranian hands a threat to Israel with its estimated 200 to 400 bombs and the United States with it hundreds of A-bombs scattered around the world.

  7. Juan, would you agree with the following:
    1. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to enrich uranium to low levels for domestic power consumption and medical treatment.
    2. If the United States would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, Iran would agree to far more transparency.
    3. The US hasn’t agreed that Iran has the right to enrich, and this is the main block to moving the process forward.
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  8. You are right, Juan, you have often asserted that Iran has been pursuing a ‘breakout capacity.’

    But I wish you would define ‘breakout capacity’ with some specificity. Certainly one man’s breakoput capacity is another man’s modest efforts aimed at peaceful power generation.

    It is not easy to build a bomb. No doubt you intend to include the ability to enrichment to the 90% (U235)level. But it takes more than fuel. It takes design and fabrication of the physical bomb which are based on considerable design efforts along with physical testing.

    Engineering is not mathematics, it is primarily an empirical science wherein most of its knowledge derives from experience and testing.

    I have not heard or read any credible reports that Iran has done any such testing or any physical fabrication.

  9. Another possibility is that Iran could allow a modification of the research reactor to use 3.5% enriched fuel. The United States and Russia are modifying research reactors all over the world in this way.

    This modification was part of an earlier offer to Iran. Perhaps it would show good faith for Iran to suggest it.

  10. The real question is: what will it take for the US to do a deal? Iran under Ahmadinejad already agreed to a deal. If you recall, it was shepherded by Turkey and Brazil and met Obama’s conditions. Obama rejected it out of hand.

    I don’t understand this obsession with analyzing what it would take for Iran to do a deal. Why is there so little analysis of American intransigence and what it would take to overcome it?

    • The U.S. could have made the same deal years ago when Ahmadinejad was president, but he was portrayed as the BAD GUY by politicians and the media trying to start a war with Iran.

      Just a few weeks ago, Obama and Kerry were on the verge of attacking Syria. Now, they’re playing the peace card with Iran.

      They turned on a dime.

      Iran should remain VERY suspicious.

  11. Isn’t this potential raproachment contingent on Israel deciding not to use AIPAC to scupper the deal? Previous openings were ended when AIPAC got the Senate to overwhelmingly pass sense of the Senate type legislation saying no deal. So Israel’s cost/benefit calculation has to change enough that they determine that letting a deal go through is in their interests.

  12. “The Israeli insistence that Iran give up enrichment altogether is a non-starter (and the Israelis, with their nuclear arsenal, should talk). But if what is wanted is assurance that Iran’s program is peaceful, that probably can be arranged with good will on both sides.”

    Given Israel’s attitude and its power to influence American policy, the possibility of good will on both sides should be regarded with skepticism.

  13. These direct talks more than a breath of fresh air.

    Prof Cole all over the internet and on MSNBC and other so called liberal outlets it is repeated that former Iranian President has denied the Holocaust. Is this true. I thought he had questioned the numbers of people killed and asked that records be opened up so historians could access.

    Over at the Leveretts place Going to Tehran they have written in the past that Iran had agreed to accessing their enriched uranium from Brazil I believe but the U.S. blocked this deal.

    I thought that Iran has the legal right to enrich uranium up to 20% as signatories of the NPT. And who could blame them for wanting the capacity for this breakdown process. Look at what has been happening in their neighborhood because of U.S. and Israeli warmongering.

  14. Cheryl, is that modification really possible? When US delivered the reactor to Iran (during the Shah) it ran on weapons grade uranium. After the revolution Iran got help from Argentina to convert it to use 20% uranium instead. Modifying it again to run on 3,5% uranium seems to be very far from the original design.

      • Juan Cole, I do know that 19,75% is not (in any practical sense at least) bomb grade, nor did I claim it was. Let me quote wikipedia:
        “Under the United States Atoms for Peace program it was equipped with 5-megawatt pool-type nuclear research reactor, named the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which became operational in 1967 fueled by highly enriched uranium.

        After the Iranian Revolution the United States cut off the supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for the TRR, which forced the reactor to be shut down for a number of years. In 1987–88 Iran signed agreements with Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission to convert the TRR from highly enriched uranium fuel to 19.75% low-enriched uranium, and to supply the low-enriched uranium to Iran.”

        • I cannot for the life of me understand why so many put so much faith in Wikipedia. Wikipedia gets it either wrong or incomplete often enough to be considered the Encyclopedia of Misinformation. If any student, graduate or undergraduate, were to submit to me a research paper using Wikipedia as a cite, he would receive a failing grade.

        • Seems the Wiki notion is that a kind of intellectual sandpaper will get applied to a handy accumulation of mofre or less “scholarly” statements of this or that fact or notion. Facts and notions that, as in all the more traditionally published and vicious word wars between “experts” and “scholars” of all kinds, whose arrogant insistences that they or their school are sole holders of the Truth, so often prove to be, ahem, “crap.” Wiki invites anyone with useful knowledge and expertise to fill in the blanks, add the caveats, present the countervailing bits, and other parts of the running debate that is scholarship.

          And it’s not perfect, because as anyone who looks at personalities and issues knows, people like, say, I don’t know, maybe Joe, will take the opportunity to “edit,” and not for disinterested scholarship reasons, particular articles to favor particular viewpoints. Libertarians and, ah, “conservatives” and those who, er, “favor” the “administration” of our increasingly ratty Empire in all its Kleptocratic, Leviathan, Panopticon, Juggernautian parts, seem to be among the most common players in that game. And of course entries on stuff like “Israel” and other stuff that lives on various misrepresentations get their share of polishing.

          Wiki is not perfect, but most articles include a set of links that let the Careful, Serious Historian or Scholar dig a little deeper into the topic. And it’s one frustration for the folks who claim to have the exclusive Truth, based on their Serious version of the world and its events and unfortunate inhabitants — the Serious ones who maybe know about those events from “participation,” and for various reasons want or need to color them to fit a particular Narrative. While insisting they are the only ones who are “serious historians,” versus anyone extracting a different story from a different, maybe larger and more complete, maybe less colored and biased, set of facts. Since despite claims to the contrary, “history” is still “the story told by the winners,” and way too many cases, in service to the “winners.”

  15. As a strong supporter of Israel, I’m all in favor of talking and listening and striking a deal. I have a lingering doubt technology can be stopped. Sanctions can slow, but not eliminate bomb making capacity. Their program is too spread out, bunkered down for a military strike to work in any event. A deal can certainly be structured at this stage that would be both in the interests of the US, Iran and Israel as well. What is the other option in any event? War? If a deal is structured and Iran is caught breaking a deal, sanctions can be started again.

    The isolation of Iran has a historical metaphor in the blockage of Cuba, designed to punish, and isolate Cuba for partnering with the USSR. But did the embargo of Cuba, hurt Castro? or did it simply allow him to reign forever?

    • What about Israel’s bomb-making capacity?

      What if Israel finds itself in a situation in which it feels justified that it should use its nuclear option and some neutral country is upwind of radioactive fallout?

      South Africa reverted to a non-nuclear status without any adverse consequences. Israel should consider dismantling its atomic arsenal.

  16. “The United States, France, Germany, the UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE form a bloc that are convinced that Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is intended ultimately to produce a bomb”

    I’m not sure that’s true.

    All of the “intelligence” from the US concludes that they are not developing a bomb. (see here: link to antiwar.com)

    All of the blather and bombast about the nuclear program is merely a cover for the west’s aggression to one of the few non-servile states.

  17. The August 2013 IAEA report found that while Iran’s 3.5% enriched uranium stockpiles increased, its 20% enriched uranium stockpile increased by 4 kilos from May to August 2013. Iran now has 185.8 kilos of 20% enriched uranium below the 240-250 kilos needed to make just one bomb, and far below the 90% enriched uranium-235. It is unlikely at this point that Iran could dash toward further enrichment to weapons grade without the IAEA detecting Tehran’s activities

    The August IAEA Report on Ira: Key Takeaways
    Arms Control NOW
    8/28/2013

    link to armscontrolnow.org

    The August IARA report is available at the link near the top.

  18. And after all the posturing by Rouhani recently, he declined the opportunity to simply say hello to Barack Obama at the United Nations. Sigh.

      • C’mon, Bill — The only people who get to play that “we have to behave that way on account of internal politics” card is of course US. And let us gloss right over, in the smug comment-erie floating up off this “diplomatic slight,” that Obama’s the titular head of an Empire that so very clearly has been planning what its own planners say, sub silentio, would be a disastrous (to US) massive “kinetic” war against a country that the US is already attacking via cyberspace and the trenches and battlements of “the world economy.”

        Oh, pshaw — it’s all too complicated to sort out. Where’s the TV remote, honey?

      • “The Guardian offers a plausible explanation why Rouhani declined and opportunity to meet with Obama.”

        The Guardian’s explanation is hardly plausible; it is risible: “Too complicated.” “Alcohol present” (wine on the table!)

        The plausible explanation is that the Supreme Leader Khamenei did not countenance a meeting at this time.

  19. I would also add that anti-semitism is off the charts in much of the arab world, but not in Persia-Iran. Not at all. What anti-semitism exists is top down, not bottom up–like Egypt. I highly doubt a population of 20,000 Jews could exist anywhere else in the middle east outside of Iran or Turkey or theoretically parts of Lebanon or Kurdistan. There are also parallel streams within Israeli and Iranian society that are interesting… half of their populations are sick of religion, strongly secular, with a rich artistic heritage/culture and the rest of the population into religion. In this sense both Iranian and Israeli societies are diverse, somewhat schizophrenic countries.

    I’ve long thought that ‘we’ as in the collective west has chosen the wrong side on both Syria and also on Iranian interests in the middle east, but the pro-Saudi/Israeli thesis was supported by the last idiot king of Iran with his Holocaust denial dementia. He’s gone now. Why not engage Iran.

  20. Prof Cole hope you go listen to Chris Matthews twisted information during the closing of his Tuesday show. While he was upbeat in his support for negotiations between the U.S. and Iran he kept repeating inaccurate and inflammatory comments about Iran’s nuclear program. Claimed Iran had been in a “push to build nuclear weapons” Matthews seems to have had his head up where the sun does not shine on the facts about Iran. When will he have the Leveretts on or you to discuss Iran based on facts not a cheat sheet made up for him by oh I don’t know Bill Kristol. When will MSNBC put up some facts about Iran or have guest on who can actually discuss the issue based on facts?

  21. Prof. Cole, the real question is,”is USA ready to do a deal, or better still, does USA have Israel’s permission?”

    Any one who has followed this topic knows that to expect Iran to prove the non existence of a program they do not have is a smoke screen to create a different smoke screen under which Israel has all but completed the occupation of Palestine.

    The west has successfully completed a western enclave in Palestine; Mission Accomplished.

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