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.