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  Gulf Crisis Weekly
8 April 2012

Another 'Last Chance' for Iran?

The US demands a uranium deal it torpedoed in 2010

Milan Rai, Justice Not Vengeance

On 7 April, the New York Times carried a detailed report on the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy in the run-up to renewed international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme. Tehran, in President Barack Obama’s words, is to be offered a ‘last chance’ – the latest in a series of ‘last chances’.

According to the article, the maximum demand is to be that Iran shuts down and disassemble the Fordow uranium enrichment plant buried in a mountain near the holy city of Qom. The minimum demand is that Iran surrenders its stock of 20% enriched uranium.

In other words, the maximum demand is that Iran gives up the option of enriching uranium in a location that is near-invulnerable to a conventional military assault; and the minimum demand is that Iran agree to a trade that was previously scuppered by the US itself.


Iran must only be allowed to use enrichment facilities that can be destroyed by conventional weapons. It must not be allowed to defend itself from the kind of illegal, unilateral Israeli strike that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in June 1981, and that has been threatened by top officials in Israel for many years.

On the same grounds, Israel should be asked to dismantle its underground facility buried underneath the Dimona nuclear weapons factory (revealed by Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu). Only above-ground activities should be permitted.

It should be pointed out that uranium enrichment is a legal activity, that Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that its enrichment activities – including at Fordow – are monitored and inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.


Turning to the minimum demand, the New York Times writes:

‘While opening bids in international negotiations are often designed to set a high bar, as a political matter American and European officials say they cannot imagine agreeing to any outcome that leaves Iran with a stockpile of fuel, enriched to 20 percent purity, that could be converted to bomb grade in a matter of months.’

Factbox: Uranium enrichment
Uranium in the ground is made up of different types or isotopes of the metal. Typically, only 0.7% of it is Uranium-235, the volatile isotope that is needed for nuclear power and for nuclear weapons. Nuclear fuel for a light water reactor requires enrichment to 3%-5%. Nuclear fuel for research reactors requires 12%-20% enrichment. If the proportion of Uranium-235 is 20% or below, it is called ‘low-enriched uranium’ (LEU). If it is enriched above this level, it is called ‘highly-enriched uranium’ (HEU). The process of enrichment is non-linear: the effort involved in enriching uranium from 0.7% U-235 to LEU is of the same order as that needed to get from LEU to weapons-grade uranium (90% or higher).

What the New York Times does not mention, is that Iran agreed to ship out its LEU back in 2010, in a deal that was torpedoed by President Obama. The tale is long and twisty. It starts in mid-2009 when Iran urgently needed fuel for its Tehran research reactor, which manufactures medical isotopes. Iran proposed that it buy the fuel from international providers, including the United States, rather than enriching its LEU from 3.5% to 20%. The US proposed instead that Iran ship its LEU out of the country, in order for it to be enriched (in Russia) and fabricated (in France) into fuel rods (which are extremely difficult to enrich further to a military grade).

This required Iran to trust Russia and France to promptly enrich, manufacture and return the fuel rods, something that was difficult to do. France’s Eurodif enrichment facility (then part-owned by Iran!) stopped supplying uranium to Iran after the 1979 revolution. In 2009, Russia was 10 years behind schedule in constructing the Bushehr nuclear reactor inside Iran, partly as the result of Western pressure to slow down work.

In response, Iran counter-offered that it was willing to carry out the swap on its own territory. Once the foreign fuel rods was safely inside Iran, the 1,200kg of LEU would be shipped out. There were various more moves, but the initiative petered out, leaving a sense that Iran had rejected a confidence-building measure proposed by the Western powers.

In May 2010, there was a major breakthrough on the fuel-swap, when Turkey and Brazil announced that they had succeeded in gaining Iran’s agreement to the basic framework of the US proposal: Iran’s LEU would be shipped out of the country as a first step; only after the LEU had left the country would the 120kg of reactor fuel rods be offered and imported into Iran within a year.

The US response was that this deal (earnestly sought only months earlier) was completely unacceptable. Officially, the reason given was that in the months since October 2009, Iran had continued building up its LEU stockpile so that 1,200kg of LEU now only constituted just over half the enriched uranium in Iran.

Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA, expressed his dismay:

‘I was surprised at the reaction that some countries would continue to say that they want to apply sanctions, because, the Iranian issue, if you remove over half of the material that Iran has to Turkey, that is clearly a confidence-building measure regarding concerns about Iran’s future intentions… to say that we are going to apply sanctions nonetheless despite this deal, I think would be completely counterproductive.’ (Jorno do Brasil, 29 May 2010)

The Brazilians were stung by the humiliation they had suffered, and released a letter Obama sent to then-President Lula da Silva on 20 April 2010, in which Obama wrote:

‘For us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile. I want to underscore that this element is of fundamental importance for the United States.’

Obama pressed Brazil to pursue a promising option:

‘There is a potentially important compromise that has already been offered. Last November, the IAEA conveyed to Iran our offer to allow Iran to ship its 1,200 kg of LEU to a third country – specifically Turkey – at the outset of the process to be held “in escrow” as a guarantee during the fuel production process that Iran would get back its uranium if we failed to deliver the fuel. Iran has never pursued the “escrow” compromise and has provided no credible explanation for its rejection. I believe that this raises real questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, if Iran is unwilling to accept an offer to demonstrate that its LEU is for peaceful, civilian purposes. I would urge Brazil to impress upon Iran the opportunity presented by this offer to “escrow” its uranium in Turkey while the nuclear fuel is being produced.’

Obama concluded:

‘Throughout this process, instead of building confidence Iran has undermined confidence in the way it has approached this opportunity.’ (Obama letter, 20 April 2010)

The text of the 17 May 2010 Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian fuel-swap agreement conforms exactly to the proposal Obama urged in this letter:

‘... in order to facilitate the nuclear co-operation mentioned above, the Islamic Republic of Iran agrees to deposit 1,200kg (2,600lb) LEU [low-enriched uranium] in Turkey. While in Turkey, this LEU will continue to be the property of Iran. Iran and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] may station observers to monitor the safekeeping of the LEU in Turkey....

‘Islamic Republic of Iran expressed its readiness to deposit its LEU (1,200kg) within one month. On the basis of the same agreement, the Vienna Group should deliver 120kg fuel required for TRR in no later than one year.

‘In case the provisions of this declaration are not respected, Turkey, upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran’s LEU to Iran.’

Iran ate humble pie, enabling Turkey and Brazil to deliver the confidence-building fuel-swap deal that Obama said he wanted. Then Obama rejected it out of hand. The only fair-minded conclusion is that, to use Obama’s words, ‘instead of building confidence the US has undermined confidence in the way it has approached this opportunity’.

Iran had no alternative but to enrich its uranium to 20% to try to manufacture the fuel rods needed for the Tehran Research Reactor. Triggering alarm in the Western media at Iran’s unstoppable enrichment drive towards weapons-grade uranium.

And now the US has the temerity to return to the negotiating table with the demand that Iran reduce its stock of 20% LEU.

And no one laughs.