8 April 2012
Another 'Last Chance' for Iran?
The US demands a uranium deal it torpedoed
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
‘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.’
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,
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
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.’
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
‘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.’
‘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
‘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
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.