New Fuel Deal with Iran: Getting Back to Basics

by Ivanka Barzashka

After a year-long stalemate, Iran and the P5+1 seem to have agreed on a day for holding political talks – December 2. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed last week that the meeting “will not include discussions on fuel swap” – the deal with France, Russia and United States, also known as the Vienna Group, to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

In principle, both Washington and Tehran agree that the fuel deal is still on the table, but the Iranians have been critical of the delay in setting a date for talks, which they interpret could be a lack of “willingness to enter peaceful nuclear cooperation.”

A successful fuel deal is a necessary condition for further engagement. However, circumstances have changed since October 2009, when the Vienna Group first made the fuel offer. Now, the State Department maintains that “any engagement [should be] in the context of that changed reality.” (Most of the Vienna Group’s outstanding concerns were listed in a confidential document to the IAEA, published by Reuters on June 9.)

However, the alleged terms of Washington’s new proposal seem to be muddled and will not have the claimed threat-reduction benefits (for a detailed discussion, see this Oct 29 post.) A technically-grounded analysis of what the fuel deal today can, cannot and ought to achieve is available in “New fuel deal with Iran: Debunking common myths,” published on Nov 2 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Some highlights of these two assessments are provided below.

Technical Facts

The Original Fuel Deal

  • The original swap amount of 1,200 kg of low-enriched UF6 corresponds to 120 kg of 20-percent uranium in fuel elements – the same amount sold to Iran by Argentina in 1992 and enough to power the TRR for about 20 years.
  • The 1,200 kg of low-enriched UF6, if further enriched, could produce one crude nuclear weapon. Removing this amount reduces by one the number of bombs Iran could potentially make in the future, irrespective of its continued LEU production.
  • If Iran had shipped out the 1,200 kg of low-enriched UF6 in October 2009, it would have been left with 450 kg – or not enough for feedstock to produce a bomb’s worth of HEU.  Iran’s continued enrichment made this a short-lived benefit.

Changed Circumstances

  • A stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium will reduce by more than half Iran’s time to a bomb.
  • As of 15 November 2010, Iran has produced approximately 1,500 kg of low-enriched UF6 since October 2009, but it would have done so irrespective of a fuel deal.
  • An ostensible problem today is that if Iran exported the 1,200 kg of low-enriched UF6 today, it would be left with 2,000 kg of low-enriched UF6 – or more than enough to serve as feedstock for the production of a bomb’s worth of HEU.

 

A Revised Proposal

  • A revised fuel deal should incorporate all of Iran’s produced 20 percent uranium. Tehran’s current stockpile of 30 kg 20-percent enriched UF6 is equivalent to 200 kg of low-enriched UF6.
  • A proposal that includes Iran’s current 20-percent stockpile and corresponds to the fuel requirements of the TRR should include 1,000 kg of low-enriched UF6 and 30 kg of 20-percent enriched UF6.

Alleged New Terms

  • Washington’s new proposal to increase the swap amount from 1,200 kg to 2,000 kg low-enriched UF6 will not leave Iran below a bomb’s worth of material.
  • In exchange for the 2,000 kg low-enriched UF6, Iran could be sold 220 kg of research reactor fuel, or enough to last it beyond 2050.
  • The extra 800 kg of low-enriched UF6 is equivalent to several percent of Bushehr’s annual fuel consumption and could, in theory, be used as partial payment for power reactor fuel. In practice, this may justify Iranian enrichment.

Conclusions

  • The deal to refuel Tehran’s medical isotope rector is still worth pursuing and is a necessary condition for further engagement on Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
  • The fuel swap never directly aimed to stop an Iranian bomb or permanently prolong Tehran’s time to develop one.
  • Leaving Iran with less than a weapon’s worth of uranium was a political selling point, not a long-term strategic advantage.
  • Any threat-reduction benefits of the deal stem from the fuel needs of the research reactor.
  • An increase in the fuel swap amount due to Iran’s larger LEU stockpile is difficult to justify technically. A hike will not provide lasting benefits, but will surely be seen by Iran as moving goalposts and could derail negotiations.
  • Prospects for negotiating suspension of Iran’s 20-percent enrichment are still good, but time is running short.
  • Despite changed circumstances, the deal’s threat reduction and confidence building benefits can still be salvaged. Inaction could allow Iran to further increase its weapons potential.

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2 Responses to “New Fuel Deal with Iran: Getting Back to Basics”

  1. hass November 15, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    This would hardly be the first time that the US has moved goalposts in order to derail negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. Back when Iran agreed to suspend enrichment for a short time under the terms of the Paris Agreement in return for the EU-3′s recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights, the US pressured the EU-3 to include a demand on Iran to permanently cease enrichment — in violation of the agreement. And when Iran did implement the Additional Protocol, the US demanded that Iran allow IAEA inspections that exceeded even the AP. This is a standard tactic by the US because ultimately the US does not want to resolve the nuclear issue and instead wants to keep it alive as a pretext, just as “WMDs in Iraq” are pretextual.

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