Beyond The Headlines: What’s Really Going On With That “Iran Nuclear Deal”?

Originally published here.

It has been a very interesting and tense month-and-a-half for arms control and nuclear non-proliferation advocates, both those associated with a variety of Western governments as well as those in non-governmental organizations and think tanks.

Against the backdrop of the September 25 revelation of a covert uranium enrichment facility in Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, held a meeting with Iranian nuclear negotiators on October 1 in order to address “the nuclear issue”. The US State Department press briefing on the October 1 talks is lengthy and detailed, and repeats a key point:

We reemphasized our position that Iran has rights, but with those rights come responsibilities. We laid out our view that we look to Iran to take concrete steps to address the international community’s concerns by beginning to create confidence in Iran’s nuclear intentions and establish transparency in its program.

What came out of that meeting was a fairly interesting proposal, to which the Iranians agreed, in principle. I described the deal in great detail here. Basically:

The Tehran Nuclear Research Center includes the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a small light-water reactor that produces radioisotopes for medical use.

According to the US State Department background briefing on the Geneva talks:

… we discussed the question of the Tehran research reactor. And maybe a little background would be helpful. This is a research reactor which has been in operation in Tehran for decades, producing medical isotopes under strict IAEA safeguards. The last supply of fuel for this reactor, which is at roughly 19.75 percent LEU [low-enriched uranium], was supplied by the Argentine government in the early 1990s and it’s going to run out in roughly the next year, year and a half.

Iran came to the IAEA a few months ago with the request to replace this supply. The IAEA consulted us and some others, some other members, and to make a long story short the United States and Russia joined together in a proposal to the IAEA which the IAEA subsequently conveyed as a response to the Iranians, to use Iran’s own LEU stockpile as the basis, as the feedstock for the reactor fuel that’s required.

The plan involves taking the LEU (which is enriched to about 3.5%), sending it to Russia to be enriched to 19.75%, then fabricating it into fuel assemblies to be used in the reactor, which is under IAEA safeguards. The Russians have confirmed they will do the enrichment; the French will fabricate the fuel assemblies.

Under the proposal, approximately 75% of Iran’s LEU would be removed, which is approximately 1,200 kg. It would be out of the country for a year or so before it would be ready for use in the TRR.

It turns out that “agreeing in principle” has become a rather more slippery slope than anyone thought it would. We found this out last week, when Iranian negotiators sat down with the United States, Russia, and France at the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna to further discuss the TRR deal.

Headlines versus reality: what really happened in Vienna?

Mr. Ali Soltaniyeh, Iran's Ambassador and Resident Representative to the IAEA.

Mr. Ali Soltaniyeh, Iran's Ambassador and Resident Representative to the IAEA. Photo Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA Imagebank.

The meetings started on Tuesday October 19 and ended on Friday October 23. Some of the best up-to-the-minute coverage of the meeting was provided by Julian Borger of the UK Guardian. While most of the traditional media were jumping the gun on Friday and shouting things about the “collapse” of the talks, and quoting Iranian state media as solid, unbiased fact, Borger and a few other calmer souls were taking a more measured approach; wisely, they waited for the official IAEA statement, which said:

The United States, Russia and France have indicated today their positive response to IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei´s proposal on a draft agreement to supply Iran with nuclear fuel for its research reactor, which amongst other things produces radioisotopes for medical purposes.

Iran informed the Director General today that it is considering the proposal in depth and in a favourable light, but it needs time until the middle of next week to provide a response.

I wanted to get a better feel for what might be going on here, namely why Iran needed extra time and is obviously stalling a bit. I spoke with Greg Thielmann, who is a Senior Fellow with the Arms Control Association. He pointed out to me that Iran did not outright reject the proposal, that it was received favorably in Moscow and by the French, and that we have to remember what’s going on internally in Iran. He said:

Well, I think there’s spinning going on all around, and the statements of the press and various individuals all have to be compared. You can’t necessarily dismiss this or that, but a lot of the stories on Friday morning were generated by Iranian parliamentarian’s statement about this. Well, the Iranian parliamentarian is not in charge of this decision, so it’s interesting. It may be an indication of broader concerns in Tehran, but my own reading of Tehran is that the politics there are very volatile.

… I think the Iranian government is feeling itself in a rather vulnerable position, so that has to play into how this tentative agreement from Vienna is received in Tehran. It seems to me that any Iran government making a deal with the west, which includes “The Great Satan” — America — and France, who the Iranians feel have betrayed them in past nuclear deals, would be somewhat vulnerable to those in Iran who want to use that tentative agreement to pursue whatever political objectives they have on the domestic scene. So it doesn’t surprise me that this agreement is not going down easily in Tehran.

I think we have to be somewhat patient here. We can be disappointed that they didn’t meet ElBaradei’s two-day deadline for getting back, but given the complexity of the issues here, and the seriousness with which I think we should look at news that can really open the doors to other things, and to actually make a serious contribution to increasing the confidence levels on both sides, that’s worth taking a few days, if necessary, to get a positive response. So, if by the middle of next week we don’t have a positive response, well, then, there are other ways to look at this, but I see no reason to be unduly pessimistic at a delay in getting a response, particularly when the IAEA implies that the Iranians have not rejected the overall formula that was agreed on October 1.

Arms control analyst Joshua Pollack has a couple of very nice, detailed analyses of what sort of deal has been offered to Iran. He points out that the US has a significant technical role in the deal, including an offer to provide safety upgrades to the forty-one-year-old TRR. In other words, the US is deeply involved in this deal, and not just in a political manner.

What happens next?

Clearly, there is some kind of disagreement going on in Tehran. As Thielmann told me:

I do not see the Iranians on the verge of throwing all this out. I think they’re under considerable pressure right now, particularly because of the exposure of this secret facility, to do something constructive.

Indeed, it looks like they are not going to reject the deal.

Today’s news, which could change by tomorrow, shows that they’re still interested, but that they want significant, but unspecified amendments, and that we won’t know their decision until the end of this week.

Again, the media reports are based on Iranian state media, which can’t be dismissed, but also must be taken with a grain of salt, as all state media outlets should be. Julian Borger discusses it further here. I think the whole situation is summed up by this:

The Iranian government was supposed to have given an official response to the IAEA deal by last Friday but asked for a few days’ extension. Now, we are told we will have to wait until the end of the week.

“They are incapable of making a decision,” said one European diplomat tonight. “Our guess is that there is a big fight going on in Tehran, and no one has the power to say anything.”

We may get an entirely different answer by the end of the week. All indications are that Iran will accept the deal, but in what form?

Stay tuned.

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