Iran’s fuel for conflict
by Gareth Porter
Le Monde Diplomatique
Talks between Tehran and the West were stalled for months over the question of uranium enrichment: Iran was allowed to do this under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) but forbidden to do so by UN Security Council resolutions. Then a possible solution emerged from an unexpected quarter. More than 40 years ago, the US had built a nuclear reactor in Tehran to produce radioisotopes for medical research. After the 1979 revolution and the severance of diplomatic relations with Washington, Iran had to look elsewhere for the supply of uranium enriched to 20% that it needed to operate this reactor. It obtained 23 kilograms from Argentina under an agreement signed in 1988, enough to feed the reactor until 2010.
With this date approaching, Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in June 2009, asking for help in purchasing fuel, which would be allowed under the provisions of the NNPT but would require that international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme be lifted.
On hearing of this request, the Obama administration decided on a strategy that would force Iran to divest itself of its stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU), then estimated at 1,500 kilograms. During a visit to Moscow in July 2009, Gary Samore, President Obama’s chief adviser on the Iranian issue, put forward a proposal that he had formulated with Bruce Reidel for the Brookings Institution in December 2008 (1). This would require Iran to send most of its stock of LEU to Russia to be enriched to 20%, which would set Iran’s nuclear programme back at least 12 months.
Then, just one week after agreeing to talks with the G5+1 (the US, France, the UK, Russia and China + Germany), Tehran informed the IAEA that it was building a second uranium enrichment facility near Qom, in addition to the plant at Natanz. The US, Britain and France denounced this action, suggesting that Iran had only informed the IAEA because it knew that western intelligence services were about to reveal the plant’s existence.
Tehran said it had complied with the NNPT’s time limits for informing the IAEA and insisted that the site was intended as a backup in the event of an Israeli air strike on the Natanz site, threats that Tel Aviv regularly makes and which Washington uses to exert pressure on Tehran. (Samore has advocated making use of these threats in his arm-wrestling matches with Iran.) And on 6 July 2009, in an interview with ABC, Vice-President Joseph Biden declared: “Israel can determine for itself, it’s a sovereign nation, what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran.” Many observers saw this as a green light for an Israeli strike.
Whatever the truth may be, the revelations about the Qom site, which Iran allowed the IAEA inspectors to visit, encouraged the Obama administration to take a tough line at the G5+1 talks in Geneva on 1 October. This resulted in a proposal that Iran should send 80% of its LEU to Russia, after which it would go to France to be turned into fuel rods for the research reactor in Tehran. Presented as a “confidence-building measure”, the offer was intended to deprive Iran of most of its uranium reserves immediately, for 12 months or so, which would delay any technological breakthrough. Obama would have been able to claim an agreement as a diplomatic victory.
Washington suggested that this timeframe would allow the two sides to reach a broader agreement that would eliminate the possibility of Iran developing a bomb. But the logic behind this offer was faulty: the US continues to deny Iran the right to enrich uranium (which would allow it to develop nuclear weapons), yet Iran insists that its right to enrich uranium is not negotiable. And the issue would have to be addressed again in a year’s time, when Iran would once more have accumulated a large quantity of LEU.
Yet the Iranian negotiators did not reject the western proposal outright: they were under orders to be cooperative, to avoid a breakdown that might lead to fresh economic sanctions. But then Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, the senior US representative in Geneva, told reporters that the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, had agreed that Iran would send 1,200 kilograms of depleted uranium overseas. An empty promise: an Iranian negotiator, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters on 16 October that Iran had not agreed to the western plan, or even to its premises. Nor were the Iranian negotiators authorised to accept such a plan at the second round of talks scheduled for 19-21 October in Vienna, during a meeting of the IAEA.
The second round of talks revolved around a draft agreement prepared by the outgoing IAEA director general, Mohamed El Baradei, for 80% of Iran’s uranium stocks to be sent to Russia. A French diplomat confided to the Washington Post that this proposal was “not far” from the West’s ideal solution. On 21 October, the final day of the talks, the media claimed that Iran had agreed to the El Baradei plan. Iran’s IAEA representative, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said the draft was “on the right track” but that his country would have to study the text carefully. El Baradei admitted it was necessary to wait for an answer from Tehran, where a public discussion swiftly began.
Cheaper to buy from abroad
The former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, who is now the speaker of the parliament, and Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign affairs, both insisted that it would be far cheaper for Iran to buy enriched uranium from abroad. They also explained that producing the 116 kilograms required for the medical research reactor would only require 750 kilograms of depleted uranium, not 1,500 kilograms as stated in the agreement.
There were more fundamental objections. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rival in the June presidential elections and a principal opponent since then, said that, if the conditions demanded by the El Baradei plan were met, the efforts of thousands of scientists would “go up in smoke”. Conservative parliamentarian Hesmatollah Falahatpisheh felt that any deal should be conditional on the lifting of economic sanctions, particularly those on raw uranium imports. And Mohsen Rezai, the conservative secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council (2), declared that Iran should retain 1,100 of its 1,500 kilograms of LEU.
Beyond their often violent differences, all Iran’s political factions are against the western proposal. They all believe that the El Baradei plan would deprive Iran of the leverage it has gained over the last few years.
Senior national security officials under the presidencies of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97), Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005) and Ahmedinejad admit that the object of accumulating LEU was always to force the US to engage in serious and comprehensive talks on matters of common interest. They point out that before the enrichment programme began, the US showed no interest in talks. The accumulation of LEU put Iran in a stronger position to negotiate. How could Iran give up this trump card without getting something in return?
Larijani and Boroujerdi’s positions have been widely misinterpreted as evidence of divisions within the Iranian leadership. The New York Times suggested that the Obama administration had scored a political point by dividing Iran’s political class. But this analysis rests on the assumption that Ahmedinejad had accepted the El Baradei plan, when he was mainly concerned with preventing a breakdown in the negotiations.
Call for guarantees
Behind the scenes, a new consensus was being formed between the government and the opposition. Mousavi’s denunciation of the western plan came on 29 October, the same day that Iran published its counterproposal that the uranium should be sent abroad in batches, the second only being shipped when the first was returned. The state news agency IRNA called the “simultaneous exchange” feature of the counterproposal a “red line” in the negotiating position, Iran fearing that any uranium it sent abroad would never be returned. This matches Boroujerdi’s insistence on 26 October that the LEU should be sent to Russia in batches and call for “guarantees” that it would be returned.
Ambassador Soltanieh confirmed, in an interview given to Press TV on 18 November, that Iran wanted a “100% guarantee” that the enriched uranium would be returned, pointing out that Iran had paid for fuel before the 1979 revolution. But after the revolution it had received neither the fuel nor a refund. Iran also insisted that part of the uranium for the medical research reactor should be obtained through commercial transactions. Rafsanjani, a powerful opposition figure, suggests that Iran could enrich uranium to 20% if the LEU sent abroad was not returned.
Although the Iranian counterproposal eliminated everything about the El Baradei plan that made it attractive to the Obama administration and its allies, the Iranian negotiators carefully avoided rejecting the plan outright. They reportedly expressed a “positive attitude” and a willingness to discuss it further. To avoid a breakdown in the talks, Ahmedinejad made yet another offer: to leave roughly a quarter of its LEU under IAEA seals on Iranian soil until the uranium for its medical research reactor is delivered. But Obama’s warning on 15 November that time for negotiations was running out suggests that a new cycle of sanctions is about to begin.
If the talks do break down, it will be because of the logic behind the proposals put forward by Washington. Russia and China have been ambiguous in their support. As Samore suggests, Washington wants an agreement that it can present as a diplomatic victory over Iran. Samore believed that the administration would have done better to try a broader discussion that took account of Iran’s political and economic interests. In the end, the Obama administration seems to have adopted a position that makes it impossible to achieve an agreement acceptable to Tehran and move towards a global settlement with the US. If this is the case, the US may have started down the long, dark corridor to confrontation.