The Iran fuel swap: a (very) modest proposal

The fuel swap proposal put forward jointly by Turkey, Brazil, and Iran will likely turn out to be much less consequential than either its critics or supporters contend.

The proposal to exchange Iranian enriched uranium for reactor fuel certainly does not have the potential “to settle an ongoing dispute over Iran’s enrichment program,” as the Organization of the Islamic Conference characterized it,[i] but neither will failure to implement it irredeemably damage the international community’s already troubled nonproliferation diplomacy with regard to Iran. The proposal has been met with less enthusiasm than its authors hoped, but the US Administration did not reject it as categorically as some reports have suggested.[ii]

As the critics have pointed out, the Turkey/Brazil version of the fuel swap loses one important dimension of the IAEA proposal of October 2009. The new version no longer removes the majority of Iran’s enriched uranium for storage outside the country, simply because Iran is enriching uranium, even to 20 percent, at too fast a rate. That means the fuel swap at the level proposed is no longer a defence against breakout – that is, it could not ensure that Iran will not be able to accumulate enough enriched uranium to further enrich it to weapons grade to build at least one warhead, should it decide to pull out of the NPT and do so. As Jeffrey Lewis put it, now “Iran can enrich uranium quicker than [the international community] can arrange for it to be sent out of the country.”[iii]

But that’s not a reason not to accept the fuel swap for what it is – a modest gesture of cooperation between Iran and the international community, in which Iran gets fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Call it a goodwill humanitarian gesture inasmuch as it would facilitate continued production of medical isotopes.

But the fuel swap proposal doesn’t begin to address the Iran “problem.” At best the swap could improve the political climate within which real problem solving is pursued – no small thing. Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called it a good proposal that could be “a precursor to full-scope negotiations with world powers.”[iv]

Remember what the Iran problem is that requires those negotiations. It is a rather long list of outstanding issues and unanswered questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency during the course of trying to bring Iran back, following the 2003 discovery of its clandestine nuclear program, into full compliance with its disclosure and safeguards obligations. The most recent IAEA report (18 February 2010), issued under the guidance of the new Director General, Yukiya Amano, identifies the issues that need clarification and resolution, including:[v]

1. Operations at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Nantaz are now under IAEA safeguards, but “additional measures need to be put in place to ensure the Agency’s continuing ability to verify the non-diversion of the nuclear materials at [the plant].”

2. The IAEA is able to confirm that reprocessing and related activities are not taking place at identified facilities, but without the benefit of inspection measures under the Additional Protocol the Agency is not able to confirm that there are no such activities at other, undisclosed, sites in Iran.

3. The IAEA’s request for access to Iran’s heavy water production plant continues to be rejected.

4. Iran has suspended implementation of a modified Code 3.1 provision of the Safeguards agreement by which Iran is required to provide to the Agency design information for any new facility as soon as there is a decision to construct such a facility. The IAEA says Iran cannot unilaterally suspend implementation of the Code 3.1 provision, and also says Iran is the only State with significant nuclear activities which is not following that provision.

5. The IAEA has an outstanding request for further information on “pyroprocessing R&D activities” at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory.”

6. The IAEA also has an outstanding request for access to additional locations, including those engaged in “manufacturing centrifuges, R&D on uranium enrichment and uranium mining and milling.”

7. The IAEA has additional outstanding requests related to further clarification of activities with possible military dimensions (see Note).[vi]

Of course, the merits of these issues or requirements are disputed by Iran; but the point is that these are outstanding issues that merit attention and mutual resolution.

Unfortunately, the bulk of public and diplomatic attention has been on the Security Council demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment. Essentially, such a suspension would be no more helpful in addressing the list of outstanding issues than would the fuel swap – each would help to build confidence, to be sure, but neither would directly address the questions and requirements identified by the IAEA.

Uranium enrichment, which is now carried out under the watchful eye of the IAEA, is, as Iran repeatedly and correctly notes, a perfectly legal activity. Suspension of safeguarded enrichment will do nothing to help the IAEA discover any clandestine enrichment. Again, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point succinctly: “…the problem isnot Iran’s enrichment at Natanz, not even to 20 percent. The problem is Iran’s history of clandestine enrichment. Iran wants to change the narrative to focus on the West’s objection to its arguably legitimate activities. Why we keep helping them do that is beyond me.”

To become reasonably and reliably assured that Iran is no longer operating undeclared nuclear programs requires a fully applied Additional Protocol. To be reasonably assured that Iran is not pursuing military applications (i.e. the bomb) for its fuel cycle activity, requires not only the Additional Protocol but also that the IAEA’s outstanding issues and questions be resolved. Suspending enrichment advances neither of those requirements.

In the meantime, the US response to the Turkey/Brazil/Iran proposal has actually been rather measured:[vii]

-the White House response did not reject the deal, instead it said the transfer of LEU off of Iranian soil would be a positive step, if…;

-it then raised concern about Iran’s intention to continue enriching to 20 percent (the possibly significant point here being that the comment wasn’t about enrichment period);

-the White House statement complained about the Turkey/Brazil/Iran declaration being “vague” about Iran’s willingness to address outstanding issues (the three-state declaration did refer to the fuel exchange as “a starting point to begin cooperation and a positive constructive move forward among nations” – which certainly seems rather “vague”); and

-the US then referred to continuing efforts to get Iran to comply with its obligations (such obligations being attention to the IAEA’s long list of unresolved issues).

The fuel swap, as proposed in October and now, was never intended as an alternative to addressing the outstanding issues at the IAEA. Again, the best that can be said of a fuel swap is that it could help create a climate conducive to progress on those outstanding items. More likely, the fuel swap will have little impact – which is why not only the US, but also Russia and China are considering a new round of sanctions.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the proposed sanctions will be any more effective than the fuel swap in creating a climate for constructive attention to the outstanding IAEA issues,[viii] although the Arms Control Association does point out that Iran’s willingness to enter into a joint proposal with Turkey and Brazil can be seen in part as the result of the pressure brought by Russian and Chinese support for a tougher line on Iran at the Security Council.[ix]

One important step toward more constructive attention to the Iran issue would be to recognize it as a “problem” rather than a “crisis.” “Somehow,” Mr. ElBaradei said last September, “many people are talking about how Iran’s nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world… In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped. Yes, there’s concern about Iran’s future intentions and Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and the international community … But the idea that we’ll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn’t supported by the facts as we have seen them so far.”[x] It’s a matter of persistent diplomacy and pressure that gathers growing support, not crisis management that alienates potential supporters.

eregehr@ploughshares.ca

Notes

[i] “OIC backs Iran nuclear declaration,” Press TV, 20 May 2010. http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=127095&sectionid=351020104.

[ii] Paul Koring, “Iran drives wedge into UN Security Council,” The Globe and Mail , 17 May 2010.http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/iran-drives-wedge-into-un-security-council/article1572359/.

[iii] Jeffrey Lewis, “Zombie Fuel Swap, Back from Dead, Again,” Arms Control Wonk, 17 May 2010.http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2731/zombie-fuel-swap-back-from-the-dead-again.

[iv] “El Baradei: Iran nuclear swap ‘a good agreement’,” International News 24/7. 21 May 2010.http://www.france24.com/en/20100518-iran-nuclear-agreement-turkey-el-baradei-interview–sanctions.

[v] “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions…in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” International Atomic Energy Agency (GOV/2010/10, 18 February 2010).  http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2010/gov2010-10.pdf.

[vi] -alleged studies relating to warhead development; acquisition of a document regarding uranium metal; R&D activities of military related institutes and companies; production of nuclear related equipment and components by companies in the defence industry; activities involving high precision detonators fired simultaneously; studies on the initiation of high explosives and missile re-entry body engineering; a project for the conversion of UO2 to UF4, known as “the green salt project”; clarification as to whether Iran’s exploding bridgewire detonator activities were solely for civil or conventional military purposes, and whether Iran developed a spherical implosion system, possibly with the assistance of a foreign expert knowledgeable in explosives technology; clarification on whether the engineering design and computer modeling studies aimed at producing a new design for the payload chamber of a missile were for a nuclear payload; and the relationship between various attempts by senior Iranian officials with links to military organizations in Iran to obtain nuclear related technology and equipment; the project and management structure of alleged activities related to nuclear explosives; nuclear related safety arrangements for a number of the alleged projects; details relating to the manufacture of components for high explosives initiation systems; and experiments concerning the generation and detection of neutrons.

[vii] Statement by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Iran, 17 May 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/statement-white-house-press-secretary-robert-gibbs-iran

[viii] Robert Burns, “UN sanctions unlikely to stop Iran,” Associate Press, 20 May 2010.http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ibaOsIYbmjGtQ_VvMBzKEYKdeSMQD9FQ5EL80.

[ix] Peter Crail, “Iran-Turkey-Brazil Fuel Deal Has Potential if Iran Provides Follow-Up Steps,” ACA Issue Brief – Volume 1, Number 5, May 17, 2010. http://www.armscontrol.org/issuebriefs/IranTurkeyBrazilFuelDeal.

[x] “U.N. Official: Iran Nuke Program ‘Hyped’,” Associated Press, 2 September 2010.http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/09/02/world/main5281632.shtml.

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