Iranian Response to LEU Fuel Deal Unclear

Peter Crail

Iran failed to respond formally in October to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proposal under which most of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be converted to nuclear fuel abroad. The delayed response coincided with mixed messages from Iranian officials and state media regarding Iran’s approach to the arrangement and with vocal opposition to the proposal from political opponents of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

France, Russia, and the United States agreed to the proposal Oct. 23 following IAEA-hosted negotiations Oct. 19-21 between those three countries and Iran. According to an Oct. 23 IAEA statement, Tehran told the agency that it would need more time to respond, but was “considering the proposal in depth and in a favorable light.” The agency said Oct. 29 that it received an “initial response” from and would continue consultations with Tehran and the other parties. Department of State spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters the same day that Washington needs “further clarification” and a formal response from Iran.

Although the specific terms of the proposal have not been made public, the deal is based on an Oct. 1 agreement “in principle” between Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany. Under the proposal, Iran would send about 1,200 kilograms of its LEU to Russia for further enrichment. France would then fabricate that material or Russian-origin enriched uranium into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. That reactor has been operating on Argentine fuel since 1993. It is expected to run out of fuel “in roughly the next year, year and a half,” a U.S. official said during an Oct. 1 background briefing.

The discussions over arrangements to supply the reactor with fuel began several months ago. In an Oct. 21 interview with Iran’s state-owned Press TV, Iranian Permanent Representative to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh said that he sent a letter to IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei June 2 requesting assistance in refueling the reactor. He said Russia and the United States had indicated that they would be willing to participate in an arrangement to provide such fuel and were joined by France to carry out the manufacturing.

The senior U.S. official said that this arrangement “would be a positive interim step to help build confidence” for further negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue.

The talks in Vienna were intended to work out the technical details of the deal. When Iranian negotiators sought approval for the IAEA proposal from Tehran, however, the arrangements faced opposition from several major political figures.

Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament and former head nuclear negotiator, questioned whether Iran should trust sending its LEU stockpile abroad. “My guess is that the Americans have made a secret deal with certain countries to take enriched uranium away from us under the pretext of providing nuclear fuel,” he told the Iranian Students News Agency Oct. 24, adding, “I see no links between providing the fuel for the Tehran reactor and sending Iran’s LEU abroad.”

Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s key opponent in Iran’s still-disputed presidential election in June, also criticized the arrangement to send Iran’s LEU abroad. He was quoted by his official news Web site Kaleme Oct. 27 as stating that, under such a deal, “the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined.”

“And if we cannot keep our promises then it would prepare the ground for harder sanctions against the country,” he added.

Weighing in on the issue, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki left the door open for buying fuel or agreeing to an arrangement to ship out some of the LEU stockpile. He told the Islamic Republic News Agency Oct. 26 that “we might spend money as in the past or we might present part of the fuel that we have right now, and currently do not need, for further processing.” He indicated Iran would provide a response within a few days.

Tehran currently does not appear to have any other civilian use for its LEU stockpile. Iran’s sole nuclear reactor at Bushehr is scheduled to start operations later this year. (See ACT, April 2009.) Russia has already supplied the first load of fuel for that reactor. Although Iran has expressed its intent to construct another reactor at a site called Darkhovin, the IAEA said in an Aug. 28 report that it has not received the requested preliminary design information for that facility.

Iran’s Options Limited

In spite of suggestions by Iranian officials to purchase fuel rather than agree to the IAEA proposal, Iran’s ability to do so appears in doubt.

France, one of two countries with the technical capability to fabricate fuel to the specifications required, has stipulated that it would not agree to do so unless Iran shipped most of its LEU stockpile out of the country by the end of the year. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters Oct. 20 that the transfer of the uranium out of Iran “must be before the end of the year, [and] there must be at least 1,200 kilograms—on that we won’t back down.”

The 1,200-kilogram figure represents about 75 percent of Iran’s LEU stockpile. According to U.S. officials and independent experts, Iran has produced enough LEU to be able to build one nuclear weapon if the material were further enriched. At its current rate of production, it would take Iran about a year to replace the 1,200 kilograms. Iran is likely to reduce that timeframe as it continues to expand its enrichment capacity.

Amid the French stipulations, Tehran has shown some resistance to France’s involvement in such an arrangement. Mottaki said during an Oct. 20 press conference that Tehran would hold negotiations with Russia and the United States on supplying the nuclear fuel but that “there is no need for France to be present.”

Iran was previously involved in a decade-long legal dispute with France regarding Iran’s investment in Eurodif, a French-based uranium-enrichment consortium. (See ACT, January/February 2006.) Following Iran’s 1979 revolution, Tehran halted payments to the consortium for nuclear fuel it declared it would no longer need and demanded repayment of a $1 billion loan, plus interest, it made to help build the Eurodif plant in France.

Before the two countries came to a settlement in 1991, Iran changed its position and requested that France fulfill its old contracts to provide fuel for the Tehran reactor. By that time, however, Iran fell under U.S.-led Western sanctions, and Paris denied Iran the fuel.

Iran has since used that dispute as a rationale for producing its own nuclear fuel rather than relying on the international market. Soltanieh said during his Oct. 21 interview that he raised the Eurodif issue in the fuel deal negotiations to express concern that the fuel might not be returned in light of what he called a “previous unfortunate confidence deficit.”

In addition to France, the only state that can make fuel to the required specifications for the Tehran reactor is Argentina, a country that has been at odds with Iran since August when Tehran appointed Ahmad Vahidi as defense minister. Vahidi is wanted by Argentina in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires.

Argentina and Iran concluded a deal in 1987 for Argentina to convert the Tehran reactor to operate on fuel enriched to 19.75 percent uranium-235 and supply a shipment of fuel, which has been in use since 1993. When the United States provided Iran with the reactor under the Atoms for Peace program in 1967, it operated on 93 percent enriched uranium fuel. Uranium enriched to 20 percent of the fissile isotope uranium-235 is considered highly enriched, although the percentage generally required for weapons purposes is considerably higher.

Iranian officials have threatened to carry out further enrichment in Iran if the talks fall through. Ali Shirzadian, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), told reporters Oct. 10 that “should talks fail or sellers refuse to provide Iran with its required fuel, Iran will enrich uranium to the 20 percent level needed itself.”

Iran does not currently have the technical capability to manufacture fuel for the reactor from that enriched uranium, but having uranium enriched to the 19.75 percent needed for the facility would place Iran closer to the enrichment levels required for a nuclear weapon. According to IAEA reports, Iran has enriched its current LEU stockpile to levels below 5 percent, consistent with the needs of most nuclear power reactors.

IAEA Inspects Second Enrichment Site

Meanwhile, IAEA inspectors visited for the first time Iran’s recently revealed uranium-enrichment site near the city of Qom Oct. 25. (See ACT, October 2009.) Iran has named the plant Fordo, after the village believed to have sustained the largest percentage of casualties in the country’s eight-year war with Iraq during the 1980s.

The West claims that the previously undeclared site was likely to be used to produce material for nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence officials have since stated that now that the facility is in the open, Iran will not likely use it for that purpose.

During an Oct. 4 joint press conference with AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi in Tehran, ElBaradei said that the agency must have “comprehensive cooperation” from Iran regarding the enrichment site. He added, “Iran should have informed the IAEA the day they had decided to construct the facility.”

The agency’s next report on Iran’s nuclear activities is due to be considered by the IAEA Board of Governors when it meets Nov. 26-27.