Iran's renewed interest in an arrangement that would move 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey as part of a nuclear fuel exchange brokered by the leaders of Brazil and Turkey has been dubbed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “transparent ploy” designed to head off a new round of UN Security Council sanctions. That may be true, but the United States should still seriously pursue the deal as a means to help resolve the impasse over Tehran’s nuclear program.
If accompanied by a halt to the further enrichment of uranium to 20 percent by Iran, the arrangement could seriously slow Iran’s ability to produce material that could be used to make a bomb. Also, it could build the confidence needed to open a broader dialogue that induces Iran to stop moving in the direction of nuclear weapons. If Iran fails to follow through on the deal or continues to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the Security Council can and should move forward with further sanctions in order to help change Iran’s strategic calculus.
A similar arrangement offered in October with the backing of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would have moved 1,200 kilograms of LEU out of Iran for further enrichment in Russia and fabrication by France into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotope production. That proposal was intended to build trust between the P5+1—the Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Germany—and open the way to broader negotiations to resolve concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Iran initially agreed, but backed out and declared it would use some of its LEU to produce uranium at a higher enrichment level—20 percent uranium-235—to fuel its research reactor.
A quantity of 1,200 kilograms of LEU is enough for one bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU) if that material were further processed. Iran now has an estimated 2,427 kilograms of LEU total and can produce about that much in a year. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan deserve credit for convincing Iran to agree to ship half of its LEU stock to Turkey while France fabricates fuel for the research reactor. Removing roughly half of Iran’s LEU from its territory would delay the time at which Iran would have a viable strategic reserve of material that could be used for nuclear weapons.
At the same time, it is critical that Iran agrees to suspend enrichment to higher levels to reduce suspicions about its nuclear intentions. Given that Iran is being offered the fuel it needs for the research reactor, there is no plausible reason for Iran to enrich uranium to a 20 percent enrichment level other than to establish a latent capability to build nuclear weapons.
Even if the P5+1 accepts the proposed fuel swap and Iran halts enrichment to higher levels, it is essential that Iran takes further steps to build confidence that its program is not for weapons purposes. The ultimate goal is to bring Iran into compliance with its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, as well as Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran suspend uranium-enrichment and fully cooperate with the IAEA.
A top, near-term priority should be more extensive IAEA access to declared and undeclared Iranian nuclear and military sites. Although Iran’s existing stocks of LEU and its main enrichment facility at Natanz and another recently discovered facility at Qom are under IAEA scrutiny, there is a risk that Iran may seek to enrich uranium at other, secret sites. Iran has already declared that it is building additional enrichment facilities. To guard against that possibility, the IAEA needs more extensive access through an additional protocol to verify Iran’s compliance with its nonproliferation obligations.
For his part, President Barack Obama needs to reiterate that he continues to seek a comprehensive and unconditional dialogue with Iran and underscore that preventive military action by Israel is not an option that the United States supports. Iran’s nuclear program and actions are clearly troubling, but it remains years away from having a sufficient quantity of HEU for a viable nuclear arsenal. A military strike would lead to a wider war, push Iran to openly pursue nuclear weapons, and only set back Iran’s capability to produce the material for a bomb by a few years at most.
Congress should give the Obama administration as much leeway as it can to pursue a diplomatic solution and, if necessary, further multilateral sanctions. Legislation mandating unilateral sanctions on Iran’s gasoline sector would upset the delicate P5 consensus on further Security Council sanctions and do little to alter Iran’s current course.
The Obama administration’s strategy of pressure and engagement has prompted Iran to agree to the nuclear fuel swap with Brazil and Turkey, but the United States must now actively work with its allies and partners to transform this fleeting opportunity into a longer-lasting breakthrough.