Issue Brief - Volume 1, Number 5, May 17, 2010
Iran's agreement to ship 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey as part of a nuclear fuel exchange agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey is a potentially positive development, but one of limited value without the appropriate follow-through.
The 1,200 kilograms of LEU is enough for one bomb's-worth of highly-enriched uranium if that material were further processed. Removing this LEU from Iran would be beneficial for delaying the time when Iran would have a viable strategic reserve of material that could be used for nuclear weapons, but it would only be a short-term measure which does not address long-lasting concerns regarding Iran's history of secret nuclear activities and its lack of transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The primary purpose of a similar, IAEA-backed, arrangement tentatively agreed to last October was to build trust between the P5+1 group (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran, providing a stepping stone to broader negotiations on a long-term resolution to Iran's nuclear program. The 3-country joint declaration cites Iran's decision to continue to negotiate with the six powers, and the real value of this fuel exchange arrangement will be measured by whether or not Iran is willing to do so constructively.
Other Questions Remain
A number of details must also be addressed for this agreement to have a nonproliferation value, including clarifying the circumstances in which Iran could require the return of the LEU back to its territory. In particular, the joint statement does not address Iran's ongoing work to produce 20 percent-enriched uranium. Tehran claimed earlier this year that it would further enrich some of its LEU stockpile to this higher level to provide fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor. However, since the fuel swap arrangement would result in Iran receiving the necessary reactor fuel from abroad, there would no longer be any reason for it to continue this additional enrichment or keep the 20 percent uranium it has already produced, which is closer to weapons-grade levels. The IAEA and the countries involved in the October negotiations (France, Russia, and the United States) should insist that Iran cease this work as part of any fuel deal.
The Fuel Swap and UN Sanctions
The preliminary fuel exchange agreement will undoubtedly impact the ongoing UN Security Council discussions on a fourth round of sanctions on Iran. Council members, including Brazil and Turkey, should keep in mind that the sanctions discussions were not taking place because Iran did not agree to a fuel exchange deal last October. Rather, sanctions were being considered to respond to Iran's failure to cooperate with the IAEA on a number of levels, including the construction of the Qom enrichment facility in secret, and for failing to comply with UN demands to suspend enrichment.
Since Iran has not resolved those concerns, and since today's joint declaration makes no mention of Iran's willingness to improve its transparency and cooperation with the IAEA, there is no reason to abandon the UN sanctions discussion. It is worrisome, in fact, that the joint statement appears to re-interpret a critical linkage in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) between a non-nuclear-weapon state's right to peaceful nuclear energy with its obligation to adhere to IAEA safeguards by claiming that Iran has such a right merely "without discrimination." Should Iran work to resolve some of these concerns with the IAEA, in compliance with its NPT obligations, then there would be no need to pursue additional sanctions.
Moreover, the fact that Iran abandoned its own long-held stipulations regarding the fuel swap at the time that a P5 consensus on additional sanctions had been emerging demonstrates that such international pressure and the threat of sanctions itself can have an impact. Russia and China in particular should keep this in mind as it suggests that their willingness to consider placing such pressure on Iran can help to temper Tehran's hard-line stance.
The United States and its partners should welcome any prospects for postponing the time when Iran would have a viable strategic reserve of material that could be used for nuclear weapons, and that have the potential to lead to constructive negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue. Whether the latest fuel swap agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey accomplishes those goals, however, depends on the appropriate follow-up by Iran. - PETER CRAIL