Reviving an issue that most observers have declared to be dead in the water, the Federation of American Scientists is calling on the US to accept Iran’s counter-proposal on the Tehran Research Reactor fuel-swap. In sum, the P5+1 should agree to Iran’s proposal to place 1200kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) under IAEA seals inside Iran, later to be exchanged simultaneously for fuel assemblies that power Iran’s medical reactor.
We propose the perfect litmus test for Iranian nuclear intentions. The international community should simply say “yes” and accept the terms of Tehran’s exchange proposal…. Leaving the LEU in Iran is not a dangerous concession and would not be a change from the current state of affairs since all of the nuclear material would remain under IAEA safeguards. If the material is shipped to a location outside Natanz, such as Kish Island, this could further alleviate concerns about the possibility of a quick breakout.
The X-factor for the FAS analysts here is Iran’s recent decision to enrich up to 20% — a not insignificant change, since that will reduce by almost half the amount of time it would take Iran to develop weapons-grade uranium. Reversing this decision, they argue, should be a top priority for the US negotiators. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be difficult, as Iran has no practical use for 20% enriched uranium, and it is most valuable to them as a bargaining chip.
Under our proposal, Iran would be required to suspend 20 percent enrichment as soon as a fuel deal is made and permanently stop enrichment to higher degrees when the fuel is actually delivered. If we act quickly and the deal is successful, we will set the nuclear clock back by both stopping 20 percent enrichment and perhaps even leave Iran with less than a weapon’s worth of LEU. We will build confidence – for the West, that Iran is willing to cooperate, and for Iran, that the West can provide credible fuel guarantees.
It should be noted that there’s no “perhaps” about it — Western negotiators are unlikely to accept any deal that does not bring Iran’s stockpile below the so-called “breakout capability” of one weapon’s worth of LEU. Given Iran’s technical problems in its enrichment facilities, this should still be a feasible option.
But FAS’s point is still a valuable one — the P5+1 should not lose sight of its main objectives here: “Our main concern should be to make it more difficult – not easier – for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.” Insofar as Iran’s counter-proposal does that, we should be willing to consider it seriously.
But if our pride gets in the way — if saving face becomes more important to us than stopping nuclear proliferation, then we’re in for a long, tough fight.