Diplomatic Pressure Narrows Iran’s Nuclear Options

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons allows non-nuclear nations to engage in scientific research on using nuclear power for peaceful purposes. States cannot engage in the transfer of nuclear material without safeguards, and non-nuclear states agree to accept safeguards and verification to prevent any diversion from peaceful uses toward weapon programs. The five-year NPT review conference is underway, and nonproliferation expert Leonard Spector details how Iran moves step by step to secure highly-enriched nuclear material. Brazil and Turkey crafted a deal with Iran on an exchange of low-enriched nuclear material for a smaller amount of fabricated fuel, ostensibly for medical purposes. But the deal, lacking safeguards, spurred other nations to prepare a draft proposal on sanctions – including Russia and China which have supported Iran’s efforts in the past. Most nations see limited value in nuclear weapons and are impatient about reducing totals and increasing safeguards and transparency on any deals. – YaleGlobal

Diplomatic Pressure Narrows Iran’s Nuclear Options

More nations are wary about adding to nuclear weapons in the Middle East
Leonard S. Spector
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pyrrhic victory: Iranian president's pleasure about the tripartite nuclear deal may be short lived

WASHINGTON: While 189 members huddled in New York to review implementation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the most important actions were taking place outside the meeting rooms, as Iran maneuvered to deflect new UN Security Council sanctions aimed at curtailing its sensitive nuclear activities, while the five permanent council members, including previously lenient Russia and China, pressed ahead to bring new punitive measures into force.

On May 17, Brazil, Turkey and Iran announced a deal under which, Tehran agreed to transfer 1200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey and in return, some 12 months later, would receive 120 kilograms of fabricated fuel for the Tehran research reactor for use in producing medical isotopes. The deal, similar to one offered by the US, Russia and France in October 2009, seemed to represent a significant concession by Tehran, which had rejected the earlier initiative. But more important for Tehran, the agreement appeared certain to undercut support for additional UN sanctions sought by the US. Indeed, in announcing the deal, Brazil and Turkey – both currently non-permanent members of the council – declared that sanctions were no longer needed.

The initiative was trumped the next day, however, when the five permanent members of the UN Security Council unanimously announced joint support for a new round of sanctions. The five, including Iran’s erstwhile protectors, Russia and China, circulated a draft-sanctions resolution containing potentially powerful new measures to other council members. The intensified threat of sanctions, and seeming disregard of Iran’s fuel-swap gambit in its current form, could push Iran to further concessions.

When the US originally proposed the fuel-swap deal in October 2009, it appeared to be a breakthrough in the effort to slow the Iranian nuclear program. At the time, Iran had just crossed a dangerous threshold by producing a stockpile of uranium enriched to between 3.5 and 5 percent, which, if further enriched to the 80 or 90 percent level, would be sufficient to serve as the core of a nuclear weapon. Enrichment increases the concentration of the most easily split type of uranium atom, uranium-235, from its naturally occurring rate of 0.7 percent. Because the process works a bit like compound interest, it takes many more enrichment passes to go from 0.7 percent to 3.5 percent than it does to improve the latter material to higher levels. Once a country masters the underlying enrichment process, increasing the enrichment level is not technically difficult.

Under the 2009 deal, Iran would have shipped 1200 kilograms of the low-enriched material, roughly 80 percent of its stockpile, to Russia for further enrichment to the 20 percent level needed to fuel the Tehran research reactor, and France would have made the 20-percent-enriched-uranium fuel plates used in the facility. In effect, Iran would have temporarily lost access to the makings of its first potential nuclear bomb, since it would need a number of months to rebuild its low-enriched uranium stockpile. During this interim, negotiations on limiting its nuclear program could have proceeded without the threat of an imminent nuclear breakout. 

Under the Brazil-Turkey deal, the Iranian material would not itself be upgraded and made into reactor fuel, but would be held in Turkey – a more friendly venue than Russia or France – until France provided the 120 kilograms of fuel plates, using French- or Russian-supplied 20 percent uranium (at which point the Iranian material would presumably be shipped to one of these states). Still, the core principle that 1200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium would be moved out of Iran and 120 kilograms of fuel plates shipped in remained intact.

Unfortunately, after Tehran rejected the original deal, it not only continued to add to its low-enriched uranium stores – now roughly 2300 kilograms – but also began to enrich uranium in one of its own facilities to the 20 percent level, supposedly for ultimate use in the Tehran reactor. Thus, in the next month or two, transferring the 1200 kilograms out of the country would no longer deny Iran access to the material needed for a first nuclear weapon and, if Iran continued to produce 20-percent-enriched uranium – even though no longer needed – Tehran could move closer to a nuclear device, even as the deal were implemented. 

On the other hand, if the deal does go through, Iran would retain the potential to make only one nuclear device in the near term, rather than two, if it does not. And, if Iran chose, it could sweeten the deal by announcing a freeze on producing more 20-percent material, for which it no longer has a credible peaceful use. To move forward, the deal must now be accepted by the so-called Vienna Group – the US, France and Russia – facilitated by the IAEA, for which ending further enrichment to the 20 percent level is known to be a crucial consideration.

Meanwhile, the US presses forward at the Security Council to impose further sanctions on Iran to obtain compliance with IAEA inspection requirements under the NPT and halt all uranium enrichment and other sensitive nuclear activities. The draft-sanctions resolution introduces several new restrictions, including an embargo on heavy conventional-arms transfers to Iran, a ban on providing fuel or services to any Iranian vessel thought to be carrying nuclear or missile commodities, and a ban on Iran’s undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. 

At least as important as these mandatory requirements are those “calling on” states to voluntarily implement more severe measures, ones that Russia or China were not prepared to make obligatory. These measures include inspecting any vessel, consistent with international law – for example, in a port where the state has inspection authority or in any location with the consent of the state of registry – that is reasonably believed to be carrying prohibited items to Iran and seizing any contraband cargo. In addition, states are called on to prevent firms under their jurisdiction from providing Iran of financial services, including insurance and reinsurance, if they believe such services might contribute to sensitive nuclear or missile programs. And, states are required to advise financial organizations under their jurisdiction to “exercise vigilance” in dealings with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. It is expected that the US, the EU and a number of other like-minded states will implement these inspection and financial services measures aggressively after receiving the Security Council’s imprimatur.

These developments temporarily eclipsed the treaty review conference, in which Iran as a party to the treaty is participating. Yet Iran’s isolation increased in that forum, adding to the nation’s diplomatic woes. In particular, Egypt, the head of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of more than 100 countries including Iran that remain neutral to the major powers, has repeatedly rejected Iranian proposals that would support its confrontation with the West.

With the conference reaching its denouement May 28 and the US expected to announce within days that a majority of the Security Council is prepared to vote for the draft-sanctions package, Iran’s options are narrowing. Following through on the Brazil-Turkey deal, declaring a halt to enrichment above 5 percent and accepting at least some IAEA demands for greater transparency might defer new sanctions and open the way for substantive negotiations. But Iran must act quickly if it expects to win such a result. 

Leonard S. Spector is deputy director of the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and leads its Washington, DC, office.
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