The Same Old Tricks

The widely perceived new crisis about Iran’s nuclear program has a pretty complicated history. Several Iranian lawmakers and even defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have vehemently rejected a UN brokered deal according to which Iran should send 1200 kg of its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enrichment and later to France for refinement.

In order to produce radio isotopes for medical purposes, such as Technetium-99m, medium enriched uranium has been fuelled into the 5 MW research reactor in Tehran for years, which has been supplied by the United States more than 40 years ago. Iran had purchased in 1988 about 116 kg of medium enriched uranium at 19.75% from Argentina, and this amount has been delivered to Iran by 1993. According to some calculations Iran would be running out this fuel by late 2010. Early in June 2009, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Ali-Asgar Soltaniyeh had sent an inquiry to outgoing Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei seeking to replace this supply.

Soltaniyeh’s letter to the IAEA of June 2 has obviously extensively been discussed in the October 1 Geneva talks by the P5+1 and Iran, both in plenary sessions and face-to-face talks. At least the Iranian delegation led by its chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili seemed to have accepted that most of its LEU stockpile would be send to Russia for further enrichment after which France would provide Iran with the refined fuel.

The Geneva talks have been described as largely open, professional, even constructive. That the U.S. and Iran achieved almost a deal in an allegedly first encounter since the 444-day American Embassy hostage crisis of 1979-1981 (which will be commemorated next week on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean with contradictory sentiments) was a true sensation. But one cannot disregard the current legitimacy crisis of Iran’s leaders after the catastrophic presidential election only four months ago; and the ever diverging opinions among the establishment. Tehran has definitely a couple of other options for consideration.

First, the country could enrich its so far produced LEU by simply reintroducing it into the centrifuges in Natanz. Soltaniyeh’s inquiry letter to ElBaradei contained most probably already such a suggestion, although even Tehran would consider it unrealistic that the IAEA would allow the country to step up their enrichment program for medical purposes. Most countries are already afraid of Iran’s enrichment program resulting possibly in a nuclear bomb. There have also been reports on contamination problems of the so far produced LEU with molybdenum hexafluoride which might put the centrifuges in Natanz at risk if used for further enrichment. However, while so far the country has failed in certain areas, it definitely tries hard to master the full nuclear cycle. These kinds of technical problems may indeed be solved soon.

Second, under the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Iran is a signatory of since 1968, the country has actually the right to simply buy the stuff for medical reasons even under current UNSC resolution 1737.

And third, Iran may even reconsider its inquiry and shut down for the time being the more than 40 years old research reactor in Tehran after running out the Argentine medium enriched uranium. Tehran may consider producing radio isotopes for medical purposes easier and in much larger amounts in the heavy water reactor at Arak which might be operational soon.

In fact, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA Ali-Asgar Soltaniyeh went to the Vienna talks which started on October 19 not with one, apparently unprofitable, option for Iran only; namely sending almost all LEU abroad. Given the bad reputation of French negotiators in nuclear issues in particular when it comes to Iran, all of the above three alternatives may have discussed already then. Why ElBaradei so much hurried with his deal which would put Iran in a position where it could easily be blackmailed by western powers may have something to do with his soon retirement. But Iran has got some experience in recent decades of not being fleeced at the end of the day.

It has certainly been a ‘golden opportunity’ of getting rid of Iran’s nuclear stuff, but the French, American and Russian delegation has not really succeeded in confidence building. It is hoped anyway that the talks will continue on a par with Iran.

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