Under surveillance of inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran commenced today further enriching its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to just below 20%. This has to be considered a major diplomatic backlash for the West and Israel who have an enormous interest in preventing Iran from further enriching uranium.
Iran pretends that it urgently needs this fuel for fabricating medical isotopes in its research reactor in Tehran (TRR), which had been installed in 1967 by the United States. In the 1990s, Iran had bought fuel rods from Argentina. This material is now running out. So, Iran’s first and most reasonable option was to buy new fuel and inform the IAEA about it.
After Iran had asked the IAEA on June 2, 2009, just days before the presidential election with its disputed results, for new fuel rods for the TRR, western powers (P5+1) and, in particular, the Obama Administration, came up with the suggestion that Iran could swap most of its so far produced LEU (about 1,200 kg) to Russia for further enrichment while fuel rods would be provided later by France. The possible deal was mainly worked out by the former Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, and initially positive signals were sent by both sides. However, as far as we know, domestic power struggles and the difficult situation after the election prevented Iran’s rulers, and in particular, its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from accepting the proposal as is. In the meantime, Iran has repeatedly offered modifications of the deal, for instance, a swap on Iranian territory and/or a swap in several fractions. Last weekend, Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki tried to explain, at his surprise visit of the Security Conference in Munich, the country’s willingness to find a solution in the “not so far future.” His words fell on deaf ears. Iran was blamed for playing for time.
The West’s stubborn ‘sink-or-swim’ policy and new threats of imminent sanctions, even military attacks, concede Iran’s rulers’ distrust in the Obama Administration’s honesty when calling the country to eventually unclench its fist. The fuel swap has always been an indecent proposal.
It is not clear whether Iran can actually use its so far produced LEU for further enrichment. Technical problems and contamination may put centrifuges at risk if they are to be fed with this material. The IAEA will carefully watch what is going on at the Natanz enrichment facility. Then, the issue of manufacturing fuel rods for the TRR is completely unsolved. Presently, only France and Argentina are producing them in noteworthy quantities. What Iran has so far produced was supposed to be fuel for the reactor in Bushehr was allegedly supposed to be fuel for its planned further reactors. The reactor in Bushehr which might finally be operational later this year is supposed to be run with Russian fuel. Anyway, further enrichment plants, as have been announced previously, may in fact be imminent.
By and large, the West’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program will be greater and surveillance more difficult; a diplomatic disaster. Iran still keeps the door open for negotiations. It is high time for the West to consider the minor obstacles for an honest deal.
Last update February 12, 2010.