The Failed Swap Deal

The details and exact wording of former UN watchdog of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei’s swap proposal after last year’s Geneva talks between Iran and world powers (permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, P5+1) have never been made public. Since the Tehran Declaration of May 17 by Iran, Brazil, and Turkey which was said to basically follow ElBaradei’s deal, has been rejected (“too little, too late”) in the meantime by the so-called Vienna Group (the United States, Russia, France, and the IAEA) the forthcoming article by Mark Fitzpatrick, a Senior Fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), on the problem, the proposal, negotiations, domestic power struggles in Iran, failure and revival of a deal, and what follows is most welcome. A pdf file of the article (Iran: The Fragile Promise of the Fuel-Swap Plan, to be published in Survival 2010; 52(3): 67-94) can be found here.


The Fuel Swap Deal

When early in June 2009 Iran had asked the IAEA for assistance in purchasing replacement fuel rods for its research reactor in Tehran (TRR) which produces medical isotopes for cancer diagnosis and therapy, it apparently did not expect too much of courtesy in particular from the United States. Iran had, between 1988 and 1992, purchased and received 112 kg enriched to 19.75% (just below 20%, an enrichment level considered as highly enriched uranium, HEU) uranium fuel from Argentina for the TRR. It had also used it in illicit experiments for plutonium separation. It became clear that Argentina would not provide the fuel again. The U.S. wouldn’t either. Even if they were producing the fuel, long-standing legal restrictions would make it impossible to sell the sensitive material to its arch-foe Iran. The only country besides Argentina which might be in the position of providing Iran with the special fuel rods would be France whose company Cerca manufactures several kinds of research-reactor fuel. However, France basically opposes Iran’s nuclear program as well.  

So, Iran speculated that the request to the IAEA would be refused. Then, according to Fitzpatrick, chess-playing Iran would excuse itself and start enriching up to 20% on its own (that exactly happened in February, when the swap deal was considered dead as a dodo; see below). However, Iran would definitely face enormous technical problems in the manufacture of this kind of fuel, not to mention intellectual properties. So far, Iran has not made any attempt anywhere in the country, as far as the IAEA knows, to start producing fuel rods suitable for its research reactor. Thus, the whole request was, according to Fitzpatrick, a bluff, and U.S. officials certainly knew.

At that time, the swap deal was proposed. Iran would have been asked to send 75% of its 1600 kg at 3.5% low-enriched uranium (LEU), or 1200 kg, to Russia where it would be further enriched to just below 20%. Then, France would manufacture the fuel rods for the TRR. Fitzpatrick points to the fact that 1200 kg LEU is regarded the amount needed to produce enough fissionable, weapon-grade uranium for one nuclear warhead. Thus, the swap deal would prevent Iran, at least for some time, of producing one single bomb.

Fitzpatrick interestingly speculates (I doubt whether he has seen the draft of ElBaradei’s original swap proposal) that Iran’s benefit would have been at least indirect legitimization of its enrichment program; an assumption, most commentators have taken as self-evident. It is absurd to assume that Iran would have even considered a deal if abandoning of its enrichment efforts would have been demanded. Fitzpatrick writes:

“For Iran, in addition to keeping the research reactor operating, the plan was a way to show its LEU really was being used for the civil nuclear purposes it proclaimed, even if what came back to Iran was not actually its own poor-quality uranium but cleaner uranium substituted by Russia or France along the way. The deal thus offered Iran a way to legitimize its enrichment programme, a goal Tehran had long sought and a reason why France, the United Kingdom and, above all, Israel were skeptical about the deal. They saw the fuel-swap plan marginal to the central issue of Iran’s continued enrichment, and were unenthusiastic about the amendments that would have been required to Security Council resolutions forbidding Iranian export of LEU. Given Washington’s keenness for the deal, however, the allies went along with it.” (Emphasis added.)

Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili was in constant telephone contact with Tehran. At the end of the meeting, all parties, including Iran, agreed to a statement including the following:

“In consultation with the IAEA and on the margins of today’s meeting, it was agreed in principle that low enriched uranium produced in Iran would be transported to third countries for further enrichment and fabrication into fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces isotopes for medical applications.”

Thus, there was apparently no mention that enrichment activities in Iran are to be abandoned.


And its Shipwreck

One might intuitively ask whether it has in fact been overambitious President Obama’s inexperience in dealing with Iran, with the other world powers and, in particular, the UN which has led to the diplomatic disaster so far. It was his and his administration’s failure of convincing the French and Russians and not alienating most important team mates in the deal. When Ahmadinejad frequently decried the arrogant superpower which patronizes other countries, here it seems to be true for its closest allies. Russia was not amused when hearing about the second, so far covert, enrichment plant near Qom only at the G20 summit in September in Pittsburgh. France was only later asked for help when it had turned out that Russia wasn’t even capable of manufacturing this kind of niche product, research reactor fuel rods, or plates.

My own impression has long been that Obama wasn’t even honest. In the aftermath of the 1 October talks in Geneva and, in particular after the Meeting in Vienna on 19 October, when Ahmadinejad’s tentative agreement to the original deal was smashed at home in particular by defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi (the leader of what is called the Green Movement) and speaker of the majlis Ali Larijani, demading further negotiations, Obama’s administration seems to have insisted on a ‘take it or leave it’ position. Iran’s numerous counter-proposals of a swap on Iranian soil, off-shore on Kish Island, or in tranches have not even been considered by Obama who apparently lost his interest in negotiations with Iran. Fitzpatrick interestingly claims that

“[t]he real reason for [Iran] walking away from the contours agreed [in principle] in Vienna was domestic politics. Ahmadinejad’s rivals had condemned him for being willing to give up the LEU and for linking it with the issue of TRR fuel.”

Fitzpatrick emphasizes that “as long as the LEU remained on Iranian territory, whether under IAEA seal or not, it would be susceptible to seizure and diversion to weapons use.” Maybe, but how big would have been the risk? He also notes that the U.S. allegedly offered substantial political assurances but quotes of a letter to Director General Yukia Amano by French, American, and Russian Ambassadors to the IAEA in which they express their frustration on Iran’s denial of the deal. He writes,

“Iran’s rejection of these guarantees is illustrative of a fallacy in the arguments that are sometimes advanced in favour of Western concessions in exchange for Iranian limitations on its nuclear programme. ElBaradei has urged, for example, that if the West had only conceded a right to enrichment back in 2003, Iran’s centrifuge programme could have been capped at the R&D stage. This may be true, but the case for the counterfactual is not strong. Likewise, several Western scholars and former diplomats have argued that Iran should have been offered a deal to establish a multinational enrichment consortium in exchange for transparency and conditions on output. The fundamental problem with all such proposals is the unlikelihood that Iran would accept limitations that would impede a break-out capability. Of course, the only way to know for sure is to test the proposition. The fuel-swap plan offered such a test, and Iran’s response strengthens scepticism about its intentions.” 

But it was the U.S. which did not respond to counter proposals. As regards guarantees, Iran does not easily trust France, Russia or, in particular, the Unites States for a number of good reasons.


Further Enrichment

Iran started enrichment up to 20% on 9 February at a pilot fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz, a further level of escalation in the conflict. Enrichment was only announced the day before, and IAEA inspectors were not at the site when it commenced. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano found far stronger formulations when reporting on Iran’s nuclear program on 18 February. In particular, as regards the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, he raised concern, for the first time, of ‘current’ activities related to nuclear warhead development.

Further enrichment seems to be a mere provocation. Iran is so far not able to manufacture fuel rods from its rather impure enriched uranium. It may take many years to develop that capability. On the other hand, as Fitzpatrick rightly notes, while 72% of the effort to produce weapons-grade uranium (that is 90% and more) is accomplished by the time uranium is enriched to 3.5%. Ninety per cent of the effort is accomplished when it is enriched to 20%. If a decision was made in Tehran, the country could further enrich and assemble a nuclear warhead probably within weeks. So, why had Ahmadinejad ordered the production of 20% enriched uranium which would enormously complicate the conflict? Furthermore,

“Production of enriched uranium at any of these higher levels would complicate IAEA detection of clandestine HEU production, because Iran could claim that any environmental samples showing signs of higher enrichment were due to contamination by the activity connected with claimed TRR fuel target production. “


A Rather Pessimistic Outlook

Ahmadinejad’s provocation to enrich uranium to 20%, the humiliating second failure of the swap deal which has now been brokered by Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan and Brazilians President Lula da Silva, UN Security Council resolution 1929 implying new sanctions, an upcoming, updated National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) probably containing new information regarding military dimensions of the country’s nuclear program (details would not be made public this time, contrary to the NIE of 2007 which had led to a call-off of a serious  international crisis and probably a third war in the Middle East), a more hopeless situation as regards the production of medical isotopes in the TRR; all that will not divide but rather unite the torn society of Iran after its democratic movement had been silenced forever.

Fitzpatrick argues about worst case scenarios as well, in particular, military attacks by Israel, even the U.S. Although Iranian officials deny current plans of leaving the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the risk that Iran would actually dare to do so increases. Today Iran has told two IAEA inspectors that they would not be allowed to enter the country. My pessimistic view is that that together with the brutal crackdown on Iran’s human rights movement since the disputed presidential election would soon lead to another war in the region.

I am afraid that President Obama has not really thought through all the disastrous consequences which diplomatic failure would have when he tried to engage Iran.


Last update June 22, 2010.

This entry was posted in HEU, IAEA, Iran, LEU, NPT, P5+1, Technetium 99m, Tehran Research Reactor and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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