Monday, December 21, 2009

Another look at the medical reactor deal

The Washington Post has run a long article, written by Thomas Erdbrink, William Branigin and Kay Armin Serjoie, looking more closely at the medical side of the deal in discussion in which Iran would export its uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel to arrive later.
"We could enrich the fuel ourselves," the British-educated scientist said in an interview. "But there would be technical problems. Also, we'd never make it on time to help our patients."

U.S. nuclear experts say Iran's main difficulty is that it cannot fabricate fuel assemblies for the research reactor. They regard Iran's fuel problems as largely self-inflicted.

Under a proposed deal brokered by the IAEA, Iran would hand over 1,200 kilos of the low-enriched uranium it has stockpiled, ostensibly for use as fuel for nuclear power plants. In return, Russia would enrich the uranium to 19.75 percent, and France would turn it into fuel assemblies for the Tehran reactor. The United States would help ensure the safe operation of the aging reactor. World powers fear that unless Iran hands over the stockpile, it could convert it someday into highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

After initially accepting the proposal in principle Oct. 1, Iran has demanded more guarantees that the reactor fuel would be delivered. Iran also complains that the process would take more than a year -- too long, in its view.

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki proposed swapping small amounts of the uranium in batches rather than all at once. Iran has suggested that the trade take place on Kish Island, an Iranian tourist destination in the Persian Gulf. The Obama administration considers that proposal inconsistent with the U.N. plan.

"If Iran wants to produce those medical isotopes itself, then the best way to do that is to accept the IAEA proposal" and receive the reactor fuel, a senior administration official said. As part of the deal, he noted, the parties pledged to deliver the initial assemblies in time to keep the reactor running.
I've written before that the deal as expressed in public is worse than a bad deal for Iran, it is an insult to the intelligence of the Iranians. Basically the reason is that Iran is being asked to export one year's production of uranium. If Iran takes the US up on its offer, and the US acts as promised, it will find itself in January 2011 with a little more than a ton of uranium and medical fuel. If Iran alters the deal so that it receives fuel before it exports, it will find itself in January 2011 with the same amount of uranium as the other way. Yet the US is willing to at least threaten sanctions rather than alter the deal.

The fact that the US is willing to threaten sanctions proves that the US sees a tangible difference between the two scenarios. But if the deal goes as promised, then by January 2011 the two scenarios are identical. Clearly the US intends to take advantage of the period during which Iran is below one ton of domestically stockpiled uranium to meet some goal before January 2011.

One possibility is that the US intends to apply as much pressure as possible to force Iran to suspend enrichment in 2011 before it has rebuilt its stockpile. One lever of pressure in this scenario is the undelivered medical fuel. If the US plans to pressure Iran as hard as possible to suspend enrichment, why would it deliver the fuel before Iran suspends? This speculation is unnecessary if we take France on its word that it does not want to enrich uranium on Iran's behalf unless Iran stops enriching.

Another possibility, the one I suspect is more likely, is that the US intends, and has already begun private back-channel discussions, to offer that Iran suspend enrichment for a short time before restarting its program in the form of an international consortium that keeps a small stockpile on Iranian territory and exports much of its production overseas.

One problem with the second scenario is that if the US does not commit to it, it can go back to the first scenario, and leave Iran without its LEU and without its fuel. Iran cannot be sure, until something is said in public, how authoritative the private back channels are. Another problem is that details such as how long a suspension would last and how much Iran would keep in its domestic stock may not have been agreed upon and would have to reach agreement before Iran commits by exporting.

Iran has paid a high cost for the uranium program it has now. The article indicates that the cost Iran pays is about to go up drastically. When Iranian patients die because the US refuses to send medical reactor fuel, that will change the tenor of the dispute, it will make the dispute much more tangible in Iran, and more important.

There are now two ways Iran's nuclear program can plausibly play out. A military attack is not plausible and an Iranian coerced suspension is not plausible. One way is that Iran and the West agree to parameters for Iran's program. This would, as my best guess, look like a modified version of this proposal presented by a Swiss nuclear organization. In the Swiss proposal, Iran keeps about 300kg of stock at any time and exports the production of a domestic international consortium in constant batches of 100kg. My guess is that Iran is now pressing for more than 300kg as its base stock.

The other plausible outcome is that the temperature around the program rises. Sanctions may be applied - I'm still not sure if Obama is bluffing on this point or not. Iran will reduce cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan but will not go into open conflict. Most importantly Iran will accelerate its enrichment program, and build a stockpile of 20% uranium, which is much closer to 90% enriched weapons grade uranium than it sounds because very low levels of enrichment take much more effort to increase than higher levels.

After Iran has enough 20% LEU to, in theory, make one or two weapons and also maybe four or five tons of 3.5% LEU, which may be shortly after Ahmadinejad's term in office expires, Iran will as a gesture unilaterally suspend enrichment and see which countries are willing to trade with it without any further concessions. Iran expects that when it can say "we're not enriching, at least acknowledge our gesture", countries whose interests are consistent with trade with Iran will feel substantial pressure to do so, with Iran far more effectively nuclear weapons capable than it would be under the cooperative outcome. By that time Iran will have paid for its program with the health of some of its citizens, and will not consider going back.

The scenario US planners sound like they are hoping for is one in which sanctions are applied, Iranian patients die unable to get treatment, and Iran decides that it is better off submitting to US demands. One thing about this scenario: unless the US says so publicly, Iran has to assume the US demand is really a full suspension that gives the US a veto over resumption of enrichment. In practical terms, this means permanent cessation - which is Israel's preference, though not plausible.

I cannot believe in December 2009, there is anyone in the US government who thinks Iran is going to buckle and agree to a suspension until the US gives it permission to resume. If so, this is a drastic misread of the Iranian position that will push us into to the maximum enrichment scenario. If not, the US is really going to have to commit publicly to allowing Iran to keep a domestic enrichment capability.

I'm somewhat surprised John Kerry's statement that Bush's insistence on zero enrichment was counterproductive has not been followed up upon. My explanation is the Barack Obama is not constitutionally or temperamentally equipped to challenge the pro-Israel factions of US politics in the way this would require. That's a shame because the maximum enrichment scenario is worse for Israel than the agreed parameters scenario.
Financial Times: Can I ask you about Iran? In both your Brookings and your Aipac speeches, you talked about how the Bush administration had set a series of red lines to see them ignored, to see that the policy had failed. The last red line that the US, that the Bush administration set and saw ignored was the call for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. You’ve called for an effort to decide a red line and to defend it. What should that red line be?

John Kerry: Well, I want to be very careful there, because I know the administration. I wrote a memo to the president regarding this, in which I outlined my thoughts about the nature of that line.

Suffice it to say it needs to be a line that realistically protects the region and Israel, I emphasise the region, from a perception of completed proliferation. And there are several different ways to define that, I think we should leave that to that definition….

Certainly [the line should be for Iran] not to be a quote nuclear weapon state. Now some people can argue about when you are a nuclear weapons state. Capability versus, different definitions of that, just leave that there for a minute.

The key here is that, first of all the Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous, on its face, because Iran is a signatory to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty and whether they are inside or outside their obligations, to ask them to give up something that was within their rights within the treaty assuming they were up to their obligations is a non-starter. It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines, if you will (inaudible).

Because it seemed so unreasonable to people. They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose. But they don’t have a right, obviously, to be outside of the other restraints of the IAEA and of the non-proliferation agreement. And so the key here was to really open a different kind of dialogue with them about where you draw the line.

It’s also complicated slightly by Israel. Does Israel make a decision that it has to play its interests differently, i.e. that its security is only protected by guaranteeing its definition of a line and therefore do they decide to do something simply to delay Iran’s programme even though they know that’s all they get? And that has very real dangers.

And that’s why it is important for the President to work out ahead of time what the understandings are with Israel and what the modalities [are] here and how we proceed. I thought he went relatively far publicly in making the statement he made about by the end of the year and so forth. I thought that was a pretty big public gift, bigger than might have been necessary.
I think both the US and Iran's interests are best served by the cooperative scenario. For that to happen, the US cannot get around making a commitment that Iran will have domestic enrichment in a US approved outcome. Once that happens, the remaining question is only how large Iran's domestic stockpile will remain. I'm not sure what Iran would agree to today, but next year at this time, Iran's demands are certainly going to be for a bigger stockpile.

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