Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Iran calls the West's bluff. Sets up enrichment to 20% and immediately gets concessions

There is a fundamental disconnect between how the Obama administration sees Iran's medical fuel situation and how Iran sees it. The background is that Iran has an old research reactor that is capable of producing isotopes with medical uses that is running out of fuel. The UN sanctions specifically do not prohibit Iranian imports either of the fuel for the reactor or the isotopes the reactor can produce. Informally though, the United States has successfully convinced the small number of suppliers of both to withhold supplies as a way to pressure Iran.

As the reactor runs out of fuel the United States sees an opportunity to use a new supply of fuel as an additional point of leverage to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium. The plan produced by the West along with the IAEA in Vienna involves Iran exporting over a year's production of uranium and then, with the return of fuel still hanging out of Iran's reach, enter discussions aimed at convincing Iran to stop its enrichment program completely.

Iran sees the reactor situation as a way for the United States to adjust to the reality of Iranian enrichment while accepting a face-saving gesture. As Iran envisioned the swap, Iran's stock of nuclear fuel would fall beneath the threshold necessary to produce one weapon and from there Iran and the West could agree on a size where Iran's stock could remain and a rate of enrichment and further exports to an international fuel bank so that Iran maintain both its right to enrich uranium its right to have the technologies and materials domestically that in an emergency it could still build a weapon in a reasonable time.

The detail that most of Iran's uranium has to be exported before Iran receives any tangible benefit demonstrated to Iran that the swap was not meant as a gesture, but as a way of increasing the price to Iran of continued enrichment. Iran is willing to pay a huge price for continued enrichment. The US is tacitly threatening to allow the reactor to run out of fuel if Iran does not stop enriching. That price is far smaller than what Iran has already paid for its enrichment program. If it comes to it, Iran is willing to add losing the research reactor to the cost of its enrichment program.

1200kgs of uranium is a huge, and I'd even go as far as to say excessive, amount to demand Iran to export. Alan Kuperman, in his New York Times explanation of why the US should attack Iran militarily, describes this amount of uranium as equivalent to a thirty year supply of fuel for the research reactor. What determined the size of the proposed transfer is not Iran's needs, but the level of domestic uranium stock the United States has as a goal for Iran.

Iran's decision to begin enriching uranium to 20% is a statement that the cost for losing the medical reactor and the isotopes it produces will be that Iran will build a stock of 20% enriched fuel, which is substantially easier to weaponize than the 3.5% fuel already in Iran's stock. The United States says that to that cost will have to be added some degree of additional sanctions. Iran's response is fine, except those sanctions will harm the US and Iraq and Afghanistan and themselves further accelerate Iran's enrichment program.

The United States is going to be hostile to Iran for the foreseeable future. This hostility can either be characterized by active and escalating confrontation or by an agreement on rules by which the two sides will co-exist. The United States can choose either one. Iran would prefer the second. Rules by which the two sides coexist though, are going to have to include Iranian enrichment. On the other hand, if the United States chooses the path of active confrontation, Iran will enrich uranium even faster.

The US position that the offer presented in Vienna during the meetings of October 21 is not subject to negotiation or revision had always been confusingly inflexible. I have a difficult time believing it was the US' true position because it makes so little sense from the US' point of view. If it was the US' position, it reflected a mistaken belief that the US has or will soon successfully break Iran's ability to resist US pressure.

Iran's announcement that it is moving to 20% enrichment is a statement that the United States is welcome to experiment with the hypothesis that an Iranian submission to US pressure is imminent. But at the end of the experiment, Iran will have a stock of 20% uranium. Any attempt to pressure Iran into suspending enrichment necessarily accompanies the path of escalating confrontation. The US is welcome to go down that path, but there is a cost for every unit of time.

One question has been answered already. For more than the last year, Iran has held its uranium production steady while connecting cascades that have been idle. The US has offered as an explanation the idea that maybe covert acts of sabotage have been successfully restraining Iran's enrichment contrary to Iranian efforts to enrich faster. Iran was able to put a test cascade together and put it into operation for IAEA inspectors literally overnight this week. The cascade, and other cascades like it could have been productive for months if Iran had decided to put them on line.

Now that Iran has shown that the cost of the US attempting to use research reactor fuel and medical isotopes to pressure Iran to stop enriching, the US has shown flexibility on both issues.

Here is a Wall Street Journal report by Chip Cummins and Jay Salomon:
But the U.S. also indicated Tuesday that it would be willing to revisit Iran's objections to an international nuclear-fuel enrichment deal. "We have put forward what we think is a realistic, good- faith proposal," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. "If Iran didn't trust the proposal we put on the table last fall, we're willing to explore those alternatives."
What is known publicly about the deal is not realistic or good-faith. Maybe Crowley is not lying. Maybe there are details to the proposal that have not been released to the public. Based on the deal that is public, once Iran's uranium has been exported, the same invented technical problems that have prevented the Russian reactor in Bushehr from launching for several years now would plague the production and delivery of medical fuel, until Iran stops enriching uranium.

Jill Dougherty at CNN reports that there is a new offer for the US to allow Iran to import medical isotopes directly.
The United States, along with "other countries," will present a new proposal to the International Atomic Energy Agency to provide Iran with those isotopes, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.

"Our point is, if Iran feels it has a specific need, we are willing to engage constructively and try to identify ways in which the international community and potentially the United States can meet that need," Crowley said.


Crowley told reporters that under the new proposal, the international community would "facilitate Iran's procurement of medical isotopes from third countries."

"There are alternatives," Crowley said. "The Iranian decision to improve their processing to 20 percent is an unnecessary step." Providing the opportunity to buy the isotopes directly, Crowley said, would be the "fastest and cheapest" way for Iran to avoid running out of isotopes and could help "build confidence."
Glenn Kessler of the Washington post describes Dougherty's new proposal instead as a previously undisclosed proposal. Kessler's implication is that the administration had presented Iran with the proposal earlier and is going public with it now.
The United States and other nations seeking to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions are offering to help the Islamic republic purchase medical isotopes on the international market, administration officials said Tuesday.

The offer, officials said, is meant to persuade Iran to halt its controversial push to produce fuel for a medical research reactor. U.S. officials say Tehran's enrichment plan -- it announced this week that it is producing higher-grade enriched uranium than ever before -- is evidence that it is pursuing fuel for a bomb.

The previously undisclosed proposal came as President Obama told reporters that his administration is "developing a significant regime of sanctions" to impose on Iran. He said that action at the U.N. Security Council, which is currently stymied by China's objections to a fourth round of sanctions on Iran, "will be one aspect of that broader effort."
Where we are now is that the Obama administration does not have a good read on Iran. The United States has been substantially over-estimating Iran's desperation and willingness to submit to US pressure. If the Obama administration is making an adjustment then after the opposition fails to threaten the survival of the regime on Feb 11, the US will offer to restructure the research reactor deal in a way that would not aim to use the medical isotopes to force Iran to suspend enrichment.

If the United States continues believing Iran's capitulation to US demands is right around the corner, we will learn about conditions on the proposals the White House mentioned most recently, we'll see Iran continue building a stock of 20% enriched uranium, we will eventually see sanctions and we'll see the United States and Iran doing all they can to hurt each other in every sphere short of direct war.

The second path is objectively better for Israel. The first path is better for Iran, for the United States, for China, for Iraq, for Afghanistan, for the rest of the Middle East and for most of the world. Obama's failure to apply pressure over Israel's West Banks settlements, along with his public behavior regarding Iran so far, creates a shadow of doubt about whether the Obama administration is capable of guiding US policy independent of what is good for Israel.


Anonymous said...

Why do you care so much about IRI?

Do you work for them???

You should stay away from Iran and Iranian issue. It's not your country...We will do what's best for our country. Deal with it.

We don't need extreme leftist commies to come an rescue us....

Arnold Evans said...

What motivates me is a really good and fair question.

Writing is a skill that improves with practice. I've made a commitment to myself to write as often as possible. And writing where someone outside can read and critique what is written makes the process of improvement faster.

This blog is about the Middle East. That is not my only global concern, but it is important.

In the Middle East, Iran recently has been where there has been news. Most of the other situations in the region are fairly stable.

I'm not going to stay away from Iranian issues but I encourage you or anyone who finds something wrong, either in opinion or fact, with anything I write to correct me or to express your disagreement.

Darius said...

Arnold, I want to thank you as a human first and as an Iranian second. I have read a lot of your blogs and articles and must say that you are a rare breed in the so called 'free' west. Your arguments are always spot on and are solely based on FACTs and not on fiction like some others..... I am also disappointed at the fact that reasonable individuals like you form a MINORITY in the west.... since most people are inclined to believe everything the media tells them.... and we know what the media is encouraged to tell them

keep on the great work and hopefully you will convert people to the side of the truth and rationality.

lidia said...

Hah, Arnold, now you are "extreme leftist" LOL.

By the way, Zionists call everyone, even a conservator, who does not support Zionism, "extreme leftist", just to let you know

Arnold Evans said...

Thanks Lidia, Darius and even Anonymous.

There are a lot worse things I could be called than "extreme leftist commie".