Monday, May 17, 2010

The thing about 1200 kilograms

Iran had, according to, 2144 kgs of low enriched uranium as of February 23, 2010. It was processing uranium at a rate Iranwatch calculated to be 3.78 kilograms per day, and has been stable at around the level for around two years. Rounding down, Iran would be expected to have about 300 kgs more than it did then, so something like 2400 kilograms.

Estimating that around 1000 kilograms could be further enriched in a matter of months to make a critical mass of highly enriched uranium, if the US accepts this deal, Iran will not lose its status as nuclear capable, by the definition the US has been claiming to use for Iran at least since October, for even one second.

The deal presented in public in October was a terrible deal for Iran because the US would retain leverage that it could use to pressure Iran to suspend enrichment before Iran received its fuel. The US could, and would have used delivery of the fuel itself (using the same pretexts that Russia has used to delay Bushehr and the anti-air defense systems Iran has purchased) as an additional lever of pressure to restrain Iran's nuclear program.

The deal presented in the first reports from Iran (thanks Lysander) does not advance the US position regarding Iran's nuclear program at all. Turkey will have credibly committed to return the LEU, but it does not matter much because if the US was to balk, next say next year, the 1200 kgs of LEU in Turkey will not change the strategic situation since Iran will again by then have well over 2000 kgs of LEU in its own territory.

There is no important difference between a deal in which Iran gives up 1200 of 2400 kgs of low enriched uranium and a deal in which Iran just buys the fuel with cash.

The remaining questions are: 1) is there an Iranian commitment to a fuel bank, or other pretext to send more uranium out of the country. I could see Iran export even more uranium without harming its interests as long as it does not relinquish its rights or give the US any additional way to apply pressure. Iran might reasonably agree to participate in a fuel bank in exchange for Bushehr starting, as long as it is understood that such participation is voluntary and can be adjusted as Iran's needs or situation change. Iran can give out a lot more uranium than 1200 kgs without suffering any medium or long term strategic setback. 2) how will the US react. This is a strategic victory for the US in that the US now has a pretext for giving up a sanctions drive that could have been, after the dust settled, devastating to the US regional position.

The United States cannot have sanctions and cooperation with Iran over Afghanistan at the same time. And without cooperation over Afghanistan, the United States will not be able to stablize that country given the amount of troops the US is able to allocate. A sanctions resolution really threatens to turn Afghanistan by itself into an eventual defeat for the US - in which the US just runs out of steam and retreats from the country in disgrace and exhausted.

The United States now has the opportunity to "grudgingly" accept a TRR deal and claim that it builds enough confidence to begin formal talks. The US still claims that Iran could not produce a weapon for several years and that somehow US sabotage efforts have given the US more time than it feared it may have. The second claim is questionable, but it is better for the US to act as if it believes it in order to salvage Afghanistan.

The US hoped in fall 2009, with the Qom revelation, with the still ongoing protests, with the ascension to director of the IAEA of a loyal pro-American and with the harsh IAEA board resolution that it could pressure Iran to accept a poor deal. That hope has been shattered. Iran was never in as weak a position as US officials seemed to believe. If the US had more accurately guaged Iran's position, it could have gotten at least a better face-saving deal in October.

It has been so long, but if anyone can remember, in the fall 2009 there was still a Western consensus that somehow the US could convince Iran that the US or Israel had a credible military option, and that brandishing the military option might, still scare Iran into submitting to US demands.

The amount that perceptions of Iran's situation have changed in informed Western circles over the past six or eight months nearly defies belief. If the US is willing, now, to accept what US Defense Secretary Gates wrote in a memo that was leaked to the New York Times, the true proposition that the United States does not have any effective option that it can use to get a better deal than what has been presented, then there is a good chance that a very bad outcome can be averted.


philippe said...

The guardian has published the text of the agreement. I like point 10; The Madam (Clinton) will probably choke on her breakfast coffee.


Fahad said...

Re: Mdme Clinton: They call it ta'arouf. They do not want to hurt.

Roger said...

The 'deal' is significant on many levels.
It can be said that it was both sides practicing the art of the possible by compromising. This would be naive.
I went to an English boarding school, and I can now imagine some of my old schoolmates now in Government or positions of leadership swearing that the collective West was check-mated by a bunch of third-world golliwogs Iran, Turkey, Brazil and China.
It can be said credibly that if the US decides to go along, then the US will have made the realpolitik calculation to get out of the corner that Arnold correctly portrays as it having painted itself into.
It can be said that in the long term Iran was the big loser, because by agreeing to accommodate demands that were patently illegal and unfair, it has taken the first steps on the slippery slope of agreement for the sake of expediency and complacency and is no longer a revolutionary state prepared to assert its rights as it did the past three decades.
Personally I think the US will find ways to thwart a deal or plough ahead with destabilizing Iran despite a deal, for all the strategic reasons that Arnold has outlined so vividly (Israel, emboldening the Arab vassal states to get cocky ideas, long term competition for influence in Western Asia for the upcoming strategic competition with China, etc., etc...) leaving Iran high and dry, having shown a desire for a deal without achieving its long term interests.

I would have preferred a deal like this having been made as part of a grand bargain with the US (which I think the Iranians had been holding out for but gave up on), which would have acknowledged America's 'seniority' in some areas of Iran's foreign policy that were important to the US, while giving Iran assurances against territorial and economic destabilization and eventual lifting of sanctions. As it stands, we can expect the cold war with Iran to continue and intensify even if there is a Uranium exchange.

Still, I would like to acknowledge Iran's leaders' standing up for their national interest to the best of their ability. If I had been a counselor the the leadership I may well have advised a compromise sooner, with even worse terms for the country. Who knows maybe history will tell that Iran made the optimum deal possible under the circumstances.

Arnold Evans said...

So far I don't see much, if any downside for Iran. It is a small amount of uranium and by now it is clearly broken away from any idea that Iran's domestic stock must be smaller than the limit the US was claiming earlier.

It is a one time symbolic gesture that is an accommodation only to the fact that France was not willing to just sell reactor fuel for cash.

If France won't trade the fuel under these terms, then Iran really has to make its own reactor fuel - but the US claims that Iranian efforts to do so constitute a provocation that demands sanctions will not have an audience.

The key issue to look at is who in the United States accepts that Iran cannot be prevented from being nuclear capable. The more Americans accept that, the more possible it becomes for the United States to engage Iran without this issue posing an obstacle.

The nuclear issue had been positioned as the main obstacle between US and Iranian engagement. What is important is that the nuclear issue is falling as an obstacle and so far there is no new obstacle.