Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Robert Dreyfus hears rumors of the US accepting Iranian enrichment

Interesting post from Robert Dreyfus of the Nation where he reiterates an idea that the US is willing to accept Iranian uranium enrichment that he mentioned earlier. We have a relatively unknown columnist for a relatively minor publication reporting rumors, without reference to either the name, position or location of any source or sources. But this report as a rumor is, as tentative and unreliable as it is, a weak sign that the US is testing out the idea of accepting Iranian uranium enrichment.
The scuttlebutt in Washington is that the Obama administration is prepared, going into the talks, to present Iran with a very favorable offer. According to insiders, they’ll ask Iran to ship nearly all of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for reprocessing into fuel rods. (Last year, the deal was for Iran to ship the bulk of its LEU to Russia and France, but the French have acted so annoyingly obstreperous that this time they’re being shut out of the deal.) Some of the LEU would be further enriched for use in the medical-use Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). But since the TRR doesn’t really need very much fuel, the rest of Iran’s LEU would be transformed into fuel rods for the just-opened, Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant. That’s important, because it allows Iran to claim that its enrichment program is designed to produce fuel for Bushehr, not for a weapon. If Iran does this, the United States will agree to allow Iran to keep its current centrifuge program spinning, producing more LEU, which could be recycled into fuel in Russia, as long as Iran doesn’t add more centrifuges or expand its centrifuge program. (Right now, Iran is having trouble keeping those centrifuges operating, and according to one source the international sanctions against Iran are effective in preventing Iran from acquiring the materials it needs to build more, anyway.) And, of course, Iran would have to accede to the stricter IAEA oversight.
This strikes me as similar to what I thought was a possible US proposal last year. It is also consistent with the John Kerry statement during the summer of 2009 that George W. Bush's idea that Iran should be prevented from enriching uranium was stupid and counterproductive.

My best understanding of what this proposal would mean is that Iran could effectively enrich uranium with these conditions: 1) the US would still formally oppose Iranian enrichment, but would not oppose it in effect. This means that the US would still work to prevent materials from reaching Iran 2) Iran would have to keep its uranium stock below the level of one ton under the pretext that it exports uranium to fuel Bushehr 3) Iran would not be allowed, under any circumstances to enrich beyond 3.5% and would have to relinquish its current stock of 20% LEU 4) Iran would accept an IAEA inspection regime to be negotiated that goes beyond the AP and would be the most invasive inspection regime in the world 5) (And critically) the US would also want each condition to be permanent with a US veto over any alteration of it even generations from now.

In exchange for accepting these conditions, 1) Bushehr would be put on line, 2) the TRR fuel would be supplied, 3) there would be no new sanctions and the current sanctions would be relaxed to some degree, 4) Iran could probably get the Russian S-300 anti-air missile systems if it still wants them and 5) tensions between the US and Iran would be relaxed to some degree, for example the US would stop exclaiming that it may attack Iran, and Israel would as well.

Let's for this post assume this is on offer and discuss it.

What this deal would prevent is Iran from maintaining a stockpile of multiple tons of LEU as it has now. The alternative to this deal is that Iran continues to endure US sanctions and adds more tons of LEU to its stock during the Obama administration. So that it faces the next US president with around five tons in its stock if Obama loses in 2012 or more than ten tons if he wins and stays until 2016.

It is difficult to say that what the US is offering is worth more than five tons of LEU enriched to 3.5%, along with over 100 kgs of 20% LEU by 2012 and probably over 300 kgs by 2016.

A very interesting thing about this offer is that the US considers itself generous to make it. There clearly is debate within the United States over accepting Iranian enrichment at all. Meanwhile, this offer would actually represent a fairly dramatic concession on the part of Iran. A concession that I actually probably would recommend Iran not accept, assuming sanctions continue to be unable to impact Iran's core economy as reflected, especially, in Iran's unemployment levels.

For this post, let's assume that an offer more or less along the lines of this is acceptable to Iran. I think this is a wrong assumption, but there is a question, assuming it is acceptable, of how a deal could be reached.

Iran cannot be expected to export any of its uranium, much less the 2800 kgs now asked without the US acknowledging all of the terms of the deal publicly. A simple rule is that a government that cannot even describe a deal cannot fulfill the terms of that deal. If US domestic opposition to even tacitly accepting Iranian enrichment is so strong that the Obama administration is unable to discuss it in public, then it is certain that once Iran's uranium has been exported, the deal will collapse at that point. Of course, in that case it will appear to Iran that this had been the US intention all along.

The primary threat Iran poses to Israel and to the string of anti-democratic colonial dependents that the US maintains in the region for the strategic security of Israel, identified by Eric Margolis as "Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman and some of the Gulf states" is primarily ideological, secondarily conventionally military and only lastly its nuclear potential.

Accepting the terms offered by the US, and neutering its nuclear program would leave Iran in a position to build on its more important strategic advantages and would lead it to pose a greater threat to Israel. Israel's US supporters understanding this, there is a serious question of whether or not they would be able to prevent it. If Obama is not able to publicly outline the terms of any agreement before Iran commits to it, then the most likely outcome will be that Iran will receive no benefits.

But while today Iran's nuclear potential is low on the list of its strategic assets, there is no reason to believe it will be 20 years from now. A mechanism over which the US does not effectively have a veto would have to be developed to reduce Iran's requirements to those of states like Japan if not now, then at latest by 15 years from now. A permanent US veto, de jure or de facto (formally or just effectively in place - for example by US influence over IAEA board of governors), over the expansion of Iran's nuclear program could not be accepted by any Iranian leadership.

It is very difficult to envision such a mechanism. Pretty much either an agreement has an automatic termination or it has an effective US veto. Unless the US can agree to a time period after which Iran's extra obligations are released a deal likely cannot be reached. This is another issue that the US would have to commit to, publicly, before Iran exports uranium.

This deal represents a new cost for Bushehr. The Russians have said that the facility was damaged by Stuxnet. It seems that now repairing it will cost whatever it takes, in addition to the 1200kgs for the TRR fuel, to get Iran's stock down to about 300 kgs of 3.5% LEU. Bushehr is not important in a long-term strategic sense in itself, but what this demonstrates or confirms is that Russia cannot reliably remain independent of US pressure which is important.

If a deal like this is on the table, then as reluctantly as it is being offered by the US, there is a very good chance that it could not work and that it would not be accepted by Iran. Both because the US has serious structural credibility problems in making such an offer and because accepting such a deal is likely not in Iran's long term strategic interests.


Anonymous said...

I think there are a couple more things I would seek in a deal like this if i were Iran:

1. American restraint in support for Israel's nuclear arsenal in the NPT(like was achieved in the review conference).
2. No condition on enrichment capacity, as long as fuel is exported or converted to rods domestically.
3. Comprehensive nullification of UNSC resolutions while direct unilateral sanctions can stay in place. Aircraft technology sanctions and secondary financial sanctions to be relaxed.
4. 'Voluntary Implementation' of AP, no ratification.
5. No obstacle in Iran mining Uranium in third countries.

Even if a deal conceding these points only holds for a year or so, it will be well worth it, as the US would have immense trouble walking itself back after the fact, and we would only return to the status quo with a stronger Iran in case of failure. Kilos of Uranium aren't all that useful, what really matters is enrichment capacity.


Lysander said...

Not that good a deal for Iran. And the US position is getting worse, not better. If in the next few months Egypt's government collapses, the US position in the middle east will become precarious indeed.

Also, oil is at a pretty high price and there's an excellent chance it goes higher. Hizbollah seems to have outmaneuvered its political enemies in Lebanon, the US will be out of Iraq by years end, Afghanistan is still a mess.

That said, we can only guess how Iran has fared under sanctions and how they have affected the nuclear program.

Overall, though, I think Iran will be in a much stronger position one year from now.

At this point a good deal for Iran would be.

1) All UNSC resolutions lifted.

2) All banking aircraft parts sanctions lifted.

In exchange Iran can give up most of it's stockpile on the condition that no restriction is placed on enrichment capacity (meaning number and type of centrifuges) but Iran can agree not to enrich beyond 5%.

Any attack on Iran, whether it's military or cyberwarfare, or assassination of scientists, abrogates any Iranian commitments.

This is all hypothetical. The US is not about to make an offer Iran could ever accept.