Nation & World

Deal seems near on Iran nuclear program, but experts wonder about uranium stocks

Shortly before flying here for the most important talks yet about Iran’s controversial nuclear program, Iran’s foreign minister stated firmly that his country would never give up its capability to enrich uranium – even though it already has enough to break out of the nonproliferation treaty and build a nuclear weapon.

Javad Zarif’s argument was that Iran’s enrichment program is a reality that Iran cannot abandon.

“With all the scientists we have, we now have indigenous technology . . . you cannot kill the program . . . you cannot kill thousands of scientists, you cannot destroy the technology. You cannot sweep it under the rug,” he told a forum in Istanbul.

The best way to build international confidence in Iran’s intentions, he said, is to allow the country to enrich uranium in total transparency, while encouraging it to deploy its scientists to work openly on peaceful programs.

Those words may soon become reality. The United States and its major European partners, along with Russia and China, appear prepared to accept the Iranian position and offer some relief from harsh economic sanctions in return.

Zarif said Thursday night that diplomats will begin Friday morning drafting an initial agreement that will lead to a long-term understanding about Iran’s nuclear program, and that an agreement could be reached before the talks end later in the day. He said its terms would leave everyone “very happy.”

“Iran’s right to enrichment is respected, and Iran continues to exercise that right,” he told Christiane Amanpour on CNN. “At the same time, we address the immediate concerns” of the international community “and agree on the objectives and an endgame that we can work to towards a comprehensive solution.”

For years, the United States has demanded that Iran halt all enrichment and send abroad its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and uranium enriched to 20 percent purity – just a few steps short of the 90 percent required for a nuclear weapon. The U.S. position was that Iran had no right to enrich.

That’s history, however.

A U.S. top official said in Geneva on Tuesday that the U.S. goal is to prevent the Iranian program from advancing further, not to roll it back.

Iranians “currently have an enrichment program. Whether one thinks they have a right to it or not, they have one right now,” said the senior official in the delegation to the talks headed by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman.

“What we are trying to do in the first step is to make sure that that program that they have, and their nuclear program as it’s currently constructed, does not continue to advance during a period during which we could come to a comprehensive agreement that would address all the concerns of the international community,” the official said. Under terms of the briefing, the official could not be identified by name or title.

In a certain sense, Iran’s position has prevailed. As Zarif put it in the Amanpour interview, the international community must “deal with the situation on the basis of realities, not on the basis of illusions.”

Yet the mystery remains: If Iran is determined to use nuclear materials only for peaceful purposes, why has it built up stockpiles of uranium for which it has minimal, if any, need?

Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Berlin noted that Iran has made an enormous investment, of $4 billion to $5 billion over many years, in building its enrichment program and “has a bevy of highly qualified scientists who have developed know-how over two decades,” so it would “highly unrealistic” to say Iran has no right to engage in enrichment.

Yet, they actually have no need even for the 6.6 tons of uranium enriched to 5 percent purity, he said. The “narrative calls for Iran to build a fleet of nuclear reactors,” said Hibbs. “The trouble with the narrative from a real world point of view is that no vendor in the world will supply a nuclear power plant” under the current international sanctions.

But the second reason the large uranium stockpile makes little sense is that to be used as fuel for a reactor, it has to be fabricated into fuel rods. “But Iran has neglected the development of fuel fabrication infrastructure and the know-how to produce the fuel for the reactor,” he said.

Iran has one nuclear reactor, at Bushehr, but Russia built that and is supplying the fuel.

As for the 440 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, which Iran says it needs for special reactors, Hibbs said that would be useful at best for use in a research reactor to produce medical isotopes. Even then, he said, such reactors primarily use uranium oxide fuel, which is not enriched.

So what is the explanation for Iran’s production of enriched uranium?

Dina Esfendari, an Iran expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, says Iran may in fact have no real reason for building such a stockpile. “I would argue they’re not doing it for a purpose, but they are more or less plodding along,” she told McClatchy.

“They’ve painted themselves in a corner and can’t stop the program,” she said. “They wouldn’t be able to save face in Iran. So it’s not an option anymore.”

To turn around and in 24 hours to declare enrichment unnecessary would mean a loss of face, she said.

And that may be at the heart of the conundrum of how to bring Iran into conformity with its own declared goals.

There’s a similar conundrum with regard to the U.S. and international response, which has been to impose crippling economic sanctions on Iran that will be very difficult to lift even if Iran does uphold its part of the interim understanding that Zarif says can be completed this week,

“There’s no question that the sanctions regime imposed on Iran has brought Iran to the table,” said Hibbs. “Its economy and society are hurting badly because of sanctions.” At the same time, “the sanctions have not persuaded Iran to shift the direction of its nuclear program.”

Zarif made the same point in his interview with Amanpour. He said the U.S. and international policy of putting pressures on Iran have “produced no result.” In the course of ever-tougher economic sanctions, “instead of 160 centrifuges” to enrich uranium eight years ago, “today we have 19,000 centrifuges.”

He called it a “failed policy that needs to be changed.” He added: “Tomorrow we have a chance to change that policy.”

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