May 18, 2010

Iran's Nuclear Proposal In Context

Iranian officials released a declaration on May 17 proposing a nuclear fuel exchange involving Turkey, a proposal that counters a deal originally discussed in October 2009 between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries.  Iranian officials hailed the declaration as recognition of Iran’s right to continue enriching uranium, highlighting that Turkey and Brazil, which brokered the deal with Iran, hold membership in the United Nations Security Council.[1]  The head of Iran’s atomic energy organization (AEOI) said, “We think we are on our way to the resolution of this fabricated file... we have eliminated all the excuses that were raised and I hope that this time they will be reacting with more wisdom … this file will hopefully be closed forever.”[2]  The texts of the current proposal or the previous one, however, do not acknowledge or address the wide range of concerns cited by the IAEA, reject outstanding UNSC calls for Iran to cease its enrichment activities and respond to questions about its potential weaponization activities, and continue to cast greater doubt over Iran’s intentions. 

Iran would ship 1,200 kilograms of its declared low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile to Turkey within one month of the proposal’s acceptance under the deal.[3]  The “Vienna Group” (identified in the declaration as the United States, Russia, France and the IAEA) would then provide Iran with 120 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor within one year.  This arrangement falls short of several conditions that served as the basis of the original October 2009 deal, which Iranian officials agreed to in-principle but later rejected.  The October proposal would have sent 1,200 kilograms of LEU to Russia and France for conversion into medical reactor-grade fuel rods that would then be sent back to Iran for use in the Tehran Research Reactor.  The new declaration states that the LEU shipped to Turkey “will continue to be the property of Iran” and makes no mention of fuel conversion.[4]  This omission suggests that Iran may now expect the Vienna Group to produce fuel rods from a third source and could demand that Turkey ship back the LEU stockpile even after Iran receives the fuel rods.

The amount of LEU that Iran would send to Turkey under the new declaration – 1,200 kilograms – is the same amount originally proposed in October 2009.  This quantity represented roughly three-quarters of Iran’s known stockpile of LEU as of October 2009.  Senior U.S. officials indicated then that the terms of the deal would “limit Iran’s ability to have the breakout ability needed to produce nuclear weapons.”[5]  Nuclear proliferation experts define ‘breakout’ capability as the amount of LEU required to produce nuclear weapons fuel (HEU) for a single warhead; one estimate sets this threshold at 700-800 kilograms of LEU.[6]  Iran has continued to enrich uranium at the Natanz facility since last fall, and Iranian officials told the IAEA that Iran had produced 2,065 kilograms of LEU as of January 29, 2010.[7]  Iran has likely amassed a total of 2,300 kilograms of LEU since then, according to experts at the Institute for Science and International Security.[8]  Thus, the removal of 1,200 kilograms of LEU now – itself a temporary measure that would not stem continued enrichment – would allow Iran to retain its breakout capability. 

Iran also refused to provide assurances that it would cease enriching uranium to the higher purity level approaching 20 percent; Tehran claims it needs enriched uranium at this level to fuel the Tehran medical reactor.  Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman explicitly stated that “of course, Iran will continue 20 percent (uranium) enrichment inside the country.”[9]  U.S. and European officials initially expressed cautious skepticism about what the announcement means for Iran’s nuclear issue.  The White House released a statement saying that the U.S. continues to have serious concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear activities and failure to live up to international commitments, yet welcomed the proposed declaration as “a positive step.”[10]  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then announced today that the five permanent UNSC members would circulate a new sanctions resolution to the full council, describing the move as “an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran” in recent days.[11]  Early reports suggest that the draft resolution avoids a complete ban on Iran’s weapons imports, does not target financial transactions with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and only attempts to block certain banking and insurance transactions that can be linked to nuclear proliferation activities.[12]

Iran has used its declaration as a means to bolster the narrative that it wields significant support within the international community – countering U.S. efforts to present a united front at the UNSC – and shift focus away from UN demands that it cease enrichment-related activities.  President Barack Obama noted in late March that “unanimity in the international community” was still lacking on the issue of additional UNSC sanctions.[13]  This new proposal, even though it fails to substantively address Iran’s nuclear activities, has received the blessing of two key, albeit non-permanent, members of the UNSC.  Brazil’s foreign minister also said that the declaration “takes away any grounds for sanctions,” suggesting that any successful UNSCR would not pass unanimously and inevitably present a somewhat divided front (previous UNSC sanctions resolutions on Iran have passed unanimously with the exception of UNSCR 1803 which passed with one abstention).[14]  The proposal, additionally, could provide permanent UNSC members Russia and China with an excuse to further delay or dilute any sanctions resolution.        

It is unlikely that any UNSC sanctions regime would alone change Iran’s behavior on the nuclear issue.  The push towards a new UN sanctions resolution has, nonetheless, consumed the energy of the P5+1 for several months.  Obtaining a new resolution has remained part of a broader U.S. policy of attempting to isolate and persuade Iran to change its behavior; President Obama said in April that Iran “should see that over the course of the last year and a half we have been executing a policy that will increasingly isolate them…”[15]  Yesterday’s declaration bolsters the Iranian regime’s narrative that it has neither been isolated nor persuaded as it continues to pursue its unchecked nuclear ambitions.    

[1] “Iran throws ball into West’s court,” Press TV, May 17, 2010.  Available at  
[2] Ibid.  
[4] Ibid.
[5] Marc Champion and Jay Solomon, “Iran Agrees to Transfer Uranium Abroad,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2010.  Available at  
[6] David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, “A Witches Brew? Evaluating Iran’s Uranium-Enrichment Progress,” Arns Control Today, November 2007.  Available at  
[8] “Iran’s Proposed LEU deal: Skeptical but Awaiting Clarification,” Institute for Science and International Security, May 17, 2010.  Available at
[9] “Iran to continue 20% uranium enrichment,” Xinhua, May 17, 2010.  Available at  
[10] See the official White House statement by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at  
[11] Peter Spiegel, “U.S. Reaches Iran Sanctions Agreement With Russia and China,” Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2010.  Available at
[12] Ibid.; William Branigin and Glenn Kessler, “U.S.: Agreement on draft resolution for new Iran sanctions,” Washington Post, May 18, 2010.  Available at
[13] Steve Holland and David Ljungren, “Obama wants U.N. sanctions on Iran in weeks,” Reuters, March 31, 2010.  Available at  
[14] Glenn Kessler, “Iran creates illusion of progress in nuclear negotiations,” Washington Post, May 17, 2010.  Available at  
[15] David E. Sanger and Peter Baker, “Excerpts From Obama Interview,” New York Times, April 5, 2010.  Available at
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