U.S. Should Accept Iran’s Latest Uranium Enrichment Offer, Experts Say

Martin Matishak – Global Security Newswire October 7, 2011

The United States should accept Iran’s offer to halt its production of higher-enriched uranium if provided equivalent material by Western powers as the first step in breaking the diplomatic standoff between the two countries, a new report by a pair of nonproliferation experts argues (see GSN, Oct. 5).

“The reality is [Iran's] enrichment program will continue,” Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said on Thursday at a rollout discussion of a study that details a vision for how Washington and Tehran, and the rest of international community, can achieve an Iranian nuclear program that is acceptable to all sides.

“Let’s see if we can keep it relatively limited. Let’s see it we can get additional means of monitoring and safeguard the program,” said Ferguson, who co-authored the report with Ali Vaez, FAS fellow for science and technology and director of the federation’s Iran Project.

Iran last year began producing 20 percent-enriched uranium, moving the Middle East nation one step closer to being able to manufacture nuclear-weapon material, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent. Tehran has long maintained its atomic aspirations are strictly peaceful and that the 20-percent enriched uranium is intended to fuel an aging medical research reactor.

An IAEA safeguards report on Iran released last month indicated the nation has failed to substantively address fears it is pursuing a nuclear-weapon capability, according to Washington and its allies.

Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his country would suspend production of 20 percent-enriched uranium in exchange for material refined to the same level from the West. He reaffirmed the pledge this week.

“If they give us the 20 percent(-enriched) fuel, we will immediately halt 20 percent (enrichment),” Ahmadinejad told Iranian state television on Tuesday.

The Iranian offer has been greeted coolly by the Obama administration.

“Ahmadinejad makes a lot of empty promises,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

The latest proposal is different from previous failed fuel swap plans because it “is not an olive branch. This is an act of necessity,” Vaez said at the round-table discussion. “They’re running out of fuel.”

“This is a great opportunity for the United States and the West to be humanitarians and really reach out to the Iranian people,” added Ferguson, noting than an estimated 850,000 citizens rely on medical isotopes produced by the Tehran-based reactor for their cancer treatments.

He said the United States and its allies should provide Iran with 50 kilograms of low-enriched fuel, less than half of the smallest amount – 130 kilograms – that with additional refining could be used to make an atomic bomb. Right now Iran has about 70 kilograms of 20-percent enriched uranium, according to Ferguson.

The 46-page report lays out a series of policy recommendations the United States and Iran, as well as other stakeholders such as Russia, the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, each could take to boost confidence that the scope of Iran’s nuclear effort is purely peaceful.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Vaez broke the list of steps into different themes, beginning with confidence-building measures.

He acknowledged that “lack of trust, years of concealment of the Iranian program and prolonged diplomatic deadlock have contributed to this situation of deep mistrust between Iran and the West.”

One way to rebuild that trust would be for Iran to “come clean” with the international community about its past enrichment activities; however, Tehran should receive guarantees it will not be penalized for them, according to Vaez.

He highlighted the case of Libya, whose weapons of mass destruction efforts were disclosed in 2003 and referred to the Security Council for information purposes only.

Meanwhile, Washington could prove its diplomacy toward the Persian Gulf State is not aimed at regime change, he said. For example, in addition to providing the 20-percent enriched uranium, the administration could provide Iran with aircraft parts and offer repairs to its aging passenger aircraft, which have caused 15 deaths over the past decade.

In addition, the five recognized nuclear powers – China, France, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom – plus Germany should involve Turkey and Brazil in any discussions about Iran’s uranium program, essentially making the group for this purpose the P-5+3.

The two countries last year put forward a fuel swap deal that calls for Tehran to temporarily store 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium in Turkey in exchange for fuel from other nations (see GSN, May 17, 2010).

That plan came after the failure of a similar plan proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency failed (see GSN, Nov. 2, 2010).

“At this stage the diplomatic construct requires Iran to put trust, in a disproportionate way, in Western powers,” he said. If Ankara and Braslia joined the dialogue it could boost the chances of successful diplomacy, he added. The last full talks between the six powers and Iran occurred in January, and made no progress toward resolving the nuclear impasse.

The international community should also offer specific incentives that could entice Iran to be more transparent about its nuclear effort, Vaez said. Offers should be geared toward power generation, since Iran claims it needs nuclear facilities for electricity, and allow for investment in the nation’s gas and oil sectors.

Iran, in the meantime, should adhere to a “code of conduct” that further demonstrate its nuclear program is peaceful, according to Vaez. That could involve ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a move that should be matched by mutual ratifications by the United States and Israel, the expert said.

The Middle East state could also ratify all international treaties related to nuclear safety and security, Vaez said. He noted that with the opening of its power facility in Bushehr Iran is the only country on the planet operating an atomic reactor without signing or ratifying the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

The U.N. Security Council could take a pre-emptive step and pass a resolution to determine the consequences Iran would face if it pursued a nuclear breakout, a scenario that involves turning low-enriched uranium into weapon-grade material, he said. Such a resolution would “serve as a deterrent for any other perspective nuclear proliferator,” Vaez told reporters without citing specific countries.

Perhaps most importantly, all sides involved must be willing to make compromises, including having recognized nuclear states accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium, he said.

In return, the powers could propose a set of restrictive measures that Iran would agreed to follow, such as only allowing the nation to produce material enriched to 5 percent, high enough for commercial nuclear reactors, and limiting the volume to meet the country’s fuel needs.

In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency could provide centrifuge parts to Iran in return for tagging the devices so that observers know how many the Gulf state possesses.

For its part, Iran could implement the Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards deal, which grants agency inspectors more extensive access to a nation’s nuclear program information and facilities.

The plan “would take away the rational for Iran to do 20-percent enrichment,” Ferguson told reporters. He said he recognized that the parts of the blueprint look “politically risky” but “when are there times you have all the stars lined up?”

“These measures set out a foundation for diplomatic efforts focusing on establishing enhanced safeguards on Iran,” according to Vaez. He added that he thinks there is still “plenty of time” to strike a diplomatic accord.

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