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Can the Obama Administration Take a Deal with Iran on the TRR?

We have argued that the Obama Administration’s approach to Iran sanctions is, truly, a “dead end” policy and that the only way out of this dead end “is to get serious about nuclear diplomacy with Iran — first of all, by reaching agreement on a plan to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).”  Although the Administration continues to depict Iran as having rejected the possibility of working with the international community to refuel the TRR, this is not an accurate representation of reality.

Since October 2009, the Islamic Republic has accepted “in principle” the idea of a “swap” deal for refueling the TRR — that is, a deal in which some part of Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be exchanged for new fuel assemblies for the TRR.  Iranian officials — including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki — have reiterated this position on numerous occasions over the past six months.

That this remains Iran’s position on the TRR issue was confirmed yesterday in Washington by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, at a press conference at the Turkish Embassy (see Ben Katcher’s post) and at an invitation-only session at the Council on Foreign Relations.  At the Council, Davotuğlu was adamant in his insistence that a diplomatic solution to the current nuclear impasse is “still possible — on the TRR especially.”  Davutoğlu “has traveled to Iran five times since August and spoken for more than 14 hours with senior Iranian officials and politicians, including the Supreme Leader, in an effort to broker a compromise” on the issue.  Thus, he speaks with both deep knowledge about and a nuanced appreciation of Iranian negotiating positions.

Davutoğlu recounts that, initially, the Iranians “were insisting on a simultaneous exchange in Iran, in installments.”  But, while distrust of Western intentions and good faith prompted Tehran to insist on a simultaneous exchange of LEU for finished fuel, Davutoğlu firmly attests to the genuineness of the Iranians’ commitment to a “swap” deal: “If we had 116 kilograms [of finished fuel for the TRR] today, I assure you that tomorrow I will get you 1,200 [kilograms of LEU] from Iran.”  And, according to the Turkish Foreign Minister, the Iranians have over time become “more flexible” on the precise terms they would accept for a deal on refueling the TRR.  He declined, however, to provide particular details of the current Iranian position.

Fortunately, some of those details were provided earlier this week in an extended interview with the head of the Islamic Republic’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi.  Indeed, Salehi provided powerful confirmation for all of the elements in Davutoğlu’s assessment of Iran’s posture regarding a TRR deal.

With regard to the possibility of a “swap” deal, specifically, Salehi held that

[T]he only difference between us is that we say the swap has to be made in Iran.   And they say, ‘No, first you have to deliver your uranium to us, and then wait another one year to receive your 20 percent enriched uranium.’  But there is lack of confidence, unfortunately.

Salehi then elaborated on three important points.

First, Salehi stated explicitly that Iran’s continued willingness to move ahead with a “swap” deal includes a willingness to stop its current efforts to enrich uranium to the nearly 20 percent level required for TRR fuel.  In particular, he says that

The mere fact that we’ve offered not to enrich uranium to 20 percent, this was a big message sent to the West.  But unfortunately they did not receive the message.  I remember in many interviews I said, ‘Please.  Please listen.  This is a big offer. . . .  We keep our promise of [only enriching up to] 5 percent, although it is our right to enrich to whatever level we want.  But we keep our promise to 5 percent.  And please enrich for us the 20 percent.’  But they didn’t.  They started putting conditions after conditions after conditions.  And then we had to start 20 percent enrichment.  And now I am saying we are ready if they — today — say ‘OK, we will supply you the fuel’, we will stop the 20 percent enrichment process.  What else do you want?

Second, on the details of an arrangement to refuel the TRR, Salehi said that Iran would give up the amount of LEU equivalent to what it would receive in finished fuel for the TRR — and would give up the LEU in a single installment:

We will give it in one go . . . the 1,000 kilos of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, in return for the 100 kilos of 20 percent enriched uranium.  You can put that . . . under the custody of the [International Atomic Energy Agency] in Iran. . . .  That deal is on the table.

Third, Salehi notes that it is not incumbent solely on Iran to “create trust” — that the United States “can create trust by making the fuel swap and then return to negotiations without any conditions, without any prior conditions on equal par.”

So, the Obama Administration could have a deal on refueling the TRR whereby Iran would give at least 1,000 kilograms of its current stockpile of LEU to the IAEA.  The IAEA would have control of that LEU inside Iran — meaning that Iran would have no option to take that LEU back and put it through further enrichment unless Tehran were prepared to shred its relations with the IAEA and put the Islamic Republic in an extremely precarious international position — until finished fuel was provided for the TRR.  Why won’t the Obama Administration take this deal?  Why does the Administration persist in treating the so-called “ElBaradei” proposal for refueling the TRR as a “take it or leave it” proposition?  Can the Administration actually take “yes” for an answer on this issue?

Beyond its treatment of the TRR issue, the Salehi interview is worth reading in its entirety, regarding nuclear matters as well as a range of other important issues.  Among other things, Salehi says about as clearly as one can that Iran is not seeking to make nuclear weapons: We have indicated this . . . many times.  Not me — our President, our Supreme Leader.   It’s against our tenets.   It’s against our religion.”

When asked if the policy changed and he was asked to begin working on weaponization, Salehi says bluntly,

Of course I wouldn’t accept it. . . .  Because this is against my religion.   And this is what my Supreme Leader has said.  The Supreme Leader is not only a political leader.  He is a religious leader as well.  How can he change his words so easily?

Additionally, Salehi’s words below should be read by all those who continue to circulate the false and completely ahistorical argument that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is irrevocably grounded in hostility to the United States.  Noting his years of graduate study at MIT and his regret that U.S.-Iranian relations are so poor, Salehi says,

I have a lot of respect for the US. . . .  For the people of the US.  And I’ve always said this: I do not consider the US as a country.  I think the US belongs to the whole human kind.  It’s a human heritage. . . .  I don’t think history will be able to produce another country like the US.  Because it’s a country that has served humanity so much, in terms of technology, in terms of science. . . .  Most of my professors were from the US.  Even my Bachelor’s degree is from the American University of Beirut.  Again I had a lot of US professors there.  I feel indebted to them.  This is part of my religion.  You know, whoever teaches you something, you are indebted to them for your life.  So my respect goes for the entire US people.  But you see this is different when it comes to the actions of their government.

There is something badly amiss if, by seriously engaging people like that, the United States cannot put its relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a more positive and productive trajectory.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 15 April 15 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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