Iran’s Proposal to Russia: Enrichment Is Still Key

August 26, 2010

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said today that the Islamic Republic has proposed to Russia that the two countries create a joint consortium to fabricate fuel for the Bushehr reactor and other nuclear power plants that Iran plans to build in the future.  Salehi reportedly told IRNA that the consortium would “do part of the work in Russia and part of it in Iran.”  Salehi said that “Iran does not intend to produce the whole amount of the fuel needed for its power plants on its soil,” but reiterated that “Tehran would not stop enrichment” and would “prove itself to be capable of producing uranium and transforming it into plates.”

Salehi’s proposal is the latest signal from Tehran that, as we have argued previously, “American/international ‘acceptance’ of Iranian enrichment is critical if nuclear talks with Iran . . . are to have any chance of lasting success.”  It is further reaffirmation of our point that Iranian officials have “indicated their openness to multilateral cooperation on enrichment — so long as, under whatever cooperative arrangements might be established, uranium enrichment continues to take place inside Iran.”

Nasser Karimi of the Associated Press writes that the proposal described by Salehi “appeared to be an attempt by Tehran to gain some control over the nuclear fuel process at its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant.”  But we believe that the Iranian proposal is much more strategic in character.  And, on that point, we were struck by a piece, “Russia and the Future of Nuclear Talks,” that Kayhan Barzegar published yesterday in Iran Review.

Kayhan argues that, with the fueling of the reactor at Bushehr and the prospect that the Bushehr power plant will soon be on line, “Russia has practically conceded that Iran is a nuclear state.”  This, in his view, will “enhance the peaceful nature and legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear program,” creating a “new political atmosphere” in which Tehran will have “greater bargaining power in future nuclear talks.”  In particular,

As Iran gains membership to the world’s nuclear club, the direction and nature of negotiations will change.  In the past, the West’s prime aim was for the most part based on bringing Iran’s nuclear activities to an overall halt.  This time around, however, the focus of the talks will be on the preservation of the domestic fuel cycle capability, insisting upon independent enrichment on Iranian soil.  In this respect, the role of Russia will be significant in future talks.

The main reason behind the current standoff between Iran and the West is that the Tehran approach to enriching uranium within the framework of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) aims to develop Iran’s domestic fuel cycle capability.  Iran strives to connect the different aspects of the fuel cycle and preserving the independent fuel cycle might be viewed as Iran’s trump card in any nuclear talks. . . .  In this respect, the Bushehr’s launching can be seen as a turning point in the Russian stance towards Iran’s nuclear activities.

In Kayhan’s assessment, after the United Nations Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1929 in June, “the Russians realized that uncritically pursuing the Western line would cause them to lose their importance in the diplomatic tug-of-war surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. . . .  Russia, as a result, in a shift of policy decided to launch the Bushehr plant.”

Kayhan points out that, while Russia hopes it will provide the annual installments of new fuel required by the Bushehr reactor, “according to the two sides’ agreement this is not obligatory.”  More broadly, Russia will seek to be “the sole supplier of nuclear fuel to Iran and reap the benefits” and “to cooperate in the construction of Iran’s new nuclear reactors.”  While cautioning that “Iran should not limit itself to or be dependent on Russian goodwill,” Kayhan argues that, in the current climate, Moscow has real incentives to be more forthcoming on nuclear cooperation with Tehran.

It is in this context that the strategic character of the Iranian proposal to Russia, as described by Salehi, becomes clear.  We have anticipated for some time that “preservation of the domestic fuel cycle capability, insisting upon independent enrichment on Iranian soil” will be at the forefront of Iran’s agenda for the next round of nuclear discussions with the Vienna Group (the United States, Russia, and France, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency) and the P-5+1.  A formal commitment by Russia to cooperate in the development of Iran’s enrichment capabilities would boost Tehran’s position on this issue.

Kayhan’s underscores that China has never been overly concerned about safeguarded enrichment in Iran:

Beijing does not consider Tehran’s nuclear program a threat to its national and security interests and maintains that Iran is entitled to peaceful use of nuclear energy. . . .  China has set limits for cooperation with Western policies against Iran.  From China’s perspective, initiating war against Iran or adopting tough and coercive sanctions will endanger China’s interests and are as a result seen as undesirable.

In the wake of Bushehr’s launching, Kayhan anticipates that there will be “more differences of opinion” among European states about the appropriate goal of nuclear diplomacy with Iran: “The main challenge now facing the EU is whether to come to grips with the existing realities and accept the international legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, or insist on the effectiveness of past policies predicated on the adoption of tough sanctions to instigate negotiations with Iran.”  As a result of these developments:

The forging of a sustainable consensus between the 5+1 parties for the adoption of coercive policies against Iran will not be an easy task in future talks. . . .  International conditions have changed.  The West is no longer capable of creating a united front against Iran and this has been proven by Iran’s ability to bypass sanctions.  Russia, China, Turkey and even South Korea have major stakes in Iran and are, therefore, against unilateral sanctions against Iran. . . .  Sooner or later the great powers involved in the Iranian nuclear dispute should come to realize that Iran has crossed the line drawn by their demarcation of the traditional monopoly on enriching uranium.  Thus they should try to find a genuinely sustainable solution in the course of future nuclear talks with Iran.  With Bushehr’s launch and Iran becoming a member of the nuclear club, along with maintaining the strategic card of independent and domestic fuel cycle capabilities, Iran will have the upper hand in future talks.  This of course may further deepen the rift between Iran and the West.

We fully agree that the United States and its European partners should “try to find a genuinely sustainable solution in the course of future nuclear talks with Iran” and that such a solution will necessarily entail Western acceptance of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.  But we are skeptical that the Obama Administration is prepared to move in this direction.  Likewise, we are skeptical that Britain and France, the European states with the most rigid positions on the enrichment issue, are willing to “come to grips with the existing realities and accept the international legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.”  And, if those assessments are correct, the next round of nuclear discussions could indeed “further deepen the rift between Iran and the West.”  But the enrichment issue is certainly not going away.

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 26 August 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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