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Russia’s Nuclear Deal with Iran

Author: Lionel Beehner
February 28, 2006

Introduction

As the world struggles to find a formula for dealing with suspicious nuclear developments in Iran, Russian diplomats have been holding bilateral talks with Iranian officials on a proposal they say could defuse the crisis. The proposal, which has won support from other UN Security Council members—including the United States—would allow Iran to obtain enriched uranium it says it needs for civilian nuclear power directly from Russia. More importantly, the plan would obviate the need for Iran to enrich uranium on its own soil, which many fear could be used to create fuel for nuclear weapons.

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Have the Iranians signed on to the Russian proposal?

In principle, yes, but negotiations continue. The tentative deal, the details of which still need to be worked out, comes one week before the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency meets March 6 to discuss potential measures—including UN sanctions—to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran, which rejected earlier versions of Russia’s proposal, continues to press for what it says is its sovereign right to enrich uranium—an activity the international community, led by the United States, has condemned. Experts say there are a number of other uncertainties with the Russian plan, including the scale of the program, the role of Iranian scientists, and the program’s economic feasibility. Others suspect agreeing to the plan is a red herring by Iran to avoid censure by the UN Security Council.

What would the deal entail?

The plan, as reported, would essentially subcontract Iran’s uranium-enrichment process to Russia. Moscow says the deal is contingent on Iran permanently freezing its enrichment activities. Tehran, however, would be allowed to continue converting uranium ore concentrate, or yellowcake, into the gas uranium tetrafluoride (UF-4). (Iran resumed this conversion last summer.) The UF-4 would then be shipped to Russia to be converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF-6) and enriched into low-enriched uranium, which can fuel nuclear-power reactors but is not weapons-grade. The uranium would then be converted back to oxide for fuel fabrication and sent back to Iran for use at Bushehr, a Russian-built civilian-use nuclear reactor. All spent fuel would be sent back to Russia.

Alternatively, Iran could convert UF-4 into UF-6 on Iranian soil. Whichever of these options is employed, the deal, as currently reported, would require Russia to enrich the UF-6 into low-enriched uranium. At this stage, it’s also unclear whether Russia or Iran would be doing the fuel fabrication; the most proliferation-resistant option, experts say, would require Russia to make the fuel. If Iran were allowed to take possession of the low-enriched uranium that has not been converted into fuel, experts say there’s the possibility Iran could use it as input to a clandestine enrichment plant to make weapons-grade uranium.

Would Iranian or Russian scientists be enriching the uranium?

Technically, only Russian scientists would be allowed to enrich the uranium. According to recent statements by Russian officials, Iranian scientists would not be given access to the nuclear sites. Nor would Russia share its technological know-how with Iranian technicians under the plan. “The big concern is that once Iranian scientists achieve the mastery of uranium enrichment, in essence they’ll have the capability to break out into nuclear-weapons capability,” says Charles Ferguson, fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.  

What are the main criticisms of the plan?

There are several, experts say. First, it’s unclear if Russia will take on all or just some of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. “Iran is not agreeing yet to end enrichment activities. It simply wants to add activities in Russia,” says Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate and acting director of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University. Second, critics say the plan fails to dismantle Iran’s future nuclear capabilities. “Even if Russia took over Iran’s nuclear energy work, the religious radicals in Tehran would be left with a huge amount of dangerous equipment,” wrote Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, in a February 2006 New York Times op-ed. Instead, they favor the Libya model: “[In 2003], Libya allowed everything useful for enriching uranium to be boxed up and carted out of the country,” they write.

Others say naturally occurring contaminants in Iran’s domestic supply of uranium will make the Russian plan difficult to carry out. Iranian uranium contains high levels of molybdenum, which is a contaminant lighter than uranium and therefore becomes more concentrated throughout the enrichment process. “It will gunk up the [Russian] centrifuges,” Bunn says.

Why did Tehran originally object to the Russian plan?

Because it requires Iran to relinquish control of the key stage in completing the nuclear fuel cycle, experts say. Iranians maintain their right to retain some level of enrichment activity in Iran. Ferguson says Russia and Iran may reach some kind of compromise that allows a limited level of nuclear research and development to continue within Iran’s borders, but stipulates that the bulk of the enrichment and conversion activities would be carried out by Russia. Other Iranians oppose the plan out of economic concerns and national pride. It does not make sense, they argue, for Iran to pay for the enrichment process and for nuclear fuel if Iranian scientists are not employed. “Persian culture is at stake,” Ferguson says. “They have a long history of scientific accomplishment and don’t want their scientists to be idle and not engaged in this grand enterprise.” Further, Iran is reportedly seeking security assurances by Russia to safeguard against the threat of UN sanctions, or—even worse—a preemptive military strike against its nuclear facilities by Israel or the United States.

What does Russia get out of the deal?

Russia is motivated by a number of interests. Although Russia already enjoys good relations with Tehran, it is not interested in a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern doorstep. Nor does Russia want to see nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, experts say. In addition, an agreement would be a boon to Russia’s image as a peace broker in international politics. “Russia wants to be seen as one of the big players, not as sitting on the sidelines,” Bunn says. Russia also has strong economic interests in Iran. Besides conventional arms, Moscow sells Iran nuclear reactors. For example, the light-water commercial reactor at Bushehr, built by Russians, was sold for more than $800 million. Two other similar nuclear projects are in the works, Ferguson says. “The Russians might cut a deal with Iran by saying, ‘We’ll give you a good price on fuel if you allow us to build.’” Russian trade with Iran is also growing. In 2005, Russian exports to Iran totaled roughly $2 billion. Nikolai Sokov, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, predicts Russian exports to Iran could reach $10 billion in the coming years.

Is the international community’s behind Russia’s plan?

In principle, all five members of the UN Security Council have backed the Russian plan. President Bush explicitly endorsed the proposal in late January, provided that all of the nuclear fuel is produced on Russian soil and that UN inspectors can monitor the transport of the fuel back toIran. However, there have been a number of objections raised privately about the plan—and Iran’s willingness to act in good faith—particularly in light of a newly released IAEA report that details Iran’s stonewalling of weapons inspections. “We remain skeptical” about the plan, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters February 27. Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, also urged caution. Others say Iran may be buying time to avoid being referred to the UN Security Council and facing punitive sanctions. Bunn says the plan leaves open the possibility Iran will carry on with its nuclear research and development. “Once Iranians have all the technical kinks worked out,” he says, “there’s a more significant risk they might go ahead and use the technology for nuclear-weapon purposes.” 

When would this plan go into effect?

Not before the IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting March 6. Most experts say concrete action on the Russian plan is unlikely any time soon, if ever. “This could drag on for months,” Ferguson predicts.

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