Nuclear Enrichment Deal With Iran Buys Time

Expert David Albright, says the preliminary agreement by which Iran will ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing "allows time for negotiations" to get Iran to freeze its nuclear program but warns Iran might still block the implementation of the plan.  

October 21, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

A leading expert on Iran’s nuclear program, David Albright, says the preliminary agreement announced in Vienna by which Iran will ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing "allows time for negotiations" to get Iran to freeze its program. But Albright warns that Iran might still block the implementation of this accord, and that time is running out before the United States and its allies have to decide whether to go for more severe sanctions on Iran.

The United States, Iran, Russia, and France agreed preliminarily in Vienna on October 21 on a confidence-building plan that calls for Iran to send much of its enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing for eventual use as medical isotopes  in Tehran. What do you make of the outlines of this agreement?

The outlines of the agreement are essentially the same [as] what was tentatively agreed to in early October in Geneva: Iran would send out 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in one batch by the end of this year. The idea is to buy time to reduce pressure on the whole negotiation process because this low-enriched uranium, if left in Iran, poses a threat that it could be turned into weapon-grade uranium and used in nuclear weapons. This agreement aims to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities for a relatively short period of time, probably less than a year. But that year is all-important because it allows time for negotiations without, frankly, the threat of military action from countries such as Israel and also to reduce some of the criticism  in the United States about these kinds of deals with Iran. So it’s a very important agreement to buy time.

It doesn’t stop Iran from continuing to enrich uranium, right?

No, that’s still what the United States, Britain, France, and Germany insist upon. In their mind, these negotiations are about Iran disbanding its uranium enrichment program and allowing confidence to be built up that Iran isn’t seeking nuclear weapons. So the "enrichment" is outstanding. Iran has refused to accept a halt in its enrichment, which means it’s also refused to accept a negotiating structure to discuss suspension of enrichment, which is called "freeze for freeze." By that formula, the Security Council would freeze its sanctions against Iran, and Iran would freeze its low-enrichment program.  If Iran agrees to the steps taken in Geneva, then the tough negotiations really start. The position of the United States and the EU remains the same about the length of negotiations, that they will take stock in December and look at a whole range of negotiating issues with Iran, including Iran’s actions in allowing inspections of this new enrichment site near Qom. They will then decide whether the negotiations should continue to get a permanent freeze, or whether they should advance to a new page where they impose harsher sanctions on Iran.

This deal buys some time but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of what to do about Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities and that all has to happen within a couple of months.

Have the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] people been to this newly revealed enrichment place near Qum?

They go on Sunday for the first time. So no one knows what they’re going to find and whether Iran will  be cooperative. Will Iran answer questions by the IAEA inspectors about what is the purpose of this site? Will it allow the IAEA to do environmental sampling? Will it allow the IAEA access to people involved in the program? Will it also allow the IAEA to get information about where centrifuges would be made or where they are procured? So there’s a whole range of issues that’ll be looked at and the IAEA and governments will look and see if Iran is being more cooperative.

Your group, the ISIS, reported some time ago that Iran had enough enriched uranium that if they wanted to they could make a nuclear device.  So is this tentative agreement a breakthrough?

I see it as a very important breakthrough to get rid of a large amount of their existing low-enriched uranium. They don’t have enough for a breakout for some period of time. And how long that period is, of course, depends on how much Iran continues to enrich. If it enriches at its current pace in nine months or twelve months, it could replenish its stock if it wanted to enrich further up to weapon-grade uranium. That’s why this deal on the low-enriched uranium is to buy time.

Does it matter if Iran sends all its enriched uranium in one shipment or can it spread it out? I’ve seen one account saying that there was concern that if Iran doesn’t send it all in one shipment, it wouldn’t mean much.

Well, that’s right. If it shipped 100 milligrams a month every month they could replenish that amount. So it needs to be shipped out in one batch in order for this to be meaningful.

And your understanding is that Russia would enrich it and put it in a radioactive bar?

The low-enriched uranium will be sent to Russia. Either that material or substituted material would be enriched to 19.75 percent, and that material would then be sent to France, which would then fabricate the fuel into research-reactor fuel. There aren’t that many places in the world that make this kind of research-reactor fuel and so France is one of the only ones and it’s close to Russia so it makes sense for the French fabrication plant to churn this 19.75 percent enriched uranium into the fuel. I’m going to assume it’s going to go as uranium hexafluoride from Iran to Russia. It may go as uranium oxide from Russia to France and then it would be turned into this metallic-based fuel.

Earlier I saw some stories saying the Iranians didn’t trust the French.

France had negotiated a deal many, many years ago with Iran to be a partner to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power reactors. But after the revolution and the overthrow of the Shah in the late 70s that deal fell apart and France has refused to provide any low-enriched uranium because of the nature of the Iranian regime. And after the revolution in 1979, there was a war with Iraq, and Iran, since then, has been too unstable from the French perspective to trust with low-enriched uranium. And so they’re a silent partner in that deal. Iran’s very bitter about the whole thing because they paid, if I remember correctly, actually a billion dollars for that partnership so they expect low-enriched uranium.

Politically, what does it mean for the United States on this thing? Does it allow Obama to get some political credibility do you think?

Yes, I do. It’s a sound deal. It’s important to reduce the pressure that’s posed by Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities. It meshes with the United States, and Britain, and France catching Iran building a secret enrichment plant near the city of Qom so Iran has been put on the defensive. The prospects for pressuring Iran to agree to suspension have gone up but still the hard part is ahead. This deal buys some time but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of what to do about Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities and that all has to happen within a couple of months before the administration has to make a decision whether to pursue a path of sanctions and isolation and containment of Iran.

So to sum up, this is a time-saving agreement as far as the West is concerned in that it makes it less likely for Iran to immediately produce nuclear weapons. But the need is still there for a freeze, is that your interpretation?

Yes, a freeze and a suspension. So first a freeze, then a suspension and so what you have in summary is the Iranians reducing their ability to rapidly make nuclear weapons by one, sending out the low-enriched uranium and, two, by putting this new enrichment plant under safeguards. With new enrichment safeguards, it’s much less likely the new enrichment plant near Qom can be used in a secret breakout effort. If the centrifuge plants had remained secret, then Iran could have taken low-enriched uranium there and relatively rapidly in secret, produced weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. So, the two aspects of getting the low-enriched uranium out of the country and inspecting the Qom facility reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.

Any chance you think the Iranian leadership might reject this agreement?

Yes there is a chance. Many observers think they will reject it. And they’ll do it by stalling. They’ll say, "I’m sorry we don’t have enough time to consider this." So, there’s great worry that they won’t accept it on Friday and that even if they do, they won’t accept a negotiating framework to allow a discussion of suspension and additional confidence building. Then, we get to this question of how you make sure Iran isn’t going to build nuclear weapons.