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The End of Obama’s Vision of a Nuke-Free World
Posted on Feb 16, 2010
By Scott Ritter
For Iran, the swap was always about acquiring the needed nuclear fuel rods, manufactured from 19.5 percent enriched uranium, in order to continue operation of its research reactor in Tehran, which produces much-needed nuclear isotopes for medical purposes. The main attraction for the Iranians for such a deal, beyond acquiring the fuel rods, was that they would not need to produce any 19.5 percent enriched uranium itself, and thus not have to reconfigure their current centrifuge-based enrichment infrastructure to operate beyond its 3.5 percent enrichment threshold. Iran has consistently maintained that it neither requires, nor desires, any capability to enrich uranium beyond the 3.5 percent level needed to manufacture nuclear fuel rods for its own nuclear power reactors. Having its uranium enrichment infrastructure locked in at 3.5 percent simplified not only Iran’s own operations, but also the safeguard monitoring and inspection requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency, charged with verifying Iran’s compliance with the terms of the NPT. Iran viewed the fuel swap as a means of facilitating international acceptance of its uranium enrichment program, a point of view that was in fundamental opposition to that of the United States and Europe.
No amount of finessing the specifics of a fuel swap, whether it be done in stages, managed by a neutral third party, or carried out over the course of several months or several years, could reconcile the Iranian position with that of the U.S. and Europe. At the center of this problem is the Iranian uranium enrichment program itself. Any fuel swap deal is little more than window dressing to the larger issue of whether or not Iran will be permitted by the international community to enrich uranium. To the U.S. and Europe, finer points such as whether such enrichment would be capped at 3.5 percent, or diversified to include 19.5 percent, remain irrelevant, since their unified policy approach is to suspend all uranium enrichment activities inside Iran.
The fatal flaw in the Obama fuel swap proposal, when it was broached in October 2009, was that it failed to explicitly state that any fuel swap had to be linked to Iran’s suspension of its uranium enrichment program. While policy wonks in and out of the Obama administration can argue that such a position was more than implied, given the existence of U.N. Security Council resolutions that explicitly call for suspension, any deal that introduces Iran’s stocks of low-enriched uranium as a legitimate commodity provides de facto legitimization of the processes that produced that commodity. Since Iran has consistently refused to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, it had every reason to treat the proposed fuel swap as a stand-alone deal that focused on a short-term problem, and not as part of the larger U.S.-driven demands for enrichment suspension.
The U.S. policy objective was never to provide Iran with 19.5 percent enriched uranium fuel rods, or to lock Iran in at a 3.5 percent enrichment threshold, but rather to get the majority of Iran’s existing stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium out of the country, thereby eliminating any scenario that had Iran using this low-enriched uranium as feedstock for any breakout nuclear weapons production capability, no matter how farfetched such a scenario might be. This is why the Obama administration never paid much attention to the details of such a swap, since these details simply didn’t matter. The U.S. approach was never about facilitating a swap so much as it was about facilitating a kidnapping. The policy objective was to get the majority of Iran’s enriched uranium stocks under international control. Once Iran no longer had access to 1,600 kilograms of its 1,800-kilogram stockpile of low-enriched uranium, the Obama administration could blunt the fear-driven concerns over the immediacy of any Iranian nuclear capability. It would take Iran several months to reconstitute its low-enriched uranium stocks to the level needed to produce its hypothetical nuclear bomb. During this period, the U.S. would redouble its demands for suspension of uranium enrichment and develop a comprehensive package of stringent economic sanctions that would be imposed on Iran should it fail to cooperate.
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By December 2009, a point at which the U.S. had hoped to have the Iranian uranium under its control and a sanctions campaign under way, Iran had yet to agree to the specifics of any fuel swap but at the same time publically remained committed to the concept. That approach paralyzed the U.S.-led effort to rally support behind sanctions since most nations did not want to do anything that would threaten the fuel swap negotiations. As 2010 rolled around, the Iranian delay tactics forced the U.S. to shed all pretenses around the fuel swap. While Iranian negotiators spoke of a potential swap formula that could unfold over the course of several months, the U.S. spoke of a swap timetable stretching out several years, making such a swap useless for the purpose it was ostensibly being instituted for—the Iranian nuclear research reactor and the manufacture of medical isotopes.
With the true U.S. policy objective thus exposed, Iran last week announced that it would carry out its own indigenous enrichment of uranium to the 19.5 percent needed to fuel the research reactor. Whether Iran has the technical or practical capabilities necessary to bring such a plan to fruition is debatable. While reconfiguring its existing centrifuge cascades to produce 19.5 percent enriched uranium is not impossible, Iran has never before attempted to process enriched uranium into nuclear fuel rods. Likewise, there is a question about the viability of Iran’s feedstock of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the gaseous material that is fed into the centrifuges for the purpose of enriching uranium.
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