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Deal or no deal for Iran?

May 25, 2010

In broad terms Iran seems to have done what world powers urged it to do months ago and accepted a plan to part with some of its nuclear material.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad listens to a reporter's questions during a news conference in New York, September 25, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad listens to a reporter’s questions during a news conference in New York, September 25, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Under the proposal, agreed with Turkey and Brazil last week, Iran would transfer over one tonne of low-enriched uranium – enough for an atomic bomb if enriched to higher levels — to Turkey to be put under the watch of U.N. inspectors.

In return Iran would get fuel rods for a reactor which makes medical isotopes for cancer treatment.

So what’s the problem?

Western officials say that the landscape has changed in the seven months since they brokered a similar plan with Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency as a way to ease international tensions over Tehran’s atomic work.

Iran has continued enriching uranium and the 1,200 kg no longer represents the bulk of its low-enriched stockpile as it did in October, they say. Taking away this amount now would still leave Iran with enough for a bomb if it wanted to build one. Tehran says it has no intention of doing this and says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

But perhaps more importantly, Iran has started enriching uranium to higher levels, taking it closer to the grade needed for nuclear weapons material. It appears to show no intention of stopping or scaling back.

Tehran said it took the step in order to make fuel for the reactor at the centre of the fuel swap because it said it was fed up of waiting for the deal to be agreed. Western officials say it was Iran which stalled progress with a series of new conditions which it knew would not be accepted.

Iran has vowed that it will not stop its higher enrichment, even if the fuel supply agreement goes through. In the words of one Western diplomat this is “a deal breaker”.

Western officials question why Iran would still need to continue this process, which like its lower-grade enrichment violates U.N. sanctions, when countries are prepared to give it the fuel rods it says it needs.

They say Iran lacks the capability to make the specialized fuel assemblies so its higher enrichment makes no sense under its plan as it cannot complete the process.

U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday the newly-brokered fuel swap proposal was “a transparent ploy to avoid Security Council action.”

Shortly after the agreement was announced, a draft resolution to slap a fourth round of U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear work was handed to the Security Council.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington February 24, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington February 24, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The fuel swap proposal is not expected to stop the punitive measures. Iran says it will shelve the agreement if sanctions are imposed.

Some observers have argued that the deal still makes sense as a conciliatory step considering how bad relations are between Iran and the West. They say it would be wrong to ask for new conditions now, given that the Islamic Republic is agreeing to the core elements of the original deal, albeit months later.

It still removes a sizeable chunk of nuclear material out of Iran and could be the first step in building trust, they say. Former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, broker to the original deal, has said the new proposal is a good one.

Others are a lot more skeptical or dismissive, saying the deal is pretty much worthless now.

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