Helping Iran safeguard its nuclear stockpile
Diplomats from six world powers are due back in Kazakhstan on Friday for talks with Iran about its controversial nuclear program. From the hawkish “bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran” crowd to the “jaw-jaw-not-war-war” folks, there is no shortage of ideas about how to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.
Lost in the din is the prospect that the United Nations agency charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities could settle the most pressing issue – by helping Iran convert its enriched uranium gas stockpile to safer metal form. If only the world powers will encourage it to do its job.
The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not only monitors member states’ nuclear programs to make sure they are in compliance with required safeguards obligations, but it also provides technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
The most serious Western concern about Iran’s nuclear program is the enrichment of fissile uranium to 20 percent in their gas centrifuges. Building up this stockpile is a big step toward having the fuel needed for a nuclear bomb, should Tehran ever decide to kick off a weaponization effort.
This is not to say that it is what Iran intends to do. On the contrary, the Iranians have been converting some of the enriched uranium gas into metallic fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes for use in cancer therapy.
This gas-to-metal conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the “enrichable” gaseous stockpile that can be drawn on for use in centrifuges. Reconversion back to gaseous form is difficult and time-consuming and a major roadblock if Iran intends to “race to the bomb.”
But Iran appears to be having some technical problems in doing the conversion – especially in fabricating the enriched uranium fuel plates. So the world powers could encourage the IAEA to assist Iran in this conversion and subsequent fuel plate fabrication. Iran would get fuel for its reactor and, in the process, turn potential bomb fuel into a safer form.
In 2007 the IAEA Board banned certain forms of technical cooperation between the agency and Iran. The world powers – the “P5+1,” which is the five permanent U.N. Security Council nations (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China) and Germany – can now inform the IAEA that they strongly support those forms of technical cooperation that make Iran’s program more proliferation-resistant, such as the enriched-uranium-gas-to-metal conversion. If the IAEA, or the world powers, are hesitant to impart the subtleties of enriched uranium metallurgy skills to Iranian scientists, Iran should be offered the option of using IAEA-recruited foreign experts.
Should Iran be receptive to this proposal, it could reassure the world powers about Tehran’s benign intentions. A sensible response, then, to begin the process of winding down the standoff and building trust could be to suspend the harshest sanctions. To make certain Iran is not going to “break out” and race to the bomb, the P5+1 could also seek Tehran’s agreement to stationing IAEA personnel around the clock at Iran’s two enrichment sites.
During the coming talks, the world powers could therefore focus on further safeguarding Iran’s 20 percent enrichment work – such as the proposed gas-to-metal conversion assistance – and avoid making extraneous demands that may derail the negotiations over this core concern.
During the last talks, for example, the P5+1 asked that Iran export its stockpile of 20 percent uranium and shutter its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, near the city of Qom. These concessions fall under the “nice to have” category but are far from critical. And they may needlessly hold up progress toward a lasting deal that improves global security.
The Fordow site was built specifically to withstand aerial assault – most probably as a lesson learned from Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s civilian reactor at Osirak. It is unlikely Tehran will agree to shutter it unless the threat to use force against its nuclear installations is “removed from the table.” Both President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could well view that as politically unpalatable.
The world powers must recognize that while Iran was found to be in noncompliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement for activities carried out about a decade ago, those issues have since been rectified. Iran is now in compliance.
Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, weighed in recently, saying, “So far Iran has not violated NPT [the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.”
In fact, one of Iran’s goals in continuing to enrich to 20 percent may be its usefulness as leverage to coax out some sanctions relief from the world powers. What are perceived in the West as provocative steps toward nuclear weapons capability may just be a negotiating strategy.
Instead of more sanctions, as some have proposed, the P5+1 could show reciprocal good faith to the Iranians for any positive steps they take – such as accepting help for an accelerated enriched uranium gas-to-metal conversion.
The world powers must not miss another opportunity to further safeguard Iran’s 20-percent enriched uranium gas stockpile. They could specifically encourage the IAEA to help Iran convert it into the safer metallic form for reactor fuel.
Let’s help Iran help itself – and the rest of the world.
PHOTO (Top): Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (2nd R, front) before an earlier round of talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov/Pool
PHOTO (Insert A): A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi
PHTOT (Insert B): Former U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix in Hamburg October 7, 2007. REUTERS/Christian Charisius