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    Middle East
     Nov 6, 2009
Iran looks to Argentina for nuclear fuel
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

During her recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had harsh words for Iran, accusing Tehran of complicity in the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Iran has been accused of organizing the attack in retaliation to Argentina's suspension of a nuclear technology transfer contract.

However, despite lingering tensions between Tehran and Buenos Aires over the infamous attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association - in her speech, Kirchner restated Argentine demands for the extradition of Iranians wanted by Interpol over the bombing - there is still a chance of the nations reviving their nuclear ties after a 15-year lull.

"We are interested in buying [nuclear fuel] from any supplier, including Argentina," Iran's envoy to the International Atomic

  
Energy Agency (IAEA), said on Monday, conveying the impression that Iran had all but given up on a nuclear deal that would involve France. Not only is France often accused of being at the forefront of Iran-bashing in Europe, it has also never lived up to an agreement made with Tehran in the mid-1970s to deliver enriched uranium to Iran.

Nonetheless, both France and the outgoing head of the IAEA, Mohamad ElBaradei, are continuing with their campaign to keep the IAEA-proposed deal, involving Russia, France and the United States, alive. Even though ElBaradei's comments at the UN - which emphasized that "the issue at stake remains that of mutual guarantees among the parties" - actually undermined his efforts to keep Paris in the picture. Even the minimum trust between Tehran and Paris required for such a deal is non-existent.

The fact that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has kept focus on the significance of the deal - which would divest Iran of its cache of uranium that could theoretically be used for weaponization purposes - actually adds to Tehran's misgivings about France's intentions.

Under a draft IAEA proposal, Iran's low-enriched uranium would be sent abroad for processing before being returned to Iran for use in a medical reactor facility in Tehran. Although Iran denies it, the US insists that at recent talks in Vienna, Iran agreed "in principle" to the nuclear deal. Ian Kelly, a US State Department spokesperson, expressed hope on Tuesday that a follow-up meeting would transpire in the near future.

Argentina seems a perfect replacement for several reasons. First, the Tehran reactor, though initially built by the US, was redesigned and had its core refitted by Argentina in the 1980s. This means that for all practical purposes, it is an Argentinean-made, and fueled, reactor. In 1988, the IAEA governing board approved Argentina's delivery of highly-enriched uranium (19.75%) to Iran, which was delivered in the autumn of 1993.

Second, during 1993-1994, Iran and Argentina engaged in serious negotiations on further nuclear cooperation. Among the issues discussed were the training of Iranian scientists at an Argentinean nuclear institute and a fuel fabrication plant for Iran. These discussions, as well as the distinct and deepening nuclear relations between Iran and Argentina, came to a sudden halt in July 1994 with the bombing of the Jewish center.

Third, despite negative comments such as those by Kirchner that overlook the irrefutable record of the nuclear talks between Tehran and Buenos Aires in early 1994 - talks that raised Iranian hopes that the fuel delivery of 1993 would be followed up with more extensive deals - the idea of replenishing the Tehran reactor with fuel from Argentina has never quite disappeared from Iran's nuclear energy policy. Iran has adamantly rejected allegations that it played any role in the bombing.

"Many in Iran are convinced that the [Argentine] bombing was carried out by some rogue elements in the Argentinean army who were in league with Israel's [intelligence service] Mossad - since the early 1970s when Mossad first got involved with the [Argentine] military junta's 'dirty war' following reports in the US media," a Tehran University political science professor tells the author.

At a minimum, Iran's explicit request from Argentina for fuel for its Tehran reactor would answer a key question surrounding the investigation of the 1994 bombing: who benefited and who was a net loser and net gainer as a result of the bombing? Certainly, the 15-year hiatus in Tehran-Buenos Aires nuclear cooperation shows Tehran as the net loser.

But, fourth, the more important question now is whether both countries can resume their nuclear ties and, if so, can this happen with or without the blessing of Washington?

"One advantage of the Argentine scenario for nuclear delivery to Iran is that it keeps the contentious European footprint out and makes the US more of a central player, since everyone knows that the Argentineans would not move without the backing of the White House," the same Tehran professor tells the author.

He adds ruefully, "Just take a look at the European press these days. It is full of lies and distortions. A case in point, the Financial Times [of London] falsely claims that Iran has now reneged on its agreement to the nuclear deal put forth by the IAEA, when in fact everyone, above all in the IAEA, knows that Iran never agreed to anything and the Iranian representative to the IAEA repeatedly stated that we have not agreed to anything. So, it's better to keep this out of the 'European theater'."

At this point, it is unclear how Argentina will respond to Iran's request, and whether or not Buenos Aires is ready to "reset" relations via a nuclear fuel deal that would instantly act as a confidence-builder between the two countries after so many years of acrimony.

One reason Argentina may be inclined to respond affirmatively is that Iran enjoys solidarity with various Latin American nations and governments, such as in Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia. These nations could intercede on Iran's behalf as intermediaries.

In other words, it may be time to harvest Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's "strategic opening to Latin America" in the form of resurrecting a nuclear connection with Argentina. Iran's friends in the region could act as "connecting bridges" to "repair" the much-damaged bilateral relations between Iran and Argentina, to paraphrase another Tehran analyst who works out of Ahmadinejad's "presidential office", a think-tank for the executive branch.

For now, however, the US and its allies are keeping their gaze on the IAEA-proposed deal, which has been denounced by powerful politicians in Tehran as inimical to Iran's "national interests". A "mixed basket", or a combination of the IAEA deal plus fuel delivery from Argentina, is another option that Tehran is now quietly considering, "to keep everyone happy", says the Tehran analyst cited above.

There is one exception, however - Israel. Fearful of a new Iran-Argentina nuclear connection, Israel will surely exert all the pressure it can on Buenos Aires not to agree to Iran's request. A "litmus test for the international community", is how Ahmadinejad has framed the issue of fuel supply for Iran's "humanitarian" reactor in Tehran, and at this juncture, it may be also be a litmus test of independent foreign policy action on the part of Argentina.

Note
1. See Interpol's decision time on 'Iranian' bombing Asia Times Online, November 7, 2007.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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