New twist in Iran's nuclear brinkmanship
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
It is possible that by giving the go-ahead for the production of 20% enriched
uranium, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has sufficiently jolted the other
side to rethink its approach on the nuclear fuel-swap deal.
On the surface, Iran's decision has raised alarm bells in the West and has
provoked a strong response from United States President Barack Obama, who has
warned that his administration is "developing a significant regime of
sanctions" to impose on Iran.
Even Moscow has expressed its displeasure, in the form of a statement by a
Foreign Ministry official, which said, "We are disappointed with the Iranian
step, which did not allow diplomats to agree on mutually acceptable ways for
the fulfillment of the
IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] proposal of higher-enriched uranium
fuel production for the Tehran research reactor outside Iran."
Under a proposal put forward by the IAEA last year, Iran would hand over its
low-enriched uranium (LEU) to be further processed in another country before
being returned for use at the Tehran reactor. On February 2, after much
flip-flopping, Iran said it was now ready to send its LEU abroad. Then, on
February 7, Iran announced it would itself begin enriching uranium to 20%,
while saying it was still open to discussing the original proposal.
This has heightened concerns that Iran aims to build nuclear weapons, something
it has consistently denied.
However, not all hope is lost for the IAEA-proposed deal, and there are
emerging signs of growing activity on both sides to come to some sort of
mutually satisfactory agreement.
On Iran's part, various officials from the Atomic Energy Organization (AEO) to
the Foreign Ministry have repeatedly stated that Iran is still open to the swap
deal. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the AEO, told the Tehran daily Iran that
the government was willing to suspend production of 20% uranium if there were
an exchange "without preconditions" of Iran's 3.5% LEU in return for nuclear
fuel rods. According to Salehi, Iran's LEU could be "sealed and put under the
custody" of the IAEA until it received the fuel it needed for the medical
The news from Washington on the other hand indicates that the US is now working
on a new proposal aimed at salvaging the nuclear deal that was unveiled last
October in Geneva. This focuses on procuring medical isotopes for Iran from the
international market. An administration official told the Washington Post,
"Rather than operate a reactor, this would be a more cost-effective and
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however, and some US nuclear experts
have openly admitted that Iran's home production of key ingredients (eg
technetium 99) would be less costly and more efficient. (See
Dangerous steps in Iran's nuclear dance Asia Times Online, February 9,
That aside, the problem with the US's new approach is that it apparently seeks
to make the reactor redundant by the promise of delivering the reactor's net
products. That will not wash with the Iranians, who have had an earful of
unfulfilled promises over the past 30 years.
Instead, what may work to everyone's advantage is a "mixed approach", whereby
the fuel swap under set timelines and delivery of medical isotopes to Iran
would be the central elements of an agreement according to which Iran would
refrain from engaging in enrichment activities deemed "highly dangerous" by the
"It's Iran's version of nuclear brinksmanship," said a Tehran foreign policy
expert. "The message from Tehran is clear: take our counter-proposal seriously
or face the consequence of Iran taking a giant step closer to the
'nuclear-capable' threshold ... There is cause for a pause on the part of
Washington and London in their unreasonable rejection of Iran's proposal."
If a deal is worked out and a modified version of the IAEA proposal accepted,
it would represent a unique victory for Iran's nuclear diplomacy, combining
"soft" and "hard" power to elicit a favorable response from the "Iran Six"
nations, ie the US, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany. These countries
have engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran over the past several years.
Also, if there were a breakthrough, it would frustrate some of the hardline
voices in Iran that argue in favor of Iran "deepening its nuclear capability".
To silence such voices and to agree to limit Iran's enrichment activities to
low levels (below 5%), Iran's top decision-makers would have to show that they
had struck the right bargain without selling themselves short.
As Iran celebrates the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution on Thursday,
with people expected to take to the streets in their thousands across the
country - although some will be protesting against the current government -
there are rays of hope that the dark clouds of a more intensified nuclear
crisis may be disappearing.
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
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.