Iran’s 20% HEU Proposal: A Good Deal?

Oct 17, 2011


By Eli Jacobs
Last month at the United Nations, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed the cessation of Iran’s production of 20% low-enriched uranium (LEU) if Iran could secure the material necessary to run its research reactor in Tehran through international sale. This proposal has acquired a surprisingly large amount of support, although recent controversy over the attempted assassination of Saudi Ambassador Abdel Al-Jubeir may make acceptance a political impossibility for Obama.
Nevertheless, the United States should pursue this deal. An agreement reached in the presence of a firm consensus among international powers could create clear redlines to indicate when Iran is pursuing a military as opposed to purely civilian nuclear capability. This clarity would increase the diplomatic cost to Iran of moving further towards creating the conditions for a break out nuclear weapons capability. It would also ensure greater unity in response should such further progression occur.
Iran’s nuclear program: military or civilian?
A great deal of evidence exists to demonstrate the military intentions of Iran’s nuclear program. This includes violation of IAEA obligations, the top-level control of the nuclear program by the Ministry of Defense, the development of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload, and the testing of that missile with detonation at 600 meters – which only makes sense with a nuclear payload.
One potentially compelling piece of evidence about Iran’s military intentions is their desire to produce their own 20% LEU, which is extremely uneconomical. If Iran really were only trying to fuel one research reactor, it would be significantly cheaper for them to secure 20% LEU internationally. Further, Iran has just scaled up 20% LEU production and moved it underground.
These moves can be understood as creating the conditions for a break out nuclear weapons capacity and protecting the materials necessary to do so. Indeed, Iran’s current trajectory would give it the amount of 20% LEU necessary to produce a bomb within a year. Further, enrichment from 20% LEU to 90% weapons grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is not as daunting as it seems. Since natural uranium contains less than 1% U-235 (the isotope necessary to sustain chain reactions in reactors or bombs) once a country has enriched to 20% LEU, they have removed 95% of the useless U-238.
A history of failed fuel swaps
However, one can interpret this behavior in a way that makes Iran look significantly less nefarious. They are running low on a shipment of 20% LEU they received from Argentina in the 1990s and have been using to run their research reactor ever since.
In need of replenishment, Iran attempted to strike a deal that would have other countries enrich their 3.5% LEU for them. Unfortunately, this deal fell through. Iran insisted that the foreign 20% LEU and Iranian 3.5% LEU be exchanged simultaneously and on Iranian soil, and the United States refused to agree to these stipulations. Turkey, Brazil, and Iran reached an agreement that would have rescued the deal, but the United States put the kibosh on it at the IAEA because it did not include as a precondition the cessation of Iranian enrichment.
Against this background, the increase in 20% LEU production can be interpreted as an attempt to generate leverage to secure an international fuel source. If the United States does not approve the deal, Iran might further increase its 20% LEU enrichment.
Potential benefits of a fuel deal
The reality of Iran is probably somewhere between these two extremes of recalcitrant regime hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and a peace-loving victim of misunderstanding. Iran is clearly maneuvering to give itself the option of quickly building nuclear weapons, but it is unclear whether it has decided to pursue this route or not. This ambiguity complicates attempts at unified international action against Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, the primary benefit to be attained from a fuel deal is an international consensus around what sort of Iranian behavior would indicate a decision to pursue a nuclear weapons capability.
This deal could involve the coordinated efforts of international powers. Since the United States no longer possesses a uranium enrichment capability, France could (as James Acton recommends) begin producing 20% LEU immediately. Russia, which already provides fuel for Iran’s Bushehr reactor, could manage the delivery of the fuel. And the United States could oversee these efforts.
This arrangement would avoid many of the logistic disagreements that plagued previous attempts at a fuel deal. Since it would not require Iran to ship its stores of LEU to a third party, no concerns about the simultaneity or location of such an exchange would come into play. Further, the United States should not expect Iran to stop its 20% LEU enrichment until after the French fuel is delivered, since it’s reasonable for Iran to suspect that the U.S. offer will prove disingenuous.
Given the easy logistics and economic sensibility of the exchange, there’s no reason it ought to fail. By creating an arrangement that gives 2 veto-wielding members of the Security Council a vested interest in the agreement’s success, the United States can guarantee an appropriate response should the deal collapse. The United States, France, and Russia should, while negotiating the particulars of the offer, establish clear redlines concerning Iran’s response to the successful shipment of 20% LEU. They should agree, for instance, that further Iranian 20% LEU production post-delivery signals a desire to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, and should be met with multilateral sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
Such in-advance consensus is important because it skirts Iran’s ability to cloak their nuclear malignance in benign intentions. One of the major problems in responding to Iran is that different countries have different interpretations of their behavior; what seems threatening to the United States and Israel may not seem threatening to Russia. By working out what constitutes threatening behavior in advance and scripting responses to future Iranian actions, the United States can avoid this problem.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticizes the fuel deal, saying it will “result in the legitimization of its uranium enrichment for civilian purposes”. This is true. But creating a narrative about Iran pursuing exclusively civilian nuclear power will make starkly obvious any deviation from that narrative. Indeed, granting legitimacy to some of Iran’s actions may be the best way to convince U.S. partners to firmly hold the line on their more threatening behavior.
Such consensus could be created even if Iran rejected the agreement. Rejection is certainly possible; Ahmadinejad’s star may be falling in Iran, and Abbasi, the head of Iran’s nuclear program, has said that Iran has no intention of stopping its 20% LEU enrichment. The United States, France, and Russia should determine before accepting Iran’s offer that a rejection of the deal would signal a desire to pursue a nuclear weapons capability.
This international consensus would be the primary advantage of a fuel deal. It is likely unwise to expect this fuel sale to significantly alter Iran’s decision regarding whether to pursue nuclear weapons. However, consensus may increase the diplomatic cost of resuming or failing to discontinue 20% LEU enrichment. Although we should not expect these considerations to be of decisive importance in dictating Iran’s nuclear weapons decisions, they could certainly play a productive role at the margin.
Dangers of a fuel deal
The greatest danger is that Iran’s continued 20% LEU enrichment post-delivery will exacerbate Israeli threat perceptions, perhaps causing ill-considered military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. To hedge against this possibility, the United States should ensure that Israel is both informed about the course of negotiations with France and Russia and aware of the contingency plans that have been created should the deal go sour. Attempts to include Israel in high-level diplomatic discussions with Iran would likely doom any agreement from the start, but these backchannel assurances ought to assuage their fears.
Further, the delivery of 20% LEU would not contribute meaningfully to Iran’s ability to field a nuclear weapons capability. A sale of 50 kilograms of 20% LEU would be enough to run Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor for seven years. However, such an amount is trivial to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is far less than half of the at least 130 kg required to develop a nuclear bomb, and Iran’s 20% LEU production capability will quickly dwarf the size of the delivery. A fuel deal may be the only way to head off Iran at this junction of their nuclear pursuit.
In light of the failure of current multilateral sanctions to slow the pace of Iran’s nuclear program, it’s fair to say that current efforts aren’t working. Given the difficulty of smaller-scale operations in the region, the military option does not seem horribly appealing. In light of this uncertainty, a revived fuel deal is certainly worth a shot. The worst-case scenario is greater international unity in combating a more clearly-defined – but only trivially-advanced – Iranian nuclear threat.
Eli Jacobs is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.