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Iran-Turkey Nuclear Swap Deal

May 19, 2010

Iran reached an agreement with Turkey in talks involving Brazil as well on May 17, 2010 under which it agreed to transfer 1,200 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey within one month of notifying the IAEA about the deal, which it has promised to do within a week. In return, it wanted 120 kilograms of uranium fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) from the Vienna group – the US, Russia, France, and the IAEA, within a year of depositing the LEU with Turkey.1 Iran had earlier indicated to the IAEA that it would need these fuel rods before December 2010 to run the TRR effectively.

This deal is similar to the terms of the October 19, 2009 agreement that Iran had earlier reached with the Vienna Group. Iran was to have transferred an amount equivalent to the current figure – which was about 75 per cent of its then stock of LEU – to Russia for further enrichment and from then on France which would have converted that into uranium fuel rods for use in the TRR for medical purposes. The previous nuclear swap deal followed talks at Geneva on October 1, 2009 with the P5+1 (US, Russia, UK, France, China and Germany) to address international concerns in the aftermath of Iran declaring the existence of the fuel enrichment plant (FEP) at Fordow near Qom on September 21, 2009. After the FEP and the Pilot FEP (PFEP) at Natanz, this is Iran’s third enrichment plant. Iran later rejected that agreement, insisting that it will only do the uranium swap on its territory and also that it will agree to transfer the LEU in smaller batches and not in one go.

Key Interlocutors Sceptical

The US, Russia and key European interlocutors have expressed initial scepticism about the latest deal. They point out that the agreement does not address their core concerns and allege that the development could be another ‘delaying tactic’ by Iran to offset the fourth round of possible UN Security Council (UNSC) ‘smart’ sanctions. The US, UK and France had sought to inject momentum into the sanctions process in the recent past, a move which got the support of Russia as well after some initial opposition. China though has been opposed to a new round of sanctions. Counties like India have also argued against new sanctions, insisting that the Iranian people would be hurt and instead urged dialogue and diplomatic measures to deal with the issue. The French Foreign Ministry has termed the deal as ‘a solution for a medical reactor’, a mere ‘confidence gesture’ and a ‘side issue’. The White House spokesperson also pointed out that the Iran-Turkey deal does not say anything about Iran stopping its uranium enrichment activities as required by UN Security Council resolutions.

Iran’s LEU Stockpile

The new IAEA Director General Yukiyo Amano, in his first report to the Board of Governors on February 18, 2010 – which was the IAEA’s 28th report detailing Iran’s compliance or otherwise with its NPT provisions since 2003 – pointed out that Iran had produced 1808 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexa-flouride (UF6), enriched to 4 per cent U-235 till November 22, 2009. Amano further stated that from November 23, 2009 till January 29, 2010, Iran had produced 257 kilograms, for a total of 2,065 kilograms (1808+257) of LEU till end-January 2010.2 This would indicate that Iran was producing about 4 kilograms of LEU per day (257 kilograms spread over 66 days equals 3.89 kilograms per day) and its current stockpile of LEU, as on May 17, 2010, would therefore be about 2497 kilograms.

Iran in effect has agreed to keep over half of its LEU stockpile as per the terms of the Iran-Turkey deal. Given that Iran will have more than 1300 kilograms of LEU and counting, despite the Turkey deal, the P5+1 will in all probability go ahead with insisting on putting in place stronger sanctions. They would of course have to face criticism that they are rejecting the very terms of the deal that they had agreed to in October 2009, as well as opposition from countries like Turkey and Brazil which are non-permanent members of the UNSC. The counter argument that Iran’s nuclear materials inventory has increased since October 2009, coupled with its continuing enrichment activities, would also hold. It however needs to be borne in mind that Iran enriching uranium to within 20 per cent does not violate its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The contention of the US and Western powers is that if Iran decides to quit the NPT, then it will have a larger pool of LEU from which it can more quickly enrich uranium to over 80 per cent U-235 for use in a nuclear warhead. Amano, in his February 2010 report, had also indicated that Iran was working on high-precision detonators, high-explosives initiation systems, spherical implosion systems, and possible nuclear payload chamber design engineering, among other contentious weapons-related activities which it has not convincingly explained.

Some Western analysts also point out the issue of safety and security of the nuclear material to be transported to Turkey, a country which does not have any substantial nuclear facility of its own. Turkey has however signed and ratified the NPT in 1980, the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material in February 1987, became a member of the Zangger Committee in 1999, a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2000, and signed the IAEA Additional Protocol in July 2001, among other relevant agreements relating to nuclear material safety and security.3

No Dent on Sanctions Front?

With the latest deal with Turkey and Brazil, Iran has seized the diplomatic high ground in a ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ game with its international interlocutors over its nuclear programme. However, the drive towards tougher UNSC sanctions does not seem to be disturbed. This would be a setback, as the Turkey deal presents a real opportunity to engage more constructively with Iran. There is also a greater chance of Iran delivering its end of the bargain this time around, unlike in October 2009, in an agreement guaranteed by countries like Brazil and Turkey, with which it has better relations than with the US, UK, or France. While the Turkey deal represents some sort of an advance on the Iran nuclear issue – a ‘passport’ to broader diplomatic discussions in the words of Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, it remains to be seen if it can lead to more constructive solutions in addressing concerns generated by the Iranian nuclear programme.

  • 1. See “Joint Declaration by Iran, Turkey and Brazil,” May 17, 2010, available at
  • 2. “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” February 18, 2010 at, p. 2.
  • 3. See IAEA Country Profile, ‘Turkey,’ at