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Shadow over the Latest Nuclear Deal with Iran

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 05, 2009

    A draft agreement has been drawn up in Vienna at the end of talks between Iran, Russia, the United States, and France on the issue of making low-enriched uranium available to Iran for peaceful purposes. While diplomatic representatives of the four countries have agreed to the draft, to come to effect the arrangement would need the approval of the governments of Iran and the United States in particular. Under the accord, Russia and France are to provide Iran with below weapons-grade enriched uranium. Iran would dispatch the low-enriched fuel it has accumulated to Russia. After further enrichment, Russia would return these to Iran in the form of metal fuel rods which can be used only in a nuclear reactor and not to make weapons. These discussions followed a similar meeting at the beginning of October 2009 in Geneva, which saw the highest-level bilateral contact between Iran and the United States in years.

    At the end of three days of talks in Vienna (October 19-21, 2009), IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said delegates of Iran and its three interlocutors had accepted his draft for forwarding to their capitals. Under the deal Iran would turn over more than 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, considerably easing fears about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium is the generally estimated amount required to produce weapons-grade uranium. On the basis of the current Iranian stockpile, the US estimated that Iran could generate a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015, an estimation broadly similar to that of Israel and other nations. Experts have stated that Iran would have too little fuel on hand to build a nuclear weapon for approximately a year after sending the proposed consignment to Russia. However, if the 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium were to be shipped out in small batches instead of at one go, Iran would be able to replace it with new fuel almost as rapidly as it leaves the country.

    Meanwhile, the four-member IAEA team returned from Iran on October 29, 2009 and gave a positive signal after inspecting the new nuclear facility near Qom. The head of the delegation Herman Nackaerts simply stated that “we had a good trip” and did not give details about the data gathered. The visit marked the first independent test of the site. Iranian lawmakers stressed that the visit was proof that Iran is open about its nuclear activities. The disclosure in September of Iran’s second enrichment facility known as Fordo had raised international suspicions about the extent and aim of Iran’s nuclear activities.

    After the deal was struck at Vienna, the head of IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged Iran to provide a quick response to the agreed draft. Iranian foreign minister Manoucher Mottaki then stated that his country wants the nuclear watchdog to establish a committee to review the deal. On November 2, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the deal “should be fully accepted by Iran and will not be changed.” An Iranian response came a day later from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said that Iran will reject any talks backed by its “enemy” because America is not to be trusted. Khamenei’s statement has raised the possibility that the draft agreement could be derailed, though a final rejection by Iran is yet to be announced.

    Earlier, Iran had made it clear that it did not want France to be part of the deal and insisted that Russia would suffice as a source of enriched uranium. Mottaki stated that France had in the past failed to live up to its assurances to deliver nuclear fuel to Iran, and that therefore Tehran wants France to be dropped from the list of prospective suppliers of enriched uranium to Iran. However, Iran’s ambassador to IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh stated that “any other country, like France, willing to cooperate with Iran, can serve as a subsidiary to Russia.” Iran has also given mixed signals on whether it is prepared to source virtually all of its uranium from abroad. It has indicated interest in enriching uranium within the country for utilization in a future network of nuclear reactors.

    Obama administration officials have expressed cautious optimism that the deal could raise the chances of striking a broader diplomatic accord and postpone the choice of addressing the Iranian nuclear issue by other means, including military action. An Iranian rejection of the agreement could make it easier to get UN Security Council approval for stronger economic sanctions, a step that Russia and China have consistently opposed so far.

    For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stressed that the IAEA proposal is a move from “confrontation to cooperation” by Western powers. Though, he also reiterated that Iran would not surrender its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and added that the provision of enriched fuel by Western powers is essentially an opportunity to test their “honesty”.

    The draft deal is envisaged as a test of Iran’s intentions. From the Iranian point of view, the agreement will be a test of Western countries’ assurance to facilitate its peaceful nuclear programme. Earlier Iran’s refusal to restrain its nuclear programme had led to three sets of United Nations Security Council sanctions, and it is still unclear whether Iranian leaders are ready to compromise on their pursuit for nuclear independence. While the draft agreement is seen as vital to resolving the long-running stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme, an Iranian rejection would deepen the crisis further.